Do you consider yourself an efficient beef producer? I guess that is a challenging question for a lot of producers. Having worked with hundreds of producers for almost 25 years, I have to say there is a huge range between producers’ levels of efficiency and profitability.
I’m also certain that there some people thinking about that question, and wondering what do I mean by efficient? One of the best definitions of efficiency I’ve come across is “a system achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”.
In beef production terms I guess the word efficiency relates to the levels of production achieved compared to how much input goes into the system. This could be measured against production per cow, kilograms of beef per hectare and the cost to produce one kilogram of beef.
In early January 2017, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) released the Global Benchmarking Results for Beef producers. Its an excellent report, and has given me lots to think about. I’ve also seen it reported on in several of the rural media outlets. Now depending which site you read, this report is both full of good news for Australian beef producers, and at the same time has plenty of bad news.
The good news is that Australian beef production is considered to be an efficient beef producing nation with a low cost of production. The downside? Well Australia is seen as having a moderate to low level of calf weaning weight and lower cow herd productivity. We are also seen as achieving moderate to high weight gains in southern systems and low gains in the northern extensive systems.
I reckon that it’s easy to just take these reports and look only at the good news. Yes we are an efficient producer of beef. However take some time to read through the report. There is a big variation in key indicators of efficiency. A good example is weaning rates (calves per 100 cows). In general southern systems record weaning rates of around 90% and northern systems much lower at 50 -80%.
Having said that, not all southern systems are running herds with their weaning rates. The key measure is calves weaned per 100 cows. I know plenty of herds with much lower rates. There are herds with weaning rates that range from 78% to 88%. So somewhere along the line 12 to 22 cows in every hundred are not rearing a calf to weaning.
If that is the case what happened to the calf? Did the cow conceive? Did she lose the calf before calving, at calving or somewhere between calving and weaning? Increasing calves born per cow makes a dramatic difference to the overall profitability of any breeding business, so its worth looking at your records to see how well you are doing.
I was also interested to look at the measure of total live weight produced per cow. According to the report, the global range is between 100 - 480kgs produced per cow per year. The Australian systems fall in the middle, with ranges from 210 – 340kg. How many kilograms produced per cow per year is the result of may factors, from the genetics you use, the maturity pattern of your cows, the nutritional system you provide and the fertility of your herd.
I reckon these reports are incredibly valuable if you are prepared to look beyond the good news headlines! I’ve just picked two areas that producers can look at in their own systems and decide if they are really as efficient as they could be.
Don’t just accept the blanket statement that Australian beef producers are some of the most efficient in the world. Spend the time to think about your own system. If you can push yourself to get maximum return for the efforts you are putting in, you might be surprised how much more productive and profitable your business can be.
If you don’t know where to start looking, then why not give me a call? I’m happy to have a look at what you’re doing. I reckon we could come up with a few easy ways for you to become a more efficient beef producer.
One of the more rewarding jobs I’m asked to undertake for producers is to select their replacement females. The rewards for this job come in various ways. Firstly it’s great to be trusted to make decisions that will impact on the long-term direction of a herd. Secondly, I find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in a process that has a direct impact on the financial returns from a breeding herd, not to mention influencing the overall productivity of that herd.
I’m often surprised in the way many producers approach selection. I often encounter herds that have only one criteria for selection, which is that cows must have a calf every year. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with this criteria. But that’s only one area to consider.
So what should you consider during selection?
Structural soundness is fundamental in a herd. The ability of your cattle to walk and forage directly impacts on their individual performance and on your herd’s productivity. Cattle that have poor leg structure suffer from arthritis; are prone to lameness and find walking distances to access feed and water more difficult, especially as they get older.
The flow on effect of this is a reduction in the ability of individual cows to meet their feed demands for maintenance, growth and production. Cows with a lower condition score at calving take longer to start cycling again. A late cycle puts the cow further behind in calving, and this cascades to a point where she may have only cycled once in the 12 week joining period.
Her ability to deliver a calf unassisted is also impacted on by structure. The angle between her pins and hips has a direct influence on calving ease, as does the width between her pins.
Teat size and udder structure are also important in the structural assessment process. Achieving the genetic potential of your calves to gain weight to weaning is greatly dependent on the cows milk supply. Poor udder attachment, badly sized teats are common causes of everything from poor suckling to mastitis and reduced milk production.
