Light is finally appearing at the end of a long and dark tunnel for the Kirk family and their 61 year old Rockley Red Brahman stud in Central Queensland.
Rockley bulls, which for decades routinely attracted some of the highest prices at the annual Rockhampton Brahman Week sales, are set to make a long-awaited return to the auction ring in February 2016.
The stud’s road to recovery is also being aided by an innovative mentorship program that is being run as part of the Beef 2015 exposition this year (more on this below).
For the past two years Chris and Sally Kirk and their son Ashley have been fighting to rebuild their respected cattle stud in the wake of a November 2012 detection of Bovine Johne’s Disease in three Rockley cows.
It was not the disease itself that caused devastating losses for their stud business – to this day, despite extensive herd testing on Rockley and on 170 client properties, the disease has only been found in the original three cows first reported by the Kirks.
Rather, it was a hard-hitting control and eradication policy designed to maintain Queensland’s status as a BJD Protected Zone that has pushed the stud to the brink of financial devastation.
Under that policy the Kirks have been prevented from selling stud animals for breeding purposes since November 2012, and have been forced to slaughter valuable stud bulls and females for testing purposes.
Despite producing independent evidence to demonstrate that the eradication policy has cost their operation more than $2 million in forced cattle culls, lost trading opportunities and associated testing and feeding costs, the family has received just $100,000 in return.
The Kirk’s experience has caused many to question whether BJD as a disease poses a large enough threat to herd productivity or market access to justify the enormous costs and pain involved in trying to eradicate it.
It is now believed the disease was first brought onto Rockley via an imported US bull in the 1980s. Despite having been present for more than 30 years, the only cattle to have shown signs of the disease in that time were the three older sick cows which the Kirk’s reported in November 2012 and which triggered the Queensland Government’s massive statewide quarantine response. Otherwise the disease has had no noticeable impact on herd productivity, the Kirk’s maintain.
AgForce and the Queensland Government take the view that efforts should be taken to control and eradicate the disease while the opportunity exists, to prevent exposing every producer in the state to potential future BJD impacts, the potential additional cost of on-farm vaccinations and potential market access risks.
In the meantime family cattle operations such as Rockley have been caught in the middle, forced to endure major upheaval to their business in order to protect the broader industry from BJD while receiving very little compensation for their losses.
With debate now raging over how BJD should be managed in future, a scheduled review of the National BJD Control Program has been brought forward, with stakeholders from across the industry to converge on Sydney for a BJD review forum next week. (See Beef Central’s earlier article here)
Kirks focused on rebuilding herd
In the meantime the Kirks have been quietly working behind the scenes to rebuild their valuable stud herd through IVF technology and recipient females to ensure that more than 60 years of Rockley genetics and breeding history are not lost.
Ashley Kirk told Beef Central this week that some of the first bulls produced under the IVF program will be catalogued to sell at the Big Country Sale in Charters Towers in 12 months time.
The stud will also then return with bulls to the annual Brahman Week Sales in Rockhampton in October 2016 after what will have been a three-year absence.
The family now faces the daunting prospect of having to recover from not only the financial and emotional setback the experience has brought, but also from the stigma that being associated with such a significant quarantine event can cause.
Ashley said the family has done everything by the book to clear its herd of BJD and is now hopeful its clients will recognise that.
“It has been a long process of doing as much IVF as we can, it has been a lot of hard work to get a base back and to be able to sell the top end cattle,” Ashley said.
“We won’t have nearly as many herd bulls as we used to, we will have to build that up, but it is a start for us to be able to sell those high end catalogued stud cattle.
“From our side we have been open and honest and that is all we can do.
“We have done everything right, we have followed all the rules, and we will be proud and confident in selling them.”
Ashley said that despite the impact of the BJD detection, it never crossed his mind to give up and to allow the Rockley stud operation started by his grandfather Arnie Kirk in 1954 to be discontinued.
The support of the close-knit family had been crucial in moving forward he said.
“We have struggled through it, and together as a family we have supported each other to keep going,” Mr Kirk said.
“I always wanted to get it back no matter what.
“When something like this happens you find out how much you love it and how passionate you are about it, it is in your blood.
“We really miss being involved (in the stud sales), it is just really exciting to be back involved again.”
Beef 2015 mentorship
Another cause for excitement for Ashley this year is his involvement in the Beef 2015Graeme Acton Beef Connections program, a mentorship program for 25-35 year olds working throughout the beef industry supply chain.
Under the program young beef industry participants are partnered with experienced mentors from within the industry who then work with each participant for a full year to achieve their personal development aspirations.
Ashley has been partnered with mentor Ken Rich from Quality Silage Feeds and is looking forward to tapping into his wealth of experience in the agribusiness and marketing space.
“We come up with a strategy or a plan for what we want to do for a year and then work with our mentor to achieve that,” he said.
“I’m wanting to do something on market strategy, marketing and advertising and rebranding, and I’m really looking forward to working with Ken on that.”
Mr Kirk said he was also inspired to join the mentorship program because of its connection with Graeme Acton, who he said had taken a personal interest in the BJD issue and his family’s plight.
By James Nason (Beef Central), Image Kent Ward.