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Labour saving strategies

10 March 2020

Labour efficiency is one of the main strengths of Sam and Phoebe Maroulis’ goat enterprise in the rangelands of north-west NSW. The couple discovered this using comparative data from the recent MLA goat enterprise benchmarking project.

The Maroulis’ goat enterprise was a standout performer during the benchmarking project for labour efficiency, achieving average labour efficiency levels of over 18,000 DSE per labour unit over three years from 2016 to 2018.

The operation

Sam and Phoebe opportunistically harvest around 700 goats per year with the majority being supplied to depot operators. In addition to the goats, they manage a trading cattle enterprise when feed supply is adequate as it provides flexibility in such a seasonally volatile environment.

They manage 11,336 hectares in a 350mm rainfall zone where around half of the area consists of open flood plain black soil country while the other half consists of red soil scrub. The property consists of two main paddocks with some smaller paddocks around watering points. The main paddocks effectively run to soil type and are serviced by eight tanks and troughs and five trap yards around watering points.

Sam and Phoebe run a simple system for harvesting. This consists of setting trap yards around watering points in the warmer months over six different occasions per year and then moving trapped goats from one trap to the next to accumulate at a trap yard with a loading race. Traps are generally set for a few days before the accumulation is done.

Goat movements generally involve Sam and Phoebe’s two teenage sons on motorbikes and Sam in a four-wheel drive. All mustered goats are carted to a nearby depot on a customised trailer.

Impressive results

Results from the MLA goat enterprise benchmarking project showed that the three-year average labour cost for rangeland goats was $11.34 per dry sheep equivalent. Further costs in labour related expenses added a further $11 per dry sheep equivalent, bringing a combined cost of labour and labour related expenses to $22.34 per dry sheep equivalent. This represents 69% of the total operating costs associated with managing goats in the rangelands.

Labour costs in the Maroulis’ goat enterprise equated to just 32% of the average operational costs, while the combination of labour and labour related expenses equated to only 22% of the average. 

How labour efficiency is achieved

Water management appears to be the single biggest area where labour efficiency gains are achieved. Sam and Phoebe have implemented water monitoring technology which allows them to remotely monitor water flow rates and tank levels using sensors. This information is complemented by camera technology located at a number of watering points. The water flow rate and tank sensor level information is sent via UHF radio to a point with mobile phone reception which then relays the information to Sam and Phoebe’s mobile phones.

The monitoring system consists of a single flow meter, three tank water level sensors and two remote cameras. A strategic decision was made to fit water level sensors to only three of eight tanks over the farm. Two of these are located in different paddocks to indicate water supply for each paddock. The other tank sensor is located on the last tank on the water supply line. The reason for this is that if the tank at the furthest watering point is full and the water flow rate is as expected then this indicates that there should be no water supply issues in between.

Data from the flow meter, which is located near the pump site, is used to monitor daily flow. Flow rates change according to water demand which is seasonally driven, however large deviations usually indicate problems with either supply or delivery.

The remote cameras are located at two different trap yards and help Sam and Phoebe monitor livestock movements on water, time of day of livestock watering and feral animal pressure. These also allow for monitoring of water levels.

At the very least the monitoring technology gives Sam the time to rectify the situation as he knows at any point in time how much water is being used and how much supply there is. The key benefit of the technology however is the reduction in labour required to physically monitor water supply. 

Does the investment pay off?

The total investment in the remote sensing technology, inclusive of the programs and apps required to interpret the information, was approximately $9,000. In addition to this are the ongoing costs of approximately $30/month for the SIM card required to relay the information using the mobile phone network.

Sam estimates that the time it takes him to monitor livestock water supply has reduced his need to physically monitor waters by 90%. This has resulted in a marginal labour saving of 140 hours over the shoulder and peak water supply months. At an hourly rate of $40/hour inclusive of on costs, this equates to an annual labour saving of $5,658. After deducting the annual cost of the sim card connection, the net benefit of the technology equates to approximately $5,300/year.

The investment analysis shows that the return on investment into the water monitoring and camera technology is 56% breaking even in three years with a benefit cost ratio of 2:1.  

Sam and Phoebe consider that a key benefit of this technology is its scalability. While there may be a need for additional tank level monitors depending on the scale of paddocks and distance of one watering point to the next, the costs and benefits are unlikely to be significantly different to this case.