Do you have a benchmark for production? How do your management practices sit with best practice or against similar operations? These are the types of questions I'm often asked by producers. And these are questions not just being asked by my clients, I often get them in general discussions at field days, the saleyards, pretty much anywhere where a few producers might be chatting.
So how do you compare against others? Does it even matter? Well I guess what matters is if you are operating a financial and environmentally sustainable enterprise. If you are doing that I reckon it doesn't really matter what everyone else is doing!
Having said that, for most producers I know, there is always scope to improve their management or their production systems in some way. Benchmarks can be a really useful tool to make those improvements.
When I mentioned this to someone this week, their response was how are benchmarks useful? I reckon one of the best responses is that to create a benchmark, you have to make the time to consider what is being measured and actually respond with some real data.
The very fact that real data is required actually causes producers to start considering what is actually happening in their programs. It is very easy to overlook parts of the enterprise - the little things if you like, that on their own don't seem that important. But when you accumulate a few of those things, they can have a massive effect on the overall business.
I reckon comparing your performance against a benchmark gives you a chance to objectively measure where your program is heading. The way this needs to be done however is not to think that a once only assessment will mean very much.
The first time you compare yourself to a benchmark you are really only comparing yourself to a single point in time. You might be on par with that point, you could be above it or below it. Whichever way you compare, the first time is really just the starting point.
To get some value, and make useful decisions, you need to do some comparisons over a couple of years. This will show if there is a trend up or down.
Having said that, if there are some things that you identify as being well below the benchmark, its a chance to get in and try address those issues as quickly as you can!
The other question many producers ask sits around what do you benchmark yourself against? There are plenty of people throwing around benchmarks and production levels. How current are those levels, how realistic are they? These are all things to consider.
Personally I am a little unsure of what the realistic measures are for the producers I work with. And there seems to be a fair bit of variation in what people are doing. So this July I decided to conduct a benchmarking survey of RaynerAg clients and producers who use RaynerAg for advice. I have to say, its not a short survey! But if I'm going to collect data that I can use to help producers and have some meaningful benchmarks, well it has to cover a few things.
So far I have had some useful responses. I am getting much better picture of some general practices that we can all improve and a few useful trends on fertility that might provide some easy but effective strategies for breeders. Keep watching this space over the next few months and I'll share some of the findings as I complete the analysis.
If you haven't completed the survey and you'd like to be part of developing these benchmarks, please feel free to click on the link and complete the survey. I reckon we are all going to get a few useful results from the exercise!
In the last few weeks I have had four conversations with producers who are incredibly enthusiastic about a new plan. The plans were all different of course, but the enthusiasm was very similar. I love enthusiasm, and I am incredibly passionate about aiming for a goal. But! There are times when I do wonder, if the plan is realistic!
No doubt you have seen business coaches, life, coaches and other people sharing inspirational advice. Its not uncommon to see them as a motivational quote. You know the sort of thing, "Dream big" or "The only thing holding you back is yourself". There's nothing wrong with these motivations. It is vital to aim at goals and work towards them.
Having said that, dreams don't just happen! In a business, your ambitions are realised through hard work, through focussing on achieving targets, and on ensuring your capabilities meet your ambitions!
One of the discussions I had last week focussed on producing cattle to meet a certain market specification. The specification was pretty tight for weight and fat. Underpinning that requirement was the need for the cattle to be certified as PCAS. The top price on offer was almost $1.00/kg carcase weight above the normal rate. It was a really attractive option, and if you could produce cattle that met the certification requirements and more importantly hit the specification, the return was going to be significant.
However, there were a few issues. the most easily resolved was gaining PCAS certification. It required some paperwork and a bit of homework, but the effort involved was more than offset by the potential market opportunities.
The bigger issue was simply to do with the cattle that the producer owned, and the feeding regime the cattle were on.
Quite simply the cattle were never going to hit the specification for weight and fat. Most of them would have been too lean at the weight, and the grid discount for under finished cattle was pretty big.