Maturity pattern should be a focus in selection. In the back of your mind you need to consider if the cattle you are producing will have the right level of fatness for your target markets. But you also need to think about the cows and their energy demands. Larger framed, later maturity cows require more feed, and if you don’t have the feed to met those demands you will either have lower fertility levels, or you will have to run less cows.
It’s equally important to have an even group of cows. Evenness will help you manage feed supply to your cows more effectively. You will find the process of managing joining and calving more efficient than if you are trying to juggle the different needs of big and little cows.
Lets not forget that having a range of cow sizes will also mean a range of weaner sizes. If you are trying to manage for a drought, not to mention hit a specific turn off time or weight, various sized weaners will cause you no end of headaches.
The Other Traits
Temperament is one of the most important traits to select for. I really don’t like cranky cows, flighty cows, or those cows you just can’t trust! Selecting out the quieter, less nervous cattle will improve your handling experiences, for both you and your cattle!
And never forget that quiet cattle produce a quieter calf. This in turn that is directly related to their eventual eating quality.
I also use the time to select for those cattle that have the traits that add value to your turn off. I try and select cattle that have superior growth for age (within the maturity pattern suitable for the area), and for cattle that display a higher degree of muscularity.
Can you put a price on it?
Its actually not that hard to put a price on the benefits of improved selection. Not so long ago I ran a comparison on a clients herd. I looked at the impact selection had when we changed operations to keep cows in the herd for 2 more years, and to tighten calving from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Focusing on an early maturity pattern did help us tighten joining. We also managed nutrition more effectively during joining so that the cows were on a rising plane of nutrition.
These changes impacted a number of areas across the herd. It changed the number of replacement heifers we were keeping, changed the age structure slightly in the cow herd, and changed the value of the weaners being sold. The value story was interesting as this was the influence of having a greater number of cattle at a similar age and weight, rather than smaller numbers across a couple of different weight categories.
When we I ran the numbers I found we had actually increased the gross margin by 19%! That was a huge lift in productivity and profitability, and we really hadn’t done anything other than change some selection criteria.
Now this was a pretty big shift, and I reckon not everyone will get a huge lift. Although there are gains to be made trough the sale of more surplus females, tightened joining, improved time management and so on.
Ultimately I reckon it proves that focusing on these traits is financially worth doing. And as someone who enjoys doing this work, I’ll always be happy to come and do it for breeders. Its one job I know more than pays for itself!
As food producers do you connect with the broader community? I know many farmers, and for that matter, people in country Australia feel there is a disconnection between the farm and the plate.
In some ways there is a huge disconnection. Society as a whole has changed so rapidly that we are all grappling with the challenges in our daily lives. People have moved closer to large centers for work. Increased mechanization and efficiencies on farms mean less people have direct jobs in agriculture. So somewhere along the way a gap has opened between the farm and the people.
While we often talk about this disconnect, I reckon we often overlook there is a deep interest and support from the broader community for farming. In my work I’m often asked to speak about farming to the broader community. I always come away feeling there is a deep desire to understand more about farming, its challenges, its rewards, and more importantly I sense a real value for farming among the people I talk to.
One of the more important roles of the Sydney Royal Easter Show is to showcase agriculture to the broader urban communities. The livestock pavilions and the district exhibits are consistently rated as the most important attractions to the public.
So, as a farming community or as an individual producer, how can we connect to our consumers and meet their interest in our business? I guess there are plenty of ways that we do this. I did mention our traditional activities such as the Easter Show. But its just as important to see the local show as part of this connection.
Increasingly I see farmers sharing their stories through social media. There are Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and Instagram posts showing the variety of a day in Australian agriculture. I personally enjoy the blogs from the contributors from Central Station.
These are great ways of sharing stories. However I think the next step will be to show our skills as producers and business operators. I think this may happen through the connection of our farm data with other data sources.
If you think of the demand for traceability and food safety, there is a great story for us to share. The challenge is to link our on farm QA records with our industry systems like the NVD system and with processor information and present it to the consumer as a whole of life story.
This week a company called Aglive (www.aglive.com) showed me their progress in linking our on farm data with industry QA systems and processor information. I have to say I think systems like these will be part of how we connect with our consumers. True I think they will still want to see our stock at the show, read our stories and see our pictures on line. However I reckon these connections will become stronger as they start to see the things we do on farm with the data we capture being used to sow how clean and safe our food systems are.
