NSW is now categorized as 100% drought affected. As the state emerges from winter and looks towards a hotter drier spring and summer, there are many producers considering what options they have available.
For many the decisions include choosing to continue destocking, with the goal of retaining a core group to focus on. Other producers have spoken to me about their plans to keep feeding and maintain numbers. For a large portion of people the decision is a mix of selling and feeding.
None of these decisions are easy. Having spent close on the last 12 months advising producers on strategies, I know how hard choices can be. However, regardless of the difficulty, you must make decisions, and build a plan to help manage the direction you want to take.
Perhaps the hardest part of this process has been for producers who are choosing to feed, and have started to draw on uncommon feeds to support their herds.
By uncommon feeds, I mean choosing options outside of the usual products that include grains, hay, silage, plant based meals and prepared products like pellets.
As these feeds become more difficult to source, or more expensive to source, producers have looked to alternatives. In the past few weeks I’ve spoken to producers feeding products that have included;
Scrub cut on farm
I’m sure there are plenty of other things being fed to cattle and sheep. These are just the ones I’ve come across lately.
While these options can be useful feeds, its essential you use them after considering the risks associated with these feeds. Not all of these feeds are as useful or as good as they might be made out to be.
The important things you must consider are:
Residues: Chemical residues are one of the great risks in feeding unusual feeds. Many products from the horticultural sector may have been treated with chemicals for pest control or grown in soil that has a chemical risk. These products might be fine for use on horticultural products, but in meat these same chemicals may be prohibited.
You need to consider if there is a risk with products that may have been treated or grown in soil. Products like potatoes, pumpkins, and sugar cane tops can contain soil which may lead to a residue issue. So its important to ask a few questions about the background of the product before you feed it to stock.
Dry Matter: All products contain some water. However the amount of water will vary considerably. If a product is 50% Dry Matter (DM) that means half its actual weight is made up of water.
The implications are that in transporting that feed, half the weight in the load is water, so you wont get as much as you were expecting to be delivered!
Secondly it means that the amount you actually feed out will be twice the amount of product. In simple terms, if your co requires 10kg/ DM/ day you would need to feed 20kg of feed to meet those requirements.
Often variations in Dry Matter mean ration amounts are not meeting livestock requirements and causing nutritional issues for stock.
Variable Feed Quality: In a drought we are really aiming to provide the energy (Mega Joules – MJ) that animals require for their daily intake. This needs to be balanced with an appropriate level of Crude Protein (CP%) for their production needs. In addition the amount of fibre in the feed will impact both on energy levels and the amount an animal can physically eat each day.
Some unusual feeds can be reasonable in their energy levels, but very low in protein. Others may have reasonable levels of protein but it is unavailable to the animal as the protein is tied up in tannins within the feed.
For many people these unusual feeds help keep their program in place. There’s noting wrong in using these feeds.
However you need to use them in the full knowledge of the risks they may have.
If you are going to use them, there are some things you must absolutely do. These are:
Request a Commodity Vendor Declaration. The Commodity Vendor Declaration or (CVD) outlines the product source, the chemicals it may have been treated with and its suitability for feeding to livestock in regards to exposure to restricted animal materials (RAM).
If you cannot obtain a CVD you must record the feed stuff, where it came from, the amount, the date your received it, when you started feeding it and to what stock you fed it to. This is all part of the standard records required for your LPA accreditation anyway. I also tell my clients to keep copies of the invoice and supplier details.
Get a Feed Test Done: A feed test will tell you the quality of the feed you are intending to use. If it has sufficient energy, protein and fibre. The results of a test will help you decide if it is product that can be fed on its own, or if it requires something else blended to balance the ration for your stock.
Either way, once you know, you can then decide how best to use it.
There are other practical considerations. For example, feeding scrub is a commonly used source of roughage. However you need to consider how you will feed it. Don’t forget your own safety in cutting scrub! We are not all NINJA warriors able to leap around trees lopping limbs! So you need to be realistic as well.
Other products sue to their bulky nature, water content or size may pose limitations to how much your animals can physically eat, and therefore reduce the usefulness of the feed source.
If you are thinking of going down the path of using unusual feeds, then do some research. Consider the risks and evaluate the true value of the feed and its usefulness to your program. Remember one size doesn’t fit all! If you do want to talk through your options, please feel free to get in touch
This week I was tagged on Facebook under a comment regarding data collection. The comment referred to a practice of recording the ratio of weaning weight against dam weight. This is a comparison often used in the U.S.