At the same time the cattle were grazing a feed that was declining in quality, and were not gaining the weight needed to finish in time. They really needed a supplement to get the best use from the feed, but the options for the producer are limited by the PCAS requirements and the availability of supplements.
So there were a few things going wrong. The cattle, the feed and the restrictions of the program meant that the ambition to produce to that market wasn't going to happen easily.
The discussion I had with the producer was really interesting. The conversation started with the disappointment that was felt by the producer over the whole process. They felt they had wasted their time and there was some blame being levelled for that. Blame on themselves for wasting time and more interestingly, for listening to the wrong advice. The comment was "I should have never listened to them.." and "they said that.."
I'm not sure who these mysterious advisors are. I have a sneaking suspicion that advice was given by a range of people, from neighbours, agents, articles in the paper and perhaps a drinking mate in the local pub!
I have learnt that people listen with half an ear to things, often hearing what they want to hear. If it is a way to get more money, or in this care to chase a more lucrative market, the listening is often filtered through this filter of "getting more money".
The other conversation that stood out this week was with a producers wanting to complain about a market price at auction for steers sent to a show. The issue was a poor return and that it wasn't fair to see a low price for these animals after all the hard work that had been done to prepare them. It was an interesting conversation! Again, the issue was a bit more complex. The steers in question were under weight, had little fat cover and weren't really ready for the market. However the exhibitor had been told, that by preparing them and taking them to the show, the returns at the sale "shouldn't be too bad.."
That advice had come from someone who hadn't actually seen the exhibitors steers, didn't know the weight of the steers or even what they were going to be shown for. Yet the exhibitor accepted their advice and as result had a disappointing experience as a result! Again there was a lot of self blame for listening to bad advice and for asking the wrong people for input.
So what do you make of those experiences. I guess there are a few things. Firstly, if you are embarking on a new plan or working for an ambition you hold dearly, you need to be realistic about your capabilities. Can you really achieve that outcome with the resources you currently have to hand? Do your cattle really suit that market? Are your pastures really up to that level of production? Does that certification restrict you too much?
A more deeper question is what are you trying to achieve? If you want to make more returns and better profits, is there another way, that uses your resources efficiently and effectively? Can your ambitions and capabilities be more aligned in a different way?
I also have to ask, who are you getting advice from? If you are getting advice from someone who doesn't know what they are talking about, then really, what do you expect?
Just owning cows isn't always a qualification! Can your advisor explain the challenges and opportunities for your business. Have they looked at your animals and pastures? Do they really understand your system? Do they actually understand the market, or is it just pub talk? So many people talk a lot of rubbish that they have half heard or over heard in the pub / cafe / saleyards.
I reckon most people wouldn't make business decisions on gossip. Equally I don't think you would ask for computer repair advice from a plumber! So if you are looking for advice to help you match up your capabilities and your ambitions look for someone who actually can come and give you what you need.
Don't be afraid to invest in the right advice. Part of the disappointment in the conversations I had this week was a level of regret for lost income, lost opportunity, and more importantly for lost time and resources. Investing in the right advice at the right time would have made a big difference for both of these producers. I reckon free advice isn't always good advice. And when you lose money, you will always be further from your ambitions!
One of the features of my job is spending a lot of time traveling to visit clients. I don't mind travel so much. It gives me a chance to think about my clients and what is happening with them in regards to the season, their programs and the new strategies we could look at to lift their businesses to a new level of production & profitability.
I reckon its important to take the time to gather some thoughts and reflect on what they mean and could mean to the advice and services I provide.
Every now and then I also get to thinking about how fortunate I am in my job! In the last week Ive been part of a few events that have reminded me of the reasons why I love my job. The events have all been a little different. One was some pregnancy testing on commercial and stud cows.
The other was participating in a seminar focussed on latest pasture research, and the last was working with some of my longest clients who hosted a visit of the International Red Poll World Congress. All very different, but all very rewarding.
