View from my verandah: Kevin Stark

01 April 2016

Fifth generation producer Kevin Stark runs a mixed enterprise with his parents, Kevin and Maryanne, at Lake Mundi in south-west Victoria near the South Australian border. The business includes first-cross ewes and small seed production, but Kevin’s passion is developing and marketing their pure Hereford herd.

You returned to the family business 18 months ago after a stint in the aerospace industry – that seems like an unusual choice. I have always been involved in the business but my parents encouraged me to go off-farm and gain experience in another industry. I studied aerospace engineering at RMIT then worked as a student intern with Airbus in Germany for a year. I always intended on coming home to the farm, but it was great to experience a completely different industry. One skill I learned while I was at Airbus and still use regularly is how to properly conduct research and tests on-farm while controlling the variables as much as possible to ensure the data I collect is accurate, relevant and unbiased. It also reinforced that I do want to work in agriculture and the business opportunities this industry offers.

Take us through some of your production targets. We purchased an additional 450 ha last year which brings our land to 2,500ha. We run 750 Hereford breeders and 1,800-2,000 first-cross ewes joined to Poll Dorset of White Suffolk rams. We finish lambs on irrigated land and sell direct to processors at 24kg carcase weight.

I focus on the beef side of the business which includes a self-replacing commercial herd and a small stud herd (Blink Bonnie) which I am developing to breed bulls for our enterprise. Our goal is to increase the kilograms of beef we produce, so we have a reproduction target of 90-95% PTIC. We wean steers at 330kg and aim to turn them off by 18-22 months of age.

We aim to lift the bottom 20%of our herd by improving genetics and productivity. We use NLIS to monitor individual animal performance and guide management decisions. From a genetics perspective, we target bulls with strong carcase attributes so our EBV (Estimated Breeding Value) priorities are for 600 day weight gain, eye muscle area, intramuscular fat, milk and birth weight. Our goal is to breed moderately framed cattle with high feed efficiency so we can turn of more kilograms of beef per hectare.

How is your business evolving? We traditionally sold young cattle through the Casterton weaner market but we transitioned to growing all our stock out eight years ago. We are EU accredited and now sell over-the-hooks at 320kg carcase weight. We are evolving our business to become grassfed accredited and are developing a relationship with Coles to direct lighter weight stock finished on irrigation to their Coles Graze program. We are also transitioning from autumn to winter calving as it gives us the ability to run more cows and reduce supplementary feeding.

Why are you targeting these markets? Expanding our markets gives us opportunities to spread risk and diversify our business. It also allows us to respond to consumer trends, such as the demand for grassfed beef. The grassfed market is a good seasonal fit for our enterprise as we can finish stock on irrigation and turn them off in April-May when many other producers face a feed gap. This allows us to receive a 20-40¢/kg premium on the EU price, compared to a 10¢/kg premium in spring.

What management strategies underpin market compliance? We have strict protocols around management of stock pre-slaughter. This includes reduced handling and running cattle in socialised mobs three weeks before they are trucked off the property to minimise dark cutting. We also address nutritional issues such as mineral deficiencies with animal health programs including multi-mineral treatments and supplementation during feed gaps.

What are some of the challenges of farming in south-west Victoria? The seasons are becoming more and more unpredictable. This is where the irrigation plays an important role. Dad and Mum were very proactive in developing irrigation infrastructure over the years and we now have 12 centre pivots and 80ha of flood irrigation. This creates enterprise diversity (we lease some irrigation for small seed production and grow irrigated lucerne) and provides grazing options to consistently finish livestock to meet market specifications.

What’s happening on-farm this time of year? We have been attending bull sales to select genetics to continue lifting the productivity of our herd. In our 600mm rainfall environment timing is critical, so we are looking for an early autumn break with good follow-up rain and a wet spring. We started supplementary feeding at the end of February, and will start calving at the end of March. We are also preparing for our winter wheat seeding program.

What’s on the horizon? We will continue to develop irrigation, as it provides grazing and cropping options. I also want to increase our beef herd – my short-term target is 1,000 breeders to stock the newly purchased land, and then I want to reach 1,500 breeders in five years. I am always looking for new marketing opportunities to maintain profitability, such as paddock to plate options.

You were the 2015 Victorian finalist for the Cattle Council of Australia NAB Agribusiness Rising Champion Award, and were president of the revitalised Casterton and District Young Farmers Association – why is being involved in the industry important to you? The Rising Champion program has been a great opportunity to experience agri-politics – something I have always been interested it. It has provided a foot in the door for positive industry involvement. I am now on the Cattle Council Research and Development sub-committee. The Young Farmers Association creates an informal forum for people to catch up, learn from each other and discuss industry issues.

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