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Building a better breeding enterprise

09 July 2021

For Georgia and Bill Wilson, participating in the MLA Challenge in 2013–14 gave them the opportunity and skills to move their breeding business into more positive territory. At the time, the first‑generation producers had just bought a block of land and moved, with their three young children, about four hours away from family and friends.

“From the outside it looked like we were doing okay,” Bill said.

“But from the inside, it looked pretty ordinary.”

They had a good foundation, as their north‑eastern Victorian farm ‘Riverglen’ is highly productive, creating scope to utilise it to greater advantage. Resource utilisation was a central focus of the MLA Challenge. Bill and Georgia credit their mentor, Bill Hoffman, and their consultant, Sam Newsome, with opening their eyes to the prospects.

“Bill Hoffman saw opportunities at different times of the year to increase our pasture utilisation by trading,” Bill said.

“Lambs weren’t necessarily on our radar then, but I spoke to another mentor, John Keilor, who encouraged us and gave us good advice.”

At the outset, Bill and Georgia found the idea of transforming the business daunting. They were encouraged when Sam Newsome pointed out that, on balance, their foundations were solid. He told Bill and Georgia that going from a 2% to a 4% return on equity would require some tweaks but wouldn’t involve any dramatic changes.

“Turns out we weren’t doing anything wrong in particular, we just needed to be better at what we were doing,” Bill said.

Diversification

To improve their pasture utilisation, the Wilsons branched out from a pure breeding operation to trading lambs and cattle. They had been moving their cows and calves regularly to maintain pasture quality but were frustrated by the amount of feed left on the ground, especially in the region’s wet springs. The MLA feed calculator allowed them to gauge how much more they could be getting out of their pastures, and trading provided them with a solution.

“We now use the MLA feed budget tool and rotation planner, as well as the stocking rate calculator. They’ve been so handy,” Bill said.

“We know the rate at which the pasture should be growing at a particular time of year, and we can comfortably go out and buy 500 lambs to run behind the cows.”

Adjusting calving

Another change the Wilsons made to their business was to condense calving.

“Initially, we were more concerned about having calves on the ground to help pay the mortgage than we were about having an efficient herd,” Bill said.

However, over the past five years, they’ve pulled calving back about six weeks and believe there’s scope to improve it further. They now use artificial insemination for all their heifers to ensure a tight calving window and to improve the genetic base quickly.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago that the MLA Challenge finished – in that time we’ve shifted our focus from potential sales at weaning to having a line of cattle that is much more saleable.

“That seems a small thing, but it’s been such a big thing.”

Measure to manage

Since the MLA Challenge, Bill and Georgia are much more discerning, ensuring what they’re measuring is relevant to their business. They’ve always recorded cattle weights, but they weren’t previously using that data to inform business decisions. Bill Hoffman challenged them to think about why they were recording it and how it could be used. They now use electronic ear tags to record cattle weights straight from the scales to a database, and then use this data to support decisions regarding bull selection, and where they see their target market if they’re selling weaners.

Acting decisively

The importance of strategic decision making to the Wilsons’ business turnaround is obvious. By Bill’s own admission, his decision making used to be “horrendous”. He would take up to six months to make a decision, then worry afterwards whether it had been the right one. Bill Hoffman counselled them to be more decisive, advising them to make a decision and move on – don’t revisit it. Georgia said this philosophy now informs the way they operate.

“We’ve become efficient at decision making,” she said.

“When we’re trading, we decide we’ll sell when the market is good and we’re happy with the price.

“If the price goes up the next week, we never say, ‘I wish we’d sold this week instead’. We’ll be happy with the profit we’ve made.”

Goals

Increasing the size and the efficiency of their home operation has been a key goal – it’s allowed Bill to scale down his contracting sideline and minimise disruption to the family. Georgia and Bill have purchased two neighbouring properties, increasing the size of their operation from their original 180ha to 550ha, plus leased country.

They remain focused on cost of production and while this has improved in the years since the MLA Challenge, Bill said there are still areas they could make gains. They invested heavily in the newer properties through fencing, pasture improvement and new water infrastructure – doubling the area under irrigation.

“Our costs have been quite high, but we see that as an outlay for a long‑term return,” Bill said.

One of their strategies for cost efficiency is to avoid having capital tied up in a piece of equipment that may sit idle for most of the year – for example, they produce bulk silage in pits and hire a feed mixer when they’re weaning calves.

Prior to the MLA Challenge, the Wilsons hadn’t considered succession planning, but are now focused on ensuring their business includes a range of options, for them and their children. Georgia said part of this is to involve their children in decisions around the farm.

“Whether they want to be involved in ag or not, to be able to make a decision and be comfortable in making a decision will serve them well, whatever field they go into,” she said.

Lessons learned

  • If you’re thinking about making a change, do your research. If you’re happy about it, go for it.
  • Build a good team around you.
  • Develop your networks.