This week I wanted to write a Rayner Reckons that highlights why I love my job.
My clients: My business is built around providing producers with information that is technically sound, practically based and appropriate for their situation. And while that is the service I aim to provide, without clients wanting these services, the business wouldn't work. The clients who I have been fortunate to work with are great people for many reasons. Firstly they are passionate about their businesses, and are looking to make their businesses operate that little bit better in all areas. I love working with people who are enthusiastic, passionate and committed. I'm also humbled by their trust and confidence on the services and information I offer to them. I have to say I look forward to working with my clients on all of their projects!
Sharing Information: I love sharing information with others. There are so many fantastic research outcomes; practical solutions and good ideas that can be used to make any agricultural business perform even more effectively. I find it rewarding to share these outcomes and use them to help my clients or have an positive impact on agriculture generally.
Being challenged in my role: So much of my job satisfaction comes from the responding to the challenges associated with agricultural production. I want to help my clients better respond to the challenges for their enterprises. These can be dealing with the drought; improving herd fertility, increasing their market returns. These challenges are ones that require me to keep looking for new ideas, new information and new solutions. its really rewarding to step up and help address them.
Working with livestock: Not everyone gets to work outside and to work with animals! I like cattle! I enjoy working with them and improving my handling skills so that animals move and flow without unnecessary stress or excitement. I enjoy the chance to help my clients select animals that are best suited to their environment and to their markets and to out plans in place to breed that style of animal in the future. There's no doubt this is one of the best parts of my job.
Travelling to new places: In the past 18 months I have worked with clients from South Australia, NSW, QLD, Victoria and even in Malaysia. Its been really exciting to visit new places and see new ways of going about agriculture. Having said that, I reckon I get just as much excitement visiting a new farm within an hour of home to do some preg testing or look at bulls.
There are lots of reasons to love my job, and these are only a few of the reasons. I reckon agriculture offers so many rewarding and pleasurable outcomes.
Having said that, I still reckon one of the nicest parts of my job is having the chance to meet and work with a great group of people from all parts of Australia.
And that is definitely why I love my job!
In the last few weeks I've met a few people who have talked to me about their "5 year plan". These are people who have set some goals in their lives for where they would like to be. For one person it was a location they wanted to live in, and a business they wanted to operate. For another it was a qualification and profession they were aspiring to.
These people have been great to meet and share a few ideas with. I reckon I'm very fortunate in having the opportunity to work closely with plenty of farmers to help achieve their goals or even contribute to their "5 year plans!"
What I've learnt is setting goals is important for every business. It doesn't matter if you operate a part time farm enterprise; or your entire income is derived from the farm, setting goals is essential.
I was recently asked why are goals essential?
It is really quite straight forward. A goal gives you a direction to aim for. It lets you develop practical strategies, the on farm actions that you can follow and hopefully avoid making mistakes that cost you money.
A goal give you a purpose for on farm recording; for focussing on improved management skills or even for developing new skill sets. Without that purpose you can spend a lot of time recording data, going to courses and workshops or moving cattle around for little practical return.
I know that this doesn't sound like rocket science! However the number of people I have had a chance to meet and work with, who are carrying out activities for no real purpose is surprising.
One of the benefits of working with people is bringing a fresh perspective to an operation. There are times when I see people doing something, and I have to ask, "why are you doing this?" There are plenty of times where the answer is "I don't know" or "because its always what we do.."
Now that's not to say that what they are doing is wrong or unnecessary! Sometimes I ask and find the answer is that the action is important for a specific reason or program.
But, the chance to stop and think about things for a little while is vital. I'd encourage producers to take time, at least once every 12 months, to sit down and review a few things about their business.
First of all ask yourself:
What is the goal of the business. What do you want to achieve?
How close does the business come to achieving that goal?
What actions and program work best to help you achieve your goals?
What are you doing each day and do these things actually help you or are they a distraction?
Could you do things differently?