I think the next few years will be pretty exciting, and hopefully see a narrowing of the gap between farms and consumers as we share what we do in new and engaging ways.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching the rapid growth of livestock selling on line. Now, on line selling is not actually a new concept. In Australia we have had AuctionsPlus that is the largest online seller of livestock in the country. AuctionsPlus was preceded by CALM – Computer Aided Livestock Marketing.
One of the great developments with the online livestock marketing has been the creation of objective terms to describe cattle and sheep. The language we use to describe fatness and muscle score was a direct outcome from the move to sell livestock objectively, and more importantly digitally.
So to me, on line marketing of livestock is a standout for the agricultural industry.
I guess I’m not the only one to be excited by the opportunities that on line selling offers. After all it’s a very inexpensive way to advertise. You can advertise with pictures as well as written descriptions. And now with the creation of Internet sites like Gum Tree, you can pretty much buy and sell anything!
At the same time, you only need to browse through Facebook to see any number of pages that range from “Buy, Sell or Swap” to specific pages selling livestock. Now, I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s a way for people to sell livestock in a manner that works best for them. It also means you might find an opportunity to purchase something you’ve been looking for.
But just because you are selling or buying through Facebook or Gum Tree, you still have to ensure you comply with the legislation that exists around livestock sales and movements.
This means you need to ensure that you comply with the NLIS requirements. So if you are buying animals, you will need to ensure that the animals are transferred on the NLIS database to your PIC. If you are selling you have to make sure the animals are tagged with an approved NLIS tag and that you also must complete a current National Vendor Declaration (NVD). Remember the NVD can be used as your Transported Stock Statement.
These points are important to remember, particularly if you are a small or new producer. However your animals are part of the industry, and so traceability is just as important regardless of buying on line from a Facebook page or through the sale yard system. And in regards to transported stock statements, the legislation means police or stock inspectors have a duty to ask for yours. So don’t get caught!
The other part of buying on line from various sites is for you to ensure you consider the risks to your business. In the first instance you need to consider the usual issues of biosecurity. So think about quarantining new livestock to minimize the spread of weeds or parasites.
I’d also think its pretty important you do your homework on just what it is that you are buying. In the Auctions Plus system, you have the assurance that an accredited assessor describes all animals. You can check their status, and if the animals don’t meet the description you can speak to Auctions Plus about the issue.
In generic sales pages, you won’t have that fall back. You really are making a choice to accept another person’s description. So if the animal isn’t what you expect, is lighter, heavier, more stirry than you expected, you have no comeback. That’s part of buyer beware and I guess it applies to any purchases we make. But it’s important that you do the risk assessment first, cover all the options and then you can at least feel you’ve done as much as you can.
I reckon on line selling in all their forms, are going to be part of how we do business into the future. So why not make the most of the opportunities. Just don’t let the convenience of looking on line become complacency or laziness! If you do your homework and make sure you meet your obligations for identification, traceability and movement restrictions, then I reckon the online world can be another tool in your business toolbox.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been visiting a lot of clients. We’ve been looking at new pastures, and discussing how to manage livestock on lush green pasture. As well as discussing the importance of vaccinations for clostridial disease, there are other things to consider.
One of the topics we have had to consider is the role of fibre in the diet. Fibre is something we often don’t think too much about. I reckon we overlook fibre, as in most cases we probably take it for granted! After all, plants contain fibre in their physical make up, so I suppose we assume livestock are getting sufficient quantities in their daily diet.
You might ask, why is fibre important anyway?
Fibre plays a very important role in keeping a rumen healthy and functioning. And in livestock production, a healthy functioning rumen is directly related to production and performance.
The intake of fibre fulfills a few roles in the diet. The first is to encourage the development of saliva. Saliva is developed through the chewing and rumination of feed. Saliva does more than just making your cows slobber!
More importantly saliva helps keep the rumen from becoming too acidic. Rumen microbes prefer a pH level of around 6.2 – 6.6 for most effective activity. Saliva has a pH of around 8.0, so its slightly alkaline, and it also contains some naturally occurring buffers.
