Change brings rewards: The Challengers one year on

18 December 2015

It has been more than 12 months since we last heard from the MLA Challengers. The Challenge set out to upskill six livestock producing families through education, support from mentors and the introduction to a range of tools to help them manage and monitor their business.

At the end of the Challenge, which saw Tasmanian sheep producers John and Annie Ramsay named the overall winners, the participants said they were empowered by the opportunity and were confident their new found knowledge and confidence would have massive benefit.

Here we catch up with them and hear how their learnings from the Challenge have been applied to their businesses.

Lachlan and Anna Hughes, Dulacca, Queensland

OUTCOME: Expansion of beef brand and increased production

What has been happening in your business since you finished the Challenge?

A lot! We enlisted the help of Sam Newsome as a consultant and we’ve been down to our mentor Robert Gill’s place three times to learn more about paddock feeding.

We’re now killing 84 head a week through our own brand, Rangeland Quality Meats (RQM). When the Challenge started we were struggling to kill 28. Our prices are better and people are recognising our brand, so RQM is healthy now.

We’ve also employed two more people, converted our agistment block ‘Crescendo’ into a backgrounding block, and we’ve had a baby girl – Georgia Ann. It’s been an amazing year.

What goals have been achieved and what are you working towards now?

Past goals:

We’ve synced up all our cows, we have better bulls and we have a bunch of nice progeny on the ground.

We took a hit in cattle numbers because we synced our herd quickly, but it’s been dreadfully dry on our breeding block so we took the opportunity to isolate the cows that were in calf and sell the rest. This has proven to be the right decision because we are looking at another late summer.

New goals:

Our main goal is to get the weights we want from paddock feeding, which is difficult because we don’t have any cropping land, so pasture monitoring and budgeting is very important.

We got serious about it six months ago and now have two nutritionists and a pasture scientist working with us to try and nail down a system – in the past three months we’ve gotten some outstanding results considering the season.

By the end of the year we aim to have a composting system to improve our soils and we'll be sowing legumes by spring next year.

What was the greatest learning from participating in the Challenge?

I realised it doesn’t matter whether you have fattening country, breeding country, high rainfall or low, you have to learn to question yourself and challenge everything you do. I learnt not to be afraid of this questioning process and, as a result, we’re now heading in a much different and exciting new direction.

We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without the continued support of Robert and Sam. I can’t speak highly enough of the Challenge and the mentoring system. It has been a breath of fresh air through our business and I can honestly say that for the first time in the six years my wife and I have been home, we feel very much in control of our future. Thanks MLA.

More information: Lachlan and Anna Hughes E: lachlanhughes1@bigpond.com

Andrew and Megan Miller, Jundah, Queensland

Outcome: A new job

What has changed for you since completing the Challenge?

When we entered the Challenge we were leasing ‘Coniston’. We’ve always wanted to own our own place and the Challenge allowed us to see that, in terms of our business and personal goals, ‘Coniston’ was not going to get us there.

During the Challenge I had done a fair bit of contract work to pay the bills and one of my fencing clients was Peter Bowler, who lives in Western Australia but had recently purchased ‘Braidwood’ at Jundah, which is the property he grew up on.

I only met him briefly, but Peter had followed the Challenge closely. At the end of the competition he offered us a job managing ‘Braidwood’. We accepted and moved to ‘Braidwood’ in late January this year. We were absentee lessees of ‘Coniston’ for about five months, closing up our enterprise there in mid-July.

In the future, the plan is to run about 15,000 sheep and 1000 head of cattle on ‘Braidwood’ and the neighbouring property ‘Wuringle’, which Peter has also bought. Together, they form about 84,000ha.

How do you plan to marry the goals you set during the Challenge with your current role?

Even though we have less control now because we’re managers (and I’m slowly learning the art of diplomacy), we actually feel for the first time we are in complete control of our own future.

Peter knows that managing ‘Braidwood’ is a path to us purchasing a place of our own and he is entirely open to us running our property on the side, in addition to our responsibilities here.

We were lucky that Peter also agreed to buy our cow herd. During the Challenge, we lifted our pregnancy rates from 58% to 67%, and this year we hit 85.8%.

What were the most valuable lessons you learned from the Challenge

To look at everything objectively, whether it’s our herd, our enterprise mix or our work-life balance.

More information: Andrew Miller E: milleramb@yahoo.com.au

Matthew and Angela Pearce, Cootamundra, NSW

OUTCOME:  Business growth and control of their future

What has been happening in your business since you finished the Challenge?

We purchased a nearby property and we’ve got our breeder numbers up to 400, which was the goal we worked out with our mentor Terrey Johnson.

We were going to build numbers just by retaining heifers, but we brought our program forward by 18 months by buying cows.

We’ve been very fortunate. We had two good seasons at the beginning of our business and, combined with high prices, this has allowed us to bring forward some plans.

What goals have been achieved and what are you working towards now?

We’ve achieved some infrastructure goals, including new cattle yards on the new block and more fencing on both blocks, and we’ve also finished the renovations on our house.

One of our goals was to join more females per year and then cull on fertility as our first point of culling, rather than culling prior to joining. Last year, we joined all our heifers and we’ll do it again this year. We’ll join 500 females in total and use the extras to give us options depending on the season. For example, we may retain more young females in the cow herd and tip out older ones, sell PTIC females, or retain and calve more. We’ve also tightened our joining period again – four weeks for heifers and eight weeks for cows.

Through the Challenge we identified ways a consultant could help us work on addressing profit drivers in our business. We now have a consultant who has also provided input to our business plan.

