Fast Money
Hard Yards Start to Pay on Flinders

Hard Yards Start to Pay on Flinders

3 July 2017

“You’ve never heard anything like it,” says David Bellinger as we move through a crop of Sorghum. Only a few metres into the paddock, a mob of 200 Angus heifers runs in a great wave of black through the chin-high crop.

The whooshing noise of them rushing through is certainly incredible and quite unlike the calm grazing picture Meatworks Messenger sees in other parts of the state.

In mid-February, we had the opportunity to visit the property of David and Pauline Bellinger on Flinders Island. Greenham buyer Daryl Heazlewood sets the scene as we make our way from Lady Barron to the property, east of Emita.

“What David’s doing is really great. He’s slowly transformed ground that was never particularly fertile or productive into a place that people throughout the island are looking at as a benchmark.”

We venture into the middle of the 104 acre sorghum crop to get a sense of it all. David explains that where are standing was previously covered in bracken fern and silver grass.

“Firstly, we had to get our soil balance right. The magnesium is naturally low on the island but I’ve been bringing in Magnesite from Queensland which only costs $350 ton to get it onto the island.

Previously we brought dolomite in from Smithton but there’s not enough magnesium in it,” says David.

According to David, he only needs one ton of Magnesite to achieve the same effect of seven tons of dolomite.

“We also needed to be getting our magnesium and calcium ratios right and the trace elements like potassium in order as well.”

“The guarantee of getting a successful crop in the past has been a struggle but we’ve been getting good results every time recently using the extra fertility from the calcium and magnesium,” David adds.

Why choose the sorghum in these paddocks?, we asked. “Well, it’s a good forage crop and produces a heap of feed during these warmer months. We can graze it, cut some silage or make hay if we need to but look at the size of it!” exclaims David.

The sorghum crop went in at 15kg/ ha on 14th December and was already chest and head high by mid –Feb.

Interestingly, David put a sorghum crop in the previous season around two months earlier but didn’t see any growth until December and finally managed to graze it three times at shoulder height in early 2016.

“This time, its flying and I should have started to graze it about a fortnight earlier but now I know we can get this sort of response, next year, we will come at it from a different angle and plan it a bit better.”

“You just have to learn how to manage it – how to graze it effectively. It’s a continual learning process – you just never stop,” he quips.

The island is also subjected to a fair amount of maritime wind, and David has also worked towards reducing soil erosion, especially in the summer months by planting 15kg/ha of rye corn amongst the sorghum. Worried about certain paddocks ‘blowing’ and losing topsoil –
even the ones with an established crop – the two work well in concert.

“On the drier banks, the rye corn is doing well whilst the sorghum hasn’t really come on as much but without the rye corn we would have lost that top bank over there and lost the guts out of these other sections,” as David points to his newer sections of ground.

Greenham buyer Daryl Heazlewood was enthused about the heifers, “I was only here two weeks ago and these cattle are cranking,” he said.

“ We’re going to be playing catch up for the next few years”

“I’m expecting weight gain in the vicinity of 1.3kg per day with the sorghum so the plan is to shoot them home and weigh them,” David adds.

David and Pauline have acquired four more parcels of land in a series of acquisitions since buying the home block in 1998. Overall the property now totals 1150Ha of grazing land with 950 producing cows, 700 calves, and this year a further 500 steers and heifers for fattening.

“Typically we wouldn’t hold any steers and would have sold them in October or November but because we are down in cow numbers, I needed to value add as much as possible and get us through the next twelve months,” David explains.

“We’re going to be playing catch up for the next few years,” David says as he recalls the dry season during 2015/2016 that saw many farmers across Flinders Island actively sell down cattle at the same time as having to carting in hay to keep their remaining numbers in feed.
“It wasn’t the worst outcome, we were fortunate that the price of cattle was still holding up and we didn’t get stung on two fronts but we still had to sell 400 cows which really set us back.”

David adds, “luckily we got that rain at the end of January 2016 otherwise we may have lost another 400-500 cows and that would have been devastating.”

Diversification however, has been the key to building both capacity and business resilience for the Bellingers. They turned their hand at growing various vegetables in the past and have now applied the knowledge to growing grass as well.

“Most people see grass as grass and not as a crop,” says David. “If you want it to do well, you have to feed it and you have to also know what it needs and what it doesn’t need but it is hard, if you have a lot of land – fertilizer is not cheap.”

Typical of the area, the older paddocks had a mixture of brown top and silver grass and David explains he will have spray it out and re-plant it four times before finally sewing it down to permanent pasture of Cocksfoot and Lucerne. He says he will have spent $1,700ha on Super and trace elements to get a good base ready as well as installing game proof fencing in the
areas next to scrub.

“We’ve made some mistakes of course – I was hoping we could direct drill into the older type country but there were too many toxic weeds and you really need to work the ground a bit more,” he explains.

David has also invested in a driller so is able to do 300ha of contracting work around the island helping others renovate parcels of country as well as aiming to renovate 100ha of his own land annually.

“It’s gonna be a big ask and take a bit to get my head around. I’m going to need to have 300ha in the renovating phase to achieve the 100ha per year and although my energy might be a bit lower, a decent tractor and discs allows me to get more things done through the day. We don’t have to bust our guts and still get a fair bit done.”

“With the lift in cattle prices as David notes, farmers on Flinders have been able to invest more in their operations and make their land more productive.”

David will turn off five hundred fats this year which is more than normal but the season has allowed the operation to value add a few more to heavier weights and inclusion into the GAP program.

“With the crops that are in, a bit more rain and the amount of feed we have, finishing them won’t be an issue.”

By Meatworks Messenger
David Bellinger - sorghum farmer on Flinders Island