In healthy cattle, rumen pH does fluctuate quite a lot in a 24-hour period. It’s not unusual for pH to drop as low as 5.5 for a few hours before recovering. This drop can be caused particularly be eating lush feeds, silages or grains that are all low in fibre. The high digestibility and low fibre content of feeds may mean that a cow doesn’t need to chew and ruminate as much. This reduces the saliva production and allows the rumen pH to drop.
As the rumen pH drops, bacteria such as Step Bovis rapidly increase. This bacteria is an acid producing bacteria and this also adds to the acidification of the rumen. If the rumen can’t buffer the impact of the acid build up, the rumen will shut down. If the pH level is below 5.2 you will notice the animal. It will appear physically ill, have scours and if not treated could die.
In grazing situations, particularly on lush pasture, animals can suffer from acidosis without being easily recognised. This occurs when pH fluctuates between 5.2 and 5.6. Your cattle many not appear sick, but they will eat and produce less.
So what does this mean in practical terms? For livestock managers your target should be for your animals to have around 30% of their daily intake of dry matter as fibre. In most pasture situations, this will occur without you needing to do much at all.
However in seasons where you have young, lush pastures that are low in fibre, you should consider adding some fibre to the diet. You can do this by providing access to hay in feeders, or by allowing cattle access to more mature grass pastures. This will allow stock to consume adequate fibre to manage their diet. Cattle that have access to the right amount of fibre will produce more than 180 litres of saliva a day, which really helps manage the acid levels in the rumen.
The other role fibre plays in the rumen is called the roughage effect. It’s basically the natural reaction of the rumen walls to the scratching of the material the animal has eaten. As the feed presses on the walls, it seems to trigger the rumen to contract and expand, which basically helps the rumen churn the feed around, and allow the bacteria a better chance to break the feed down and release the energy and protein within the feed to be absorbed by the digestive system.
I reckon the rumen is an amazing organ. However, knowing a little bit more about its needs will help you manage your pastures and your livestock more efficiently and effectively. So if you are looking out over some lush green feed, think about the need to include some fibre. If you’re not sure about how much fibre there is in the feed, why don’t you take a feed sample and send it off?
A feed test will tell you the Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF) of your sample. NDF is the measurement of the amounts of hemicellulose, cellulose, lignin and ash in plant material. Basically it is the digestible and indigestible fibre in a feed. As a guide you would want to make sure the NDF value is higher than 25% and for dairy cattle it should be up to 40%. If it is less than this in your feed sample I would think you should be actively supplying hay or allowing access to another form of fibre.
It won’t take long to bring your rumen back on line, particularly if your cows can ruminate and produce enough saliva each day. So when you manage fibre you will find a happy rumen and more importantly productive livestock.
I reckon its been a long time since anyone has seen a September as wet as the one we are currently experiencing. The systems that have bought so much rain to eastern Australia have been pretty consistent, an I don’t think there is a catchment anywhere in NSW, Victoria or even in southern South Australia that isn’t completely saturated.
For many of my clients, the amount of rain has exceeded the beneficial and has moved towards frustrating or even damaging. In the north west there are water logged crops, or crops now suffering from disease as a result of the soaking and water laying across paddocks. And just accessing paddocks is proving to be more of a challenge every day!
The wet conditions, including water logging and the flooding that is being experienced also holds some threats to livestock producers. There are some threats that are quite obvious.
Floods are extremely destructive. Livestock are at particular risk of drowning in floods. While cattle can swim, this doesn’t help them to avoid being trapped on fences, against trees or other obstructions. Fast flowing and rapidly rising floods are the greatest risks for cattle and sheep.
Its essential to keep your stock on higher ground when the risk of floods has been raised. With the catchments so saturated now, flood waters are rising much more swiftly that you may be used to, so don’t get complacent and leave your preparations to the last minute. I reckon the other thing to consider is the speed of water coming down the waterways.
With everything so wet, it doesn’t take much to run, and the flooding that is occurring now is happening faster and I think in some cases with more force. Again it’s important not to be complacent and leave things until the last moment.
Floods are responsible for the introduction of new risks to your property. Gullies that can become eroded may reveal old waste dumps. Quite a few old rubbish pits have become exposed after flooding. This has led to cattle accessing old tins, and worse old leaking batteries. In some cases the owners had no idea these sites existed. So when you can get out and about to check for damage, that’s a risk to bear in mind.