We created the business plan with Terrey during the Challenge and it sets out what we want to achieve from both a financial and lifestyle point of view. We used it recently when we refinanced our business after putting it out to tender, and the banks all commented on it very favourably. It is a live document and we will continue to review it.

What was the greatest learning from participating in the Challenge?

There were two things:

  1. Have a plan and act against that plan, rather than just doing things.
  2. Measure your performance. This is very new for us and our consultant is helping us examine the business key performance indicators and find ways to improve on them every year.

More information: Matthew Pearce E: muronga@bigpond.com

John and Annie Ramsay, Bothwell, Tasmania

OUTCOME: New systems and greater efficiency

What has been happening in your business since you finished the Challenge?

We sold a farm, which has enabled us to further develop ‘Ratho’, our home farm. We built a 730m pivot and a dam, invested in automated sheep-handling equipment and have done a lot of fencing.

On a personal level, we’re expecting a baby at the end of January.

What goals have been achieved and what are you working towards now?

Our auto drafter and sheep handler was something we identified through the Challenge as a way of improving labour efficiency. It has an electronic identification (EID) panel reader, which also led to a much better understanding of our lamb growth rates.

Some of the other goals were pre-Challenge, but the Challenge gave us the confidence and knowledge to be able to justify the investment decisions.

We now feel confident we can irrigate grass and turn it into meat much better than we could prior to the Challenge. This is largely due to a change in the type of sheep we’re running, but also to measuring feed on offer and better grazing management.

We lamb marked 136% last year and our target was 130%, so we hit that well and truly. We still haven’t quite hit our lamb growth rates target of 300g/day. We’re doing about 200g/day, which is much better than last year, but we want to push it.

A lot of the basics are going well but we now need to fine-tune. For example, we’re still having trouble at lambing time with hypocalcaemia. We’ve fed a lot more calcium supplement this year so we’re better off than last year, but we’re still having issues, particularly with triplets.

What was the greatest learning from participating in the Challenge?

You can change things around in your business pretty quickly – it’s all about putting the right systems and processes around you.

We’re also in a much better position emotionally and financially since the Challenge. We have more confidence as a result of doing research into our problems, getting people around who can help and setting better plans and processes.

More information: John Ramsay E: ramsayag@bigpond.com

Marcus and Shannon Sounness, Amelup, Western Australia

OUTCOME: Succession sorted and a more robust business model

What has been happening in your business since you finished the Challenge?

We have been busy implementing changes we identified during the Challenge. We’ve modernised our office, human resources and industrial relations processes, and there has been a lot of administration work regarding farm succession.

What goals have been achieved and what are you working towards now?

1. Farm succession

We achieved more during the Challenge than we had in the previous 10 years. We now own the farm business and everyone has a role, including my retired parents.

The extra communication resulting from the Challenge really helped. We wrote 30 blogs in a year and it meant my whole family could see what we were thinking, which spurred the process on.

Plus, we were working on the business, which gave my parents confidence because they knew where we were heading.

2. Human resources

Staff management was one of the major issues we grappled with in the Challenge, so we’ve been learning a lot about HR management.

We’ve taken on a full-time farm management trainee – Rebecca Waters. We needed more help on the farm, and Shannon and I felt we would like to contribute to the industry by training someone up.

We’ve offered Rebecca more than a job. She’s doing some TAFE courses now and will probably end up doing an external university course next year.

3. Production

This year we marked 103% lambs. Our goal was 100% and our long-term average is 85%.

We’ve achieved this by applying the principles of Lifetime Ewe Management and Making More from Sheep.

4. Personal

We’re expanding the family – our second baby is due in November.

What was the greatest learning from participating in the Challenge?

The need to keep learning. Our mentor Rob Warburton’s advice was that we need to set aside money in our budget each year for education. That may mean travelling to attend seminars or visit farms, depending on what we identify as the most important thing we need to learn for the business at the time.

More information: Marcus Sounness E: thegully@papercollar.com.au

Bill and Georgia Wilson, Edi, Victoria

OUTCOME: Expansion and improved herd performance

What has been happening in your business since you finished the Challenge?

We have doubled our landholding by buying the 200 hectares next door. It was something we always wanted to do but the Challenge encouraged us to think we had the nucleus of a successful business and we were able to approach the decision in a more businesslike manner.

Our aim is to use our original property as a finishing block and the new country as a breeding block. We are still store weaner producers but this gives us more options.

What goals have been achieved and what are you working towards now?

Our main goal was to increase fertility in our cow herd and shorten our joining.

Our mentor Bill Hoffman said we could sync up our cows in 12 months but it would cost a lot of money, so we set a three-year plan. We got our joining back to nine weeks last year.

During the Challenge, we aimed for a 95% conception rate in our cows and we wanted 65-70% of those in calf in the first two cycles. We’ve hit those goals.

This spring we’ll join 150-odd heifers with the goal of reducing the age of our cow herd and also, instead of having only about half our heifers heavy enough to join, they’ll all be heavy enough.

Our feed management is much better and we’ve switched to a more intensive rotational grazing system.

We’re still working on cost of production – our current goal is to produce as much as we can for $1.20/kg.

What was the greatest learning from participating in the Challenge?

It’s all very well to measure something, but you have to do something with the data once you have it.

We’ve set ourselves up with an electronic tag-reading system so when we weigh steers we can track them back to their mothers and form a better understanding of our genetics. We can focus on exactly what we need when it’s time to purchase bulls.

We’re also more comfortable with our decision making. We do the research, look at all the options, make a decision and move on.

More information: Bill Wilson E: georgiaandbill@bigpond.com

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