I reckon these 5 questions are quite challenging to answer. If you are honest with yourself, you need to spend some time on each point. Having said that, the answers you come up with can really help you focus your business to be capable of achieving your goals more efficiently.
There are plenty of people who can help you bring a fresh perspective to identifying your goals and answering these questions. However, if you do get another opinion, make sure its from someone who will look at your goals as well as your on farm strategies. There's not much point looking just at goals if they can't help you towards the most efficient activities.
Finally, don't let someone convince you to change what you do each day simply to follow a trend or fad! Make sure that they give you ideas that actually help you achieve your goals!!
This morning I was listening to a radio interview on the opportunities for careers in agriculture. The person being interviewed talked about the wide varieties of roles there were in agriculture and in particular the roles for people to give farmers new information from the research and science being done in agriculture.
I've been thinking about that interview for a few hours now! I admit I was troubled by some of the points this person made in the interview. I agree there are exciting and amazing opportunities in agriculture to build a rewarding and fulfilling career and life.
I'm struggling with the assumptions made by this person that helping farmers is just about giving them information or the results of scientific studies. This person was obviously talking about the role for people to build a career in agricultural extension. To simply describe extension as taking research and giving it to farmers is pretty outdated and doesn't reflect what agricultural extension should be. I also think its pretty insulting to farmers.
Over 50 years ago, extension used to be described in this way. Farmers were seen to be devoid of knowledge of best production practices and desperate for new research. The extension process was seen as a way of filling farmers full of new knowledge and better practices.
This then lead to people describing farmers as being innovative, or early adopters, or laggards when they didn't take on the new ideas.
The worst thing about these labels, I reckon, is the unfairness of them. In their lives people make decisions about how to go about things, based on a range of reasons. These include the information or knowledge you have. But it is also the practical application of knowledge, the time it takes to do something, how much it might cost or what has to be given up to do something new.
Its no different for someone deciding on a new TV or a new way to do business. These motivations underpin why people do what they do and when they do it.
In agricultural extension terms, there are two things we can do. We can make people aware of new information. Or we can work with producers and others to put new information into practice.
I get worried by people who think all that needs to be done is to tell farmers about new information and thats all that they need to do. I call that the nice to know approach! Field days, seminars and newsletters are handy ways to share the nice to know things.
There's a huge difference between nice to know and need to know!
The stuff that is need to know are the practical things to make information work properly, safely and efficiently!
- How do I feed this product - not just how much?
- Will this feed effect my market strategy?
- What do I put on the Vendor Declaration?
- Can I do it this way instead because I don't want to buy new equipment..
The list of need to know questions can be quite long with new research, or it can be really straightforward. The thing is, the need to know part of extension is pretty important. It takes trust in the person helping you. It also means trusting the farmer you are working with to share their thoughts and actions, so you know you are getting it right!
You have to understand the practicalities of someones business and the realities of the industry which can be very different to an academic or theoretical understanding.
So what does this mean really? I guess it means that if you want to build a career in agriculture based on sharing knowledge and information, you will have to be able to do more than just run a field day and promote the nice to know information. It takes time to build knowledge and experience so you can work to share the need to know with farmers and industry.
For farmers, I think the bigger challenge will be finding people you can trust to work with you on the need to know subjects. I'm continuing to work with many producers on these subjects. Each time we do a job, I know a little bit more of the need to know things, which in turn grows to help everyone I work with in the future.
I think listening to that interview today reenforced my desire to be the person farmers turn to when they are looking for someone to help make changes in their businesses. I want to keep being the "need to know" advisor. As long as I keep doing that, I reckon the people paying me to work in their businesses will continue to get the service they want and need, and I can keep my rewarding and fulfilling career in agriculture.
I love the Sydney Royal Easter Show! I first went to the show with my family as a little kid. I don't really remember much of that first experience. In high school I showed schools steers and eventually I had a chance to participate as a steward, judge and now as a Councillor of the RAS of NSW. If anything stands out to me when I think of the show, I think of the friendships of people and the sharing of advice and information.