Of course the other risk is the introduction of new weeds being washed downstream. But don’t forget other pollutants like drums or tins that could pose a risk to curious cattle. If you can go, around areas that had been flooded and make sure that debris are not likely to cause a risk to stock. Of course, wait until its safe to do so!
Flooding can result in the displacement of stock. Cattle do get washed or swim downstream. When its safe and practical, you should muster those cattle and try and keep them separate to yours. Displaced stock does pose a risk of spreading disease, and if you don’t know their history you shouldn’t take any risks.
Even though everything is saturated now, its important to make sure your stock can still access good quality drinking water. Flood water isn’t a good source of water, and often stock won’t drink it anyway. Remember you don’t know what’s in the water, so its best to try and make sure they drink from troughs.
If you have always relied on dams, its worth keeping an eye on the dam water. The run into the dam will bring silt, mud, weeds, dung and other debris. This could lead to water quality issues or algal build up.
Standing in water can lead to foot problems, such as soft hooves and lameness. You need to keep and eye out for this, and if possible move stock away to firmer and drier ground. Significant issues can arise and you may need to get a vet to have a look and discuss treatment.
Finally stagnant water is the perfect home for insects. We are probably going to see a lot of insects in the next few months. These biting, sucking and just annoying insects will also be responsible for spreading disease and irritating stock. Flies will be a problem for sheep producers as well.
Its not going to hurt to ensure your vaccinations are fully boosted. The wet weather and foods do pose a risk, but if you do manage your conditions, you can minimize the impact on livestock. The NSW DPI also has a very good prime note that’s worth a read.
What a turn around to the season in northern NSW! I’ve been out on a number of places from Tamworth to Lightning Ridge in the last few weeks. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been struck by how much growth is occurring in pastures and crops.
Of course many of my clients in southern NSW and even on the New England are still in the cold grip of winter, but the days are getting longer and warmer, and I think their turn for the season to kick away isn’t far off.
As we move into spring or if you are already grazing some of this new growth, don’t forget the season will bring a few challenges with it.
The two greatest challenges will come from bloat and from the clostridial disease Enterotoxaemia or Pulpy Kidney. Now I know I’ve written about both of these in previous blogs, but it’s worth spending some time to refresh your knowledge on both of these issues.
Bloat is caused by the release of gas caused by the digestion of lush pasture material. Normally cattle do a pretty good job in belching out this gas. However legumes and some lush pastures produces foam that builds up in the rumen during digestion. This foam traps the gas and prevents the animal from belching the gas out.
Meanwhile the rumination process continues to occur, producing more gas and more foam, and the pressure inside the rumen continues to build. If the foam doesn’t break down the gas remains trapped, and the pressure increases until the internal organs are crushed and the animal dies.
A real issue with boat is there is no silver bullet to prevent it occurring. I know many producers hope that one single strategy will solve their concerns. Unfortunately there isn’t a single 100% prevention.
Strategies that can work will include:
- Restrict pasture intake by limiting grazing time or strip grazing
- Don't place hungry cattle onto lush green pastures, particularly if it is high in legume content
- It can be useful to allow cattle access to older grass pastures or hay when grazing potential bloat risk pastures
I know many producers do use bloat capsules, bloat blocks and even licks as well as medicating water supplies with a bloat oil. Its important to remember these options have limitations. Animal consumption of these products is pretty variable. So you cant be certain that ever animal is using the product or that they have consumed enough or even if they are regularly using the products.
Don’t forget bloat capsules are not always available when you need them. They also take a few days to take effect and this means animals are still at risk just after they receive the capsule. If you are trying to apply bloat oil in water troughs remember if cattle can access water in other ways they may not use medicated water in troughs.
Bloat is such a challenge, and the only effective strategy is to use a number of treatments and prevention strategies in combination to reduce your risk as much as possible.
Pulpy Kidney can be a significant contributor to losses on lush pastures. It can be a really big issue for many lamb producers, but cattle losses can also be fairly high in some circumstances.
Clostridial bacteria that live in the intestines of the animals cause the disease. Under the right conditions, generally when there is a rapid change to flow of feed through the digestive system the bacteria multiply. This rapid increase produces enough toxins to overwhelm the animal’s immune system and death happens pretty swiftly.