I have to be honest; my initial reaction was to be a bit surprised. Not by being asked if it was a method I used or recommended. Rather, my surprise stemmed from this data itself.
I’m not saying this data isn’t useful. For some people I’m sure it could be a useful piece of data. However, for me, and for most of my clients, its not the first thing I’d be looking at when I’m analyzing a business.
In previous blogs I’ve talked about focusing on the important traits within a herd, and on the importance of using data to drive innovation. I’m still not sure that many producers are doing either of these as well as they could be.
I’m a very strong believer that making the most of your resources and investments to date is the first thing you should focus on. Too often I see producers chasing fads, pursuing new options without ever realizing the potential of their current program.
The only way you will ever realize your programs potential is to measure it and compare it over time. The measurements have to be relevant! There has to be a point in recording it.
The point of recording is to establish where you are, and then to set some plans in place to maintain or improve your position. So the whole point of recording is to focus on the resource you have!
My second strong belief is you should always grab the big wins first! To me, weaning ratio against mature cow weight isn’t a big win for most people. Its something you may choose to focus on when you’ve ticked all the big-ticket items off.
So what are those big ticket items? I know I’ve written about them before. However for a breeding program they are:
- Conception rate (number of cows pregnant / number joined x 100)
- Weaning rate (number of calves weaned / number joined x 100)
There is an important point to this. Weaning rate isn’t the number of calves weaned from the total number of pregnant cows. It’s against your total breeders joined.
There is an additional big ticket item, which is calving percentage (number of calves / number joined X 100). Again it has to be measured against total joinings.
The point of this? Well it helps you identify fertility rate in your herd. It assists you to clarify calving losses and weaning losses against your total numbers.
I’ve come across many issues that happen post preg testing. These range from mid term abortion losses to dystocia and predation. Having data helped focus problem solving onto those issues that were costing the program in a big way.
My additional big ticket items? Well I like to know the numbers of cows calving at the start, middle and end of a set calving period. If the numbers indicate a trend towards the middle and end, that highlights a real risk that cows are going into calf late. If it isn’t addressed, those cows run a risk of falling out of a 12 month calving interval.
In turn that lets me ask about weaning weights and perhaps then I may start looking at ratios. But by then I reckon we have gotten the big ticket items sorted, and now we can start selecting on individual performance.
So my question to you is what’s the point of the data you’re collecting? Is it able to be used to fix the big-ticket items? Can you use it to maximize the resources and investments you have? If it can’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your collection. And if you think you have the big tickets sorted, now you might be ready to fine-tune your program further with more targeted individual data.
And if you’re not really sure and you want to have a fresh set of eyes have a look, maybe its time to give me a call and get the independent assessment your business needs!
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.
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.
Earlier this week I was talking to a beef producer from the New England region about our markets. With current prices it seems everyone wants to discuss the value and opportunities of beef production! And lets face it, its exciting to see the demand and value flowing through for cattle. One of the things we talked about was the point that domestically, Australia can only consume so much red meat in any one year. The simple reality, which we both reckoned, is that sometimes, its easy to forget just how dependant we are on our overseas exports!
The Australian beef industry sends about 70% of all beef produced overseas, to over 100 countries. For other red meat producers, such as shipmate its around 97% while lamb producers have about 54% exported. For goat producers that figure is an extraordinary 95%! So maintaining the confidence of those overseas consumers and purchasers of red meat is essential for all of us!
A key component in maintaining this confidence starts wit a vendor declaration. The National Vendor Declaration (NVD) is the opportunity for you as a producer to stay some facts around your animals, and the way in which you have produced them. It also covers the important things like veterinary treatments. feeds that may have been offered and if there are any issues associated with chemical residues.
The NVD is also required for any movements of stock between properties that have different Property Identification Codes (PIC) or through saleyards or to processors.
NVDs help provide a clearer understanding of livestock and support the traceability of animals.
Completing NVDs isn't really a new concept for most producers. National Vendor Declarations have been around for a number of years. The have been updated and revised as markets and consumer expectations change.
What is changing is a requirement for all producers to now ensure that they are using the current version of the LPA NVD. All older versions of the LPA NVD are being phased out over the next two months.
And from the 16th of November 2015 all older versions will no longer be accepted by the industry. Which means no processors, feedlot, saleyards or other producers will accept them! Which is going to make marketing or moving cattle, sheep or goats pretty difficult for you if you don't get organised now!
So how can you tell if you have a current LPA NVD?