I look forward to seeing old friends and catching up. This year is no exception, and its been very humbling to have plenty of people genuinely interested in how the business is going, and how I'm finding working for myself.
One of the discussions today did get me thinking, Several of us were talking about the business and I was asked for my take on why farmers seemed to be happy to seek external advice on most aspects of their businesses, with the exception of their cattle enterprises. I wasn't too sure what that meant. But the comparison was against sheep enterprises.
Many sheep enterprises not only use a sheep classer, but they rely and often depend on the views and decisions of the classer. As I was told today a classer can make or break an enterprise.
Similarly most businesses now have an agronomist recommending fertiliser programs, species selection, crop choices and paddock rotations.
Most businesses also use an accountant or a book keeper to help with the smooth running of the enterprise.
So why are beef enterprises different? I was asked by these producers today why do farmers willingly allow someone to choose their sheep, crops and pastures, but never consider seeking the same external input into their cattle program. I have to say if I knew the answer, I'd be struggling to keep up with demand!
I think the beef industry, particularly in NSW, had for a long time, access to the services of the Department of Agriculture's Beef Cattle Officers. Now this service no longer exists, producers now have to find new independent advisers to provide some objective advice to their cattle programs.
All I could say to my friends at the show was the next few years will be a great chance to develop a relationship with a person who can provide input into a beef program in the same way sheep classers or their agronomists offer the other parts of the farm business.
I definitely don't think people love their cows less than sheep, crops or pastures! I reckon its just we are all looking to find people who can share advice and ideas to take us to the next level. For me, I'm already working with some great producers. Its a bit exciting to think I might get a chance to meet and work plenty more people in coming years!
In the last few weeks, I've been really busy on a number of RaynerAg tasks. I have had a chance to visit a number of producers on farm to discuss feeding programs to best manage the drought; delivered at several drought workshops; pregnancy tested over 1,040 cows and even delivered some social media training as part of seniors week!
With all thats has been happening, its exciting to also realise that RaynerAg has now been operating for 12 months. I reckon I am incredibly fortunate. I have been so supported by producers who have been prepared to pay me to provide them with ideas, advice and opinions which can have a significant impact on their businesses. I've also been supported by many organisations ranging from Government Departments through to Agri-buisnesses who have asked me to develop and deliver staff training and development.
When I left the NSW DPI after a 17 year career as a District Livestock Officer (Beef Products) there was no way I could have guessed what the year ahead would bring me. I knew I wanted to build a business which would allow me to do what I am passionate about, which is to help other people operate their agricultural businesses more effectively and more profitably.
Establishing a new business providing advice and training has been a challenge. Paying for advice to aid livestock production is a new concept in the NSW beef industry. However I have found many producers are willing to pay for advice and ideas which can be tailored and focussed to their specific needs.
I have been fortunate in developing strong relationships with clients from across NSW, Queensland and South Australia. The people I am working with are enthusiastic about their businesses and determined to achieve the goals they are setting for themselves and for their businesses.
Looking back I didn't expect I would have included overseas work in my first year. Last year I was able to travel to Malaysia to work with MLA with the developing goat market and to assist in training farmers in livestock handling under the ESCAS program.
The chance to work in another country was incredibly valuable in helping me appreciate our traceability systems as well as the seeing our markets from the international clients view. I reckon I am better placed to discuss the impact on markets or why traceability systems are so vital having seen whats happening in the market place.
The past year has also been a great year for learning new skills. I've enjoyed writing a weekly blog for the web site. I wasn't too sure about writing a blog when I first started, but I do enjoy sharing my observations and I appreciate the regular feedback many people send me on things I've written.
Learning to become a pregnancy tester was a new skill. Undertaking the course and learning the skill to be an accurate tester was something I wanted to do, so I could offer a better level of advice and service for producers. Now with over 1,000 cows tested and more booked in, I'm better positioned to help the producers I work with, manage issues such as fertility and stocking rate during this drought.