Fortunately the disease can be prevented through the use of the 5 in 1 vaccine. However it’s important to remember that the component of the vaccine that controls Pulpy Kidney will decline reasonably swiftly.
So if you are looking at a good season and planning to graze lush pastures for 2 or 3 months, I‘d recommend you consider regular 5 in 1 boosters while you are grazing that feed. To work out when to give the boosters make sure you read the label.
Don’t forget if you are unsure or you need some input to make the most of the conditions ahead, you can always get in contact with me.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed growing interest from many young people keen to make their careers in agriculture. It’s exciting to see so much enthusiasm and excitement about cattle, cropping and agriculture in general. I think it’s a great to see people with passion and excitement looking to make their careers in the industry.
I’m often asked for some tips and advice from young people taking their first steps towards an agricultural career. I know every job is slightly different, and every person approaches situations from a slightly different level of skill and ability, but I reckon there are a few basic tips that might be applicable to anyone heading out to the stations.
There are plenty of tips for young people heading out to stations. One of the best is from the regular blogs that are shared by the stations contributing to the Central Station Blog. So if you are keen to make your way, check those tips out as you prepare. Having said that, a few things have struck me and I think are worth sharing as well.
Tip 1: Be polite and courteous! You’d think that would be a given! But a lot of people these days seem to believe that a resume with their educational achievements and previous employment is all that is needed to secure a position. Actually, your manner and your interaction with your new employer carries so much more weight than the CV. I reckon its important to remember that the opportunity to start your career shouldn’t be taken for granted. Appreciate the opportunities and be respectful of the working environment you hope to enter.
Tip 2: Present yourself well & look after your gear: As much as we would all like to believer that appearance isn’t everything, how you present yourself is often seen as reflection on how you care for yourself and any of the gear you might be trusted with. If you are prepared to take a little time to be neat, tidy and care for yourself, it indicates you’re probably going to look after the equipment you’ve been trusted with.
Tip 3: Learn to Listen and Pay Attention!! No one expects you to know how to do every job straight away! But equally, no one wants to explain how to do things over and over. So when you get a new job given to you, pay attention the first time. Watch, listen and ask questions. Don’t pretend you understand if you don’t get something. If you don’t get it, ask then and there. Its better to ask the first time, then to go off and half do a job or stuff things up because you weren’t paying attention and you didn’t understand.
Tip 5: Don’t expect people to look after your gear! In any job you are going to be trusted with equipment. Some of it might be brand new. Some of it might be older. It doesn’t matter. If you are trusted with something, look after it and respect it! Secondly, if you are using it, you’re responsible for it. So don’t expect the boss to have to re fill water containers, charge radios, or check you have everything for the day.
Tip 6: Look for the jobs you can do to be useful: In any job, there are often little things you can do to make the job a bit easier or quicker for the rest of the team. It could be setting the gates and yards up before the cattle are bought close to the yards. It might be putting on the lunch billy or switching over water troughs. Get used to looking for the little jobs and doing them without being asked to. It helps the team and it makes the job a bit easier for everyone.
Now I know there are plenty of other tips and suggestions. But I reckon these few can be boiled down to the simple ones of be respectful, listen, learn, and ask; help each other and take responsibility for yourself. Be part of a team. These are the skills that you can build a career around. In any job you go to, regardless of it being on a farm, a station or any other field of agriculture, these are the ones that will help you make your mark and lead you to a more rewarding and enjoyable career.
Do you collect data on your farm? What are you doing with it? Have you ever stopped to think about what you are recording and why you’re actually doing it?
I’ve been thinking about farm data for a few days now. I recently listened to a podcast featuring Alastair Campbell. If you don’t know that name, he was the former Director of Communications and Strategy for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. I’m happy to say the podcast was from the US University of Chicago called the Axe Files and I was listening to different approaches to leadership and communication.
There was some really interesting ideas in these podcasts. However the one that sticks in my mind was the conversation with Alastair Campbell. He made a comment about collecting data. And why do it.
His point was that in sports, data collection is essential and is used to drive innovation. To make the athletes, the players or the team that much better and more successful in their pursuit of better performance. Conversely his comment was that in his experience with politics, data isn’t used that way at all. Instead of driving innovation, data was used to confirm a bias, and to preserve the status quo.
