I was lucky enough to meet 5 amazing beef farmers while I was in Queensland, and spend time talking to them about their businesses and the issues and opportunities that there are within this sector.
Firstly, although it’s a cliché, I was blown away by the scale of these operations, each farm averaging a size of 40,000 acres. These are big farms operating over some challenging country.
The second interesting thing was the forage that these cows were eating, the farmers called it grass but it was very different to grass that we have in the UK, it was very fibrous material with a lack of green. There was a running joke as we were driving around with either Steven or Natalie, pointing out the best fields, and comparing them to the UK.
Make no mistake, this environment is tough, its dry, unforgiving terrain that the cattle and the farming system have to adapt to if they want to survive.
I picked up a couple of common threads through all the visits.
The importance of looking after your pasture and soils. All of the farms that we went to see were practicing rotational grazing to a greater or lesser extent. Some (including one organic farmer) were running a long rotation, and some had completely altered their operation to move the cattle very frequently and allow the grass long rest periods. All of them had grazing charts, knew exactly how much grass was in each paddocks and what was going on in terms of the next movement.
Attention to detail. Even though these are big operations they aren’t run by loads of staff, even at this size, the farms only have one or two people that are doing all the day to day tasks. However, everything is managed and budgeted in terms of animal movements, grass performance and markets. The cattle were used as a tool to manage their grass, and the grass was managed so as to improve production. One farm had managed to increase the carrying capacity of their farm by 7. They could get 7 times the amount of grass growth, and kg of beef produced, just by managing their grass and moving to rotational grazing. This attention to detail also includes matching the climatic conditions and soil conditions to cow numbers. All farmers have plans that include the level of grass growth that requires them to sell stock, and the level that needs them to increase production. This adjustment of cow numbers, to match conditions, allows them to fully utilise their paddocks, but also destock early (potentially before the market is flooded with other cattle).
Understanding where and why to spend money. Shifting to rotational grazing over these large areas isn’t cheap. The farm that had managed that great increase in productive capacity had to invest $2.4 million in fencing, water pipe and other infrastructure to make it work. This is big money, but has provided big returns.
A willingness to learn and adapt. All these farmers had had some initial inspiration moment, either through attending a course, travelling and seeing other systems working (through Nuffield), or by trying something different and adapting it until it fits. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 7 years,” commented one, “I’m still learning, and fine tuning it to make it better. You never stop learning, and the more you can see and share experiences with others, the easier it is to refine.”
Plan based on the worst case scenario. Talking to farmers, asking them how they manage to keep their businesses going through such variability and change in markets, and the climate, and talking to other projects here, there was a common thread that farmers had to remain optimistic. However talking to these farmers, their business and management plans were not based on optimism. They were based on the worst case scenario, and then anything above that was a bonus.
An awareness of their costs of production. In such hard conditions, it is absolutely essential to know the costs of production. These farmers had these figures at their fingertips, were flexible in terms of market opportunities and were open to other ideas. Because they knew their costs, they were able to react to the market quickly.
Thanks to all the farmers who made me feel so welcome and discussed their businesses and management so openly. The magic of Nuffield strikes again!