Rayner Reckons

Feb 21

What do I look for in cattle?

Posted on Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Recently I judged a local shows commercial and stud cattle sections.  I really enjoyed the chance to look at a range of cattle and to provide some comments about the animals I assessed. However on reading through the report of my judging in one of the major rural papers, I’m not sure my comments were heard as clearly as I thought I had made them!

If you believe the report, my judging was influenced as much by the recent hot, dry summer as anything else.  This had apparently caused my to lean more towards Bos Indicus cattle than British breeds.  Well if only it was that simple!

I can confidently say that weather doesn’t influence my judging or indeed change the criteria have in my mind for cattle!  Climate and environment or the other hand, do play a role.  I think a lot about suitability of a breed to an environment.  But its not the first thing I think of!

I assess cattle for three key attributes.  The first is that they must be structurally sound.  When I talk about structure I am referring to the skeletal system of the animal; as well as other physical traits. 

So first off, I look at the way the animal walks.  If an animal can place its feet in line with each other, with no over stepping or under stepping by the hind feet, then I start to feel the structure of the legs, hips, and shoulders are acceptable.  I then like to look at how the animal stands, and I have another look at the angel of the shoulders, and the way it stands with its hind feet and legs in a normal standing position.

Its then that I have a chance to decide if the animal is standing too low on its hind feet, or two high.  Both of these are a result of legs that are either curved or too straight, and its something I may not have noticed when I was watching it walk.  I also want to see if the hocks are bowed in outwards or inwards. 

What I really want to determine is how sound is the animals feet legs and shoulders?  Can it walk a long distance each day to graze and water, and will it be able to carry the weight of its body without causing it to have sore joints that could lead to swelling, lameness or arthritis. 

I reckon these traits are important for the longevity of animals within your herd and contribute directly to your overall profitability.  If you have cows that can conceive, calve and wean a calf every year that is the first part of profit.  The second is to have cows that can do this up to 10 years old. 

When I run the figures on herd profits, those that have cows that are fertile and staying in the herd because they can get about, look after themselves and a calf have a higher profit margin.  That’s often because they are selling a few more surplus heifers, and the heifers they do retain for breeding are the select group of genetically and physically better heifers.

As part of my structural assessment I look closely at teats and the udder to make sure that the quarters are all even and the teats are well shaped to support a calf sucking. I also want to see that all four teats can be used and not left un-milked as this can contribute to mastitis, which is pretty painful for a cow and will result in lower productivity.

When I’m happy with structure I look for the traits that add to productivity and profitability. We are breeding cattle to produce red meat, so I will always select for muscle.  I look at the shape of the animals, the width depth and length of each animal to determine its overall muscle volume.  You can have muscle in females, and it wont reduce your fertility.  So I select for it.

I also like to think about maturity pattern and frame size.  Large frame later maturity females will naturally require more feed to achieve their body requirements for maintenance, let alone for reproduction and growth.  Remember you can only grow so much pasture or put out so many supplements. 

And if you want your animals to do well, you need to feed them properly.  Large frame later maturity animals may mean you run less numbers in your herd, and so may impact on the total number of kilograms of beef you produce each year. 

Whenever I assess cattle, temperament is my other key trait.  I like cattle to have a quiet temperament.  Aggressive or overly excitable cattle are both dangerous and less productive; due to the impact temperament has on eating quality.

Ideally, my preferred animals are those that are structurally sound, well grown, well-muscled females.  I prefer them to be moderate maturity and quiet temperament.  

Ultimately I prefer them to suit the country and environment and to suit their target markets in both size and breed.  

If I can help my clients have a breeding herd like that, I’m very happy.  And when I’m judging I’ll always try and select those females first, regardless of the weather on the day!

Dec 06

Connecting with your customers

Posted on Tuesday, December 06, 2016

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.

Feb 15

Busting the myth of the local show

Posted on Monday, February 15, 2016

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!

Jun 26

Top Tips for Junior Judges

Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2014

Junior judging competitions are one of the most important activities for agriculture.  These competitions are often the entry point for many people into their chosen agricultural industry.  It doesn't matter if that industry is cattle, sheep, poultry or alpaca!  For me, junior judging was the start of my career in agriculture and so its one form of competition I'm always very eager to support.