If your LPA NVD has the number 0413, it is the current version and you will be fine to continue to use the form when moving or marketing livestock. In the picture above, you will notice a C, which stands for Cattle. The Sheep & Lamb NVD has an S before the 0413 code.
So what do you do if you don't have the current LPA NVD? Well I reckon the first thing you need to do is check that you don't have it! If you are definitely using older NVD forms, then you need to get in touch with Meat & Livestock Australia and order the current forms.
If you want hard copies, which are the books you will fill out (they come in triplicate) you can order them online. They cost $40. The other option is to use an E-declaration (an electronic form). Known as E-Decs, they can be a more cost effective way of ordering forms, particularly if you prefer doing work on line.
Which ever way you choose to go is up to you. I reckon its a matter personal preference on this one. However, I also reckon you don't have time to do nothing. If you are planning on selling or moving stock after the 16th of November you need to have the LPA NVD up to date. So don't leave it until the last minute before you sort yourself out!
According to industry figures, around 70% of producers already using the current LPA NVD forms. This is largely helped by processors such as JB Swift and Teys Australia only accepting current forms. But it still leaves 30% or 3 in 10 producers who haven't updated. And that might be due to marketing only once a year or not moving stock between PICs and you haven't had to update until now.
If that is the case, or you're a small producer or hobby farmer, and you haven't worried until now, you need to make a coupe of calls and decide if hard copies or E-Decs work best for you. As soon as you decide that, get onto MLA and order the current LPA NVD.
I reckon the sooner you can do that, the less stress you'll have and most importantly you are doing your part to protect the confidence consumers have in your product.
Don't forget, if you have any questions or you's like to discuss your options to get in touch with me!
How much do you trust your memory? I reckon most people would say they have a pretty good memory. But can you remember what you were doing this time last week? What about last month? Now ask yourself if you remember everything about the last time you worked with your cattle. Can you remember how many animals you saw; how many you treated; how many were below average in weight or fat score.
I've been listening to a podcast series while I've been driving called Serial. Its produced in the US by a journalist exploring the story of a young man arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The podcast has explored the case and the evidence around the case. There have been interviews with witnesses, the young man, the police. Its been fascinating to listen to.
What stands out for me, is how unreliable peoples memories actually are. Where they were, what they did, who they talked to etc. And these are not unimportant details! These things are important to find the murderer of a young girl and to prove the innocence or guilt of another person. That person could face the death penalty or life in prison. So remembering things is important!
Yet in lots of cases, people weren't really sure of events. They couldn't remember, or they assumed it sounded correct and so on. In any event it proves to me that we can't always trust our memories, especially with details that happen every day.
I started thinking about this following a few client visits this year. A big part of my job is to help make better decisions regarding the herd and the way the herd is managed.
In some cases, my clients weren't really sure of important details. Details such as length of joining; number of cows in the herd; average turn off weights into the feedlot or the number of cows sold out of the herd for non pregnancy.
Its not to say they didn't know the answers, its just that in a few cases, there was a little uncertainty.
Uncertainty troubles me! More and more in agriculture we need to find ways to be certain. Either to prove the integrity of our food production systems; to prove compliance with market programs; or simply to prepare a budget so we forecast income and meet the bills as they come in!
Its often in the little things, these details, that opportunities exist for improvement. Individually these opportunities may not be very large. However the accumulation of these opportunities often results in a significant difference in production or in profitability.
The key to all this is your records. How good are they? Without good records, you are reduced to relying on your memory. And if you are still thinking about just what it was you did with your cows this time last month, you might feel your memory is a little bit unreliable. The other downside with memory, is it is very hard to analyse your memory to identify trends or anomalies that might indicate a developing problem.
One of the keys in decision making, is to make an informed and timely decision. This is so true in agriculture. In your own business the best source of information will be your records. If you can't look at them, question them or get some advice on what your records are indicating, then your decisions will never be as good as they should be!
So my challenge to you is to think about the last time you worked with your cattle. If you kept records and can be confident in what you did and saw, then think about if you can use those records to make good decisions for the management of those cows. If you didn't keep records and you're not entirely certain of what you did, do you have total faith in your decisions for the best management of your cows. If thats the case, maybe its time t discuss with me the options for keeping records in your business.
- Are you feeding enough?
- Have you really considered what you are feeding?
- Dont rush to judge during this drought
- Critical decisions for your cows
- Some drought feeding tips
- Using fat scores on farm
- What’s the point of recording that?
- How do you prioritise risk?
- Water has no nutritional value!
- Profit - is it a numbers game?
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