NORTHERN NSW seedstock producers are turning to confinement feeding while others are opting out of artificial breeding programs in a bid to reproduce with their core females and ride out the current conditions.
Unlike commercial operations, trading cattle or destocking can have a major impact to a seedstock business.
Having spent years building a genetic base, their breeders can't be reduced in a hurry.
Some producers, coming out of a year with less than a third of their average annual rainfall, have now set themselves mid-January deadlines before making more dramatic reductions in their already scarce herds.
But a range of feeding and breeding tactics have allowed them to improve their herd's condition and hold onto numbers for longer than expected.
Ben Nevis Angus stud
The Halliday family of Ben Nevis Angus at Walcha have halved their breeder numbers following three difficult seasons featuring mini cyclones, fire and drought.
But the number would have been much higher if they hadn't opted to establish a confinement feeding system with the help of Rob Bulle from Ardrossan Angus.
Erica and Stu Halliday established the set-up towards the end of October and have about 350 breeders being fed a daily canola hay ration across one hectare pens.
All of their calves were weaned, some at six weeks old, and the couple have since lifted their cows by one body condition score and undertaken artificial insemination and embryo transfer programs followed by 'mop up' natural joinings while in confinement.
It is also hoped the tactic will allow their country to recover quicker when it does rain.
The confinement pens are designed with a backing boundary fence running alongside maxy steel posts 10 paces apart with a hot wire 60 centimetres off the ground and another above it, allowing the cattle to put their head under and eat.
The feed is dropped into a one metre gap between the pens, but 80cm is recommended. Over time, even without moisture, the cattle saliva creates a hard dirt floor to eat off.
Due to recent fire, the Hallidays also sent 400 head to agistment leaving a mob of 200 young animals as the only stock on 1618 hectares.
Ms Halliday said agistment cost about $18/hd/week plus freight while the confinement feeding was $18-$20/hd/wk depending if it was maintenance or fattening. But the real value was hard to quantify.
"The costs are obviously there and you can measure the costs, but the benefits are a little bit harder to measure and for us keeping those cows alive and getting them in calf is huge," she said.
"It's hard to quantify that but alternatively we would have just lost out. We would have had to sell everything.
"We have our gross margin in place and trigger points, which we need to sell more cattle, but if we can come out of this with stock on hand then we at least have the goose that lays the golden eggs because we see a real shortage of supply looming, particularly for females, particularly for Angus females and protein in general."
Water quality and supply, offering a consistent amount of quality feed and sourcing a hay type, like high quality canola over pasture or lucerne, that didn't require excessive labour costs to chop up and feed out were key lessons the Hallidays learnt in their first two months.
The Hallidays also took advantage of the Regional Investment Corporation's low interest government-funded loans for genetic banking and flushed eggs from donor cows in case they had to offload them.
If rain hasn't arrived by mid-January they will look to further destock, starting with commercial cows.
"We have had 10 really good years as a seedstock breeder and it's our turn to not have good years, but we can't just tap out because it's bad for us," Ms Halliday said.
"The fact you are doing something proactive is really good for your head space.
"We have got a measure now on what we are spending, how long we can spend it for, whereas before it was just a little bit of an unknown.
"Once we set this (confinement feeding) up we could use this in the future for opportunity feeding."
Waratah Speckle Park stud
Guyra-based Speckle Park breeder Laiton Turnham and his family are relatively new to the seedstock industry having established their stud, Waratah Speckle Parks, 11 years ago.
While they are recognised for their ability to source the top genetics from around the world, this year the family opted not to undertake artificial breeding programs in a bid to increase their calving rates on their herd of 250 cows and calves, reduced by about one quarter.
"We are going to rely on the bulls for the first time in 11 years," he said.
"I'm the worker and the manager and I physically don't have the time to feed the cows and run programs and I felt that we weren't going to get the result we would normally get anyway.
"That's disappointing because we have got new genetics brought in from Canada that we haven't used."
The Turnhams have been hand feeding a hay and grain supplement for well over six months and were planning to early wean their calves after Christmas and sell a portion of older cows.
"I think the cows are doing alright but I can see the drought in the calves, hence we are going to need to do something about that," Mr Turnham said.
Last year they surprised many in the district when a planting punt to sow 28 hectares of forage crop before Christmas saw them produce their first batch of 300 bales of hay to get them through winter.
At the end of 2019 they planted eight hectares in the hope of a similar result.
The Watson family of Watasanta stud, Tamworth, showed their commitment to the seedstock industry when they purchased 2019's highest priced Santa Gertrudis bull, Yarrawonga P914, for $51,000.
Neil and Rosalie Watson have reduced their breeders from 280 to 180 head and placed them in sacrificial paddocks of one to 50 acres (0.4 to 20 hectares) to improve feeding efficiency and retain ground cover.
Breeders are fed finely chopped barley header tailings, while those with calves are also given cotton seed.
"I can't believe how well the cattle look. They are fat and shiny and people think we are feeding them a full ration.
"I think the Santas half enjoy a tough time. Providing it breaks in the next few months, the quality barometer is through the roof."
Mr Watson is optimistic, with a gut feeling of a break in January and February for a more promising season from March.
"I think if you are in the game you have got to stick to it and show a bit of commitment," he said.
"I do worry about the commercial men that have got totally out. Everyone has got to make their own decisions, but not everyone is going to be in a position to trade."