I reckon its important to recognise junior judging competitions offer more than simply a format to demonstrate your ability to judge and place animals or entries.  

These competitions are a fantastic way to refine your ability to make decisions, to demonstrate your capacity to present arguments or a reason behind a decision and give you a great way to improve your confidence as a public speaker.  These are all skills that are highly valuable in your career, even if you don't go on to do a lot of judging in the future.

When I do have the opportunity to judge the junior judging competitions, I try to spend some time providing competitors with some ideas and suggestions to bear in mind in future competitions.  

Over the next few months there are a huge number of junior judging competitions coming up, and I thought it might be a good time to share a few tips with potential junior judges.

Tip 1:  Practice speaking into a microphone at home!  Holding a microphone seems to distract many people.  Combined with the nervousness that is already associated with public speaking this seems to really derail some peoples presentations.  So practice speaking into a microphone, holding it close to your mouth and get comfortable with the concept of holding and moving while speaking.

Tip 2: Learn to describe the exhibit. As a judge you are being assessed on your ability to describe the exhibit, and the traits you think are important.  Don't make stuff up!  Don't use jargon, particularly if you don't really understand it.  Its much more professional to speak and describe an exhibit with correct terms.

Tip 3: Make a proper comparison.  Judging is not simply placing exhibits in a ranking order.  Judges need to be able to describe what they are looking for and why their choices are placed in the ranking the judge has chosen.  Part of that is to compare exhibits.  You must be able to say why 1st place is the best.  And you have to say why the 2nd place is there.  

Don't skip over the comparison between the entries. I reckon the worst form of comparison is to describe an entry as being "overpowered on the day!"  Ask yourself, what does that mean?  If the entry was underweight, less well grown, less muscled, poorly structured, what ever the reason for it being more lowly raked, it should be said, and not hidden in this meaningless phrase!

Tip 4: Dress Appropriately! Judging is an honour.  Its not everyday that you will be asked to make a comment on peoples hard work in breeding, preparing and exhibiting.  

To respect the effort exhibitors put in, you need to present yourself as a professional.  Your appearance indicates you care, and it illustrates you want to convey opinions which are considered and helpful.  

Dressing correctly conveys your intention to be taken seriously and respectfully.  Its hard to take seriously the opinions of someone who can't be bothered to wear clean clothes, or even to wear their clothes neatly.  If they don't care about their appearance, do they care about their opinions and comments?

So make sure you wear good clean pants (not jeans); a clean ironed shirt and for men a tie.  You should wear a clean jacket. If you're at school there's nothing wrong with the school blazer.  If you are wearing a hat, which is mainly for cattle and horse judging, it should be a wide brim and clean hat!  The black yard hat covered in mud and dung looks terrible!

Tip 5: Make your decisions & use your time to get reasons 

As a member of the Australian Intercollegiate Meat Judging Team we spent several weeks training before the US competitions.  One of the lessons I was taught was to make your decision swiftly.  

Generally as a judge you know pretty quickly which order you will place a class.  So make that preliminary decision and spend your time on why - that is what are the reasons behind that placing order.

If you do this it may help you be certain you've got the order correct.  It will also help you be much more confident in your preparation to answer questions or to present your reasons to the judge of the competition.  

Tip 6: Enjoy yourself! Junior judging is a great opportunity.  Don't put yourself under so much pressure that it becomes a chore or something you don't enjoy.

Judging is a skill.  Like any skill it has to be developed.  The more you practice the more confident you will be.  look for the opportunities, listen to the feedback, think about the things you would like to do better and practice those things.

The Final Tip: Look for opportunities!

If you want to develop as a judge, or you'd like to be more involved in judging in your industry, junior judging competitions can only take you so far.  If you are keen, get involved in your local show society and get to know how shows operate.  

Make contacts with the judges in your industry.  Perhaps there are opportunities to be an associate judge where you can learn and refine your skills.  Don't overlook the opportunities to learn new skills, particularly by attending industry youth activities.  Its always a work in progress, but all judges started somewhere and if you keep at it, you will find your place in the industry of your choice.


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