I’ve found it really hard to stop thinking about this comment! In some ways it makes so much sense. Sport and any level is about getting better. No matter if its just social cricket or professional soccer, sport is about improvement. Think about it! We practice, we train, we look for coaching.
At the elite levels there are coaches of specialist skills. I know my team, the Sydney Swans has kicking coaches as well as trainers and nutritionists and other specialists to monitor every part of the team with the goal of winning a premiership!
At the social level there is often someone coaching training, offering advice, recording the scores and monitoring the performances of the team. All of that data collected in the search for continual improvement. And often that search results in something innovative coming along that makes a difference.
So what’s happening in the farm business? Are we doing the same thing? Is the data we collect being used to drive innovation and achieve improvement? Or are we using it to conform our bias.
Think about you farming business as if it was your favorite sporting team. I did this thinking about my firefighting championship team. We have a team of 6 people. I know them all very well. I know who is fast, who is strong. There is one member who can be relied on to do one job perfectly without fumbling! I know where we prefer to compete and who does what. In short we know the team well. Secondly, we practice and we try to keep ourselves at the level where we are doing the right thing every time, until we don’t need to think about it too much, it just happens.
I reckon your team might be the same. You would know the strengths of all your team players. You would know what they were good at, what they can do well. If there was something that needed improving you would all talk about it and practice it until it improved. You probably all have a chance to share advice. And I guess you might have a coach who is watching everything. The person who looks at the data and the things you are doing and gives you the guidance to improve after seeing all this objectively.
So now, I want you to think about your farm business. Firstly if it was a team, can you confidently say you know all the strengths and weakness of your business? Do you know how you stock, your pastures, your environment responds to different challenges. If you had to be objective could you point to a specific area that needed improvement?
Next, how do you know this? Are you observing the performance of your business objectively? Remember its pretty hard to be objective about your performance while you are in the middle of the game! If we quickly look at sport again, when you are playing you don’t always get the luxuary of stopping to see if you are doing the right thing to help your team win. You tend to be focused on the game and need the input of the coach to help you get it right.
So in your business, if youre so focused on day to day operation, are you really as objective as you should be? Can you think of a coach or even some specialist coaches who can monitor you and your performance and work with you to refine your approach and decisions?
The other key part of this is what data are you collecting. Now most farmers tell me they keep good records. I know some farmers keep amazing records. I also know plenty who don’t keep anything! Its true! I’ve been to places to preg test, and the owners has had no idea about how many cows we will be testing let alone think about fertility rates! Seriously!
So records or farm data. Some of it is comprehensive. Some of it is lacking. But what do we do with it after its collected?
Are you using it to measure your performance? What are the trends? What does the data show you, and are you looking at ways to tweak your business. Tweaking is about finding ways to be innovative and do better.
The best example I can think of is a client I’ve worked with on the New England tablelands. We identified an issue where the MSA scores of cattle sent off tended to fall during several winter months. Now that was a costly issue we wanted t solve. Now strangely enough the fall wasn’t so much as a direct result of the cold weather.
When we looked at the MSA data, and compared it to the farm weather records, we couldn’t blame the snow and sleet. In fact the MSA scores were a little better on average when the weather had been a bit bleak. What we found was when the bleak weather came, my client offered some supplementary feeds and this resulted in less stress on the cattle and so the pH and the MSA scores were a bit better.
The more we looked across several records the more we could see that whe it was a dry winter, MSA scores were a bit lower, because the client wasn’t adding any extra feed to the paddock feed. So energy was a bit lower at slaughter and MSA scores were lower as a result.
We ended up developing a late autumn – winter feeding program for this enterprise. Yes it cost a little to feed the stock, but the increased MSA scores and payment on quality offset it.
That to me is tweaking and using data to be a bit more innovative! We found a way to increase performance.
I reckon that’s the difference. When I think of so many places I go to that collect data. When I preg test, they keep percentages. But I don’t know many people who are showing me trends, or comparing preg testing results against seasonal conditions or heifer joining weights or any other comparisons that could be made.
In some ways that data is just used to prove bias. That might be to prove that joining time is ok. Or that the heifers were heavy enough. If results are bad well someone might change a few things, but often it’s just a result that on its own doesn’t mean much.
So can you use the data and not maintain your status quo. What can you look for that will make your business perform better?