I reckon the second year for RaynerAg is going to be just as exciting and rewarding. I am talking with producers in Tasmania and South Australia about delivering workshops on better bull buying and live animal assessment. I'm also developing a one day course for people wishing to improve their skills to undertake the role of stewards at their local agricultural show.
I'm looking forward to working with a number of bull breeders in NSW and Queensland to assess the structure of their bulls and to use that information to provide their clients with enhanced information on each bull.
While these are exciting plans, I'm just as excited about the continuing work I am doing with individual producers. I really do enjoy being on a farm discussing the best way to achieve outcomes and to see the results as plans come together.
I do reckon I'm incredibly fortunate. I love my job and I enjoy working with so many people passionate about their industry and about agriculture. I am looking forward to continuing to provide a professional, independent and technically based advisory service to agriculture. Thank you for your support over the past 12 months, and I hope I can offer you the service you and your business are looking for into the future.
Over the past two weeks I've had a chance to undertake several farm visits to discuss feeding, cow selection, early weaning calves as well as preg testing a number of breeding groups. I've also been able to work with Landcare to present drought management advice at workshops which all up attracted around 200 people. Its been busy and very rewarding.
In the time I've spent travelling to and from these events, I've been thinking about the way extension services are changing, particularly in Australian agriculture. My background in in extension, which inspired me to undertake a Masters of Philosophy to research how extension methods impact on the decisions by farmers to adopt new technologies.
I reckon a lot of people don't really understand extension. It surprised me a lot when doing my research and when working for NSW DPI, just how varied peoples understanding of extension was!
In broad terms extension is the term used to describe the way which agricultural science is shared, used, and refined by both farmers and scientists. Extension can describe the basic one to one sharing of ideas between farmers and scientists, through to field days demonstrating a technology or an outcome, or to the process of working with a group of people to test and adapt ideas to suit the real world.
I reckon what many people overlook is extension is not just about knowing about science or agricultural technologies.
And its not just about the ability to bring farmers together to join a discussion group or to arrange and hold a field day.
The people who work in agricultural extension are able to blend a range of skills together. They have to be practical people who understand and can empathise with both scientists and researchers as well as the farmers who actually use technologies every day. They need to be able to listen and learn from others and be willing to share advice. I reckon they need to be able to work in a range of ways to best share ideas and information.
In the past agricultural extension has been seen to be a service or a role which is freely available to farmers. I don't know that that is really a practical option for agriculture in todays environment.
Having worked as a government extension officer for 17 years and as an independent provider of extension serves for a year, I reckon the change to extension as a paid service will become much more accepted and utilised in Australian agriculture.
I reckon this is the case for a few reasons. Firstly todays farmers and graziers are working to achieve much more specific outcomes for their enterprises. Sourcing reelable farm labour is more challenging, which means farmers are more discerning about how they invest their time in obtaining new information and advice.
I also reckon farmers want to find the advice, support or input they want to address their specific needs. In recent years as a government extension officer, it was much harder to provide a tailored level of advice for individual farmers, which was as frustrating for me as it was for farmers looking for that support.
So what does that really mean for agriculture in Australia? Well I reckon it doesn't mean the end of activities like field days or discussion groups or any of the other activities which we have used to share ideas and develop new and exciting directions for our industries.
What I do reckon will happen is we will become more used to looking for and paying for a service which provides the tailored or specific information sharing needed for todays agricultural businesses.
It may be more producers joining research and extension groups which co-share in research and extension with support funding from industry R & D bodies. It probably also means producers will be more comfortable using provide providers of knowledge and advice. As someone building a business in this area, I have to say I hope so!
However it develops, I reckon as an agricultural sector we have to acknowledge that good extension doesn't just happen and shouldn't be expected to be freely provided. A small investment by individuals to obtain specialised information, advice and support can often return significant results in the way a business operates.
I reckon valuing extension is the new direction and I'm pretty confident the people who see the value and invest in those skills will be the ones who will achieve the greatest returns.
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