Second who is helping you be objective about what your recording and what you are doing? If your social cricket, football, netball or hockey teams have a coach, then surely it makes sense that your business needs one as well. Getting someone in to help you use your data t drive innovation might be the thing that really lifts your business and helps you achieve some of the goals you are aiming for.
Ultimately innovation doesn’t have to be some sparkly new piece of equipment or technology. It might be a simple change in approach or attitude that is the innovation. If you don’t think about using your data to seek that innovation, well I reckon your wasting your opportunities.
I was listening to the local radio last week. One of the presenters was talking about local shows, and how they were struggling and in many cases dying. I have to say I was astounded to hear such a comment! I've been involved in the agricultural show movement for almost 25 years, and I don't think I've ever seen a more vibrant, exciting or livelier time for agricultural shows!
I think there was a time not so long ago where local shows were struggling. And no doubt there are some individual shows who are facing an uncertain future, but to make a sweeping generalisation about the show movement? Well I think it shows a general lack of knowledge or understanding of what is going on in the show movement. So this I reckon its a good chance to highlight a few things that make the show scene so exciting!
Firstly, the local show is a community activity. The show is exactly that. A showcase of all that makes a local community a vibrant exciting and happy place to live. Every show is a little bit different.
The competition events might be broadly similar with competitions to judge livestock, poultry, cooking, arts and crafts. But have a closer look at each show. The competitions are often based uniquely around local themes.
Classes for baking or for cakes might reflect local traditions, or ingredients. Photography classes almost always have several sections for local themes like landscapes and people. These local classes are designed to encourage people to get out and see their local surrounds, to take pride in their environment and to capture and share what they see.
Almost every part of the community gets involved and has a presence at the show. The show provides the opportunity to connect with supporters, clients and recruit new members for many of the organisations that support a town throughout the year.
So strong vibrant communities are integral to a show. And equally true, a strong vibrant show is essential to rural communities as a showcase, and as a vehicle supporting the community.
The vibrancy and excitement I see in the show movement is not just through the embrace and support of local communities. I see it in the way that so many shows have evolved and sought to encourage new traditions, attractions and activities to highlight within the community. For many people the shows attractions would be side shows and rides as much as competing and displays.
Now a local show is just as likely to be showcasing gourmet food, hosting cooking competitions or undertaking wine tasting with some of the national identities in food and fine dining.
I've enjoyed watching and even being a participant in food cooking competitions at a local show. Its been amazing to see a crowd of a few hundred people gathered in a tent to watch local identities and food critics from the state capital competing to prepare local ingredients in a variety of ways.
At the end those spectators then moved to support and watch other events and attractions.
Where else but your local show could you attract a huge crowd, entertain them, inform them and capture their support and pride in their community?
The other myth I heard was that local shows are old fashioned and don't welcome young people. I continue to remain astonished that anyone could think this is a fact!
The youth movement and support for local shows is overwhelming. Its the most exciting thing to see and be part of. In shows across the country, young people are involved in almost every aspect of the show. Young people serve as Office holders in roles from the President and Secretary through to committee roles and Chief Stewards of competitions. They organise events from the traditional ring events to the new events like the young farmer challenges.
The strength of the youth in ag movement is so strong that for the past few years, Australia as a member of the Agricultural Societies of the Commonwealth has sent delegates to share their experiences of the show movement to other countries. So far young Australians have been helping at shows in Papua New Guinea, India and South Africa.
I reckon its both exciting and extraordinary to see the opportunities the show movement brings to local communities and to individuals passionate to build and grow a career in agriculture.
To say that shows have committees that are unwilling to embrace change is quite simply wrong. To suggest the show movement is dying, is quite simply wrong. To say shows offer nothing worth while is quite simply wrong.
I reckon that before anyone makes these statements and adds to the myth of the show, they need to step out and visit a local show. Look beyond the surface and find out what makes each show tick. Its commitment and place to building and maintaining community. The passion and commitment of the volunteers that organise the event. Look for the young people dashing around helping in events and making the day tick along, or stop and watch the dedication of these young people preparing their entries to exhibit or to continue in their journey to develop their skills in agriculture.
I reckon when you do that you will see the show movement is a strong, vibrant and exciting movement! I really hope next time I listen to a rural or regional reporter on the radio I hear these stories, and not the overworn, outdated and incorrect comments that shows are dying. That myth is surely one that needs to be busted!
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