Weathering the challenges

16 August 2018

Melissa and William Fergusson have designed a resilient grazing enterprise on Tasmania’s rugged east coast in response to the region’s unpredictable seasons.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Be passionate: Choose enterprises that light your fire, you’ll do a better job.
  • Have a plan: When you see an opportunity, ask yourself ‘does it fit into our plan?’
  • Be adaptable: Don’t get easily side-tracked, but don’t be afraid to make changes if they match your interests, skills, values and goals.

When Melissa and William took over at ‘Grindstone Bay’, 85km north-east of Hobart, in 2006 after succession planning, they went head-first into a three-year drought. This tough start cemented business principles that led to ongoing expansion and improvement.

Melissa, William and sons Will, Sam and George, now own and lease nearly 9,000ha and run beef, prime lamb and wool enterprises matched to the environment. They run up to 9,500 Merino ewes and between 3,000 and 5,000 wethers and 400 Hereford breeders plus cattle purchased for finishing off in their feedlot.

Their biggest challenge is seasonal variability with long dry periods and large storm events.

Grindstone’s historic average annual rainfall is 500mm but this fluctuates; the property received 950mm in 2016 (including 280mm in a single day) and just 300mm last year.

The Fergussons chose Merinos for their performance in a dry climate. Ewes average 17.5 micron fleeces, hoggets 16 micron and wethers 17 micron.

Electronic identification tags are used to track measurements of ewe fleece weight, body weight and micron. Based on this performance, the top 60% of ewes are joined to Merino rams (the very top performers go into a ram-breeding flock) and the remainder are joined to Border Leicesters.

First-cross wether lambs go direct to processing at 8–10 months of age, while cross-bred ewe lambs are sold in the replacement breeder market.

“Our prime lamb operation provides some flexibility in stocking rates, as progeny can be sold earlier or later depending on the season,” William said.

The Merino wether enterprise also provides seasonal flexibility as they can hold on to 3,500–5,000 head, depending on feed availability.

A low-maintenance Hereford herd helps maximise pasture utilisation.

In 2003, the Fergussons moved away from selling weaner calves at store sales and built a small on farm feedlot.

“This allows us to retain more value from the cattle we breed and enables consistent turn-off, regardless of pasture availability,” William said.

Although the aim is to induct cattle at 350kg and add 100kg in the feedlot, in the dry spring of 2017, calves entered the feedlot 40kg lighter than usual to relieve pressure on pastures.

Ninety head/month are supplied for the Woolworths 70-day grainfed program, a relationship developed over 12 years. Farm-bred steers and surplus heifers are supplemented by trade cattle.

“We don’t jump around and change markets on a whim,” Melissa said.

 “We try to sell directly to the customer – good relationships, trust and feedback are important for market security.”

Seasonal management

“It takes lots of little steps to create a business that is responsive to seasonal conditions,” William said.

“In a dry year, we aim to be in a position to capitalise on rain. If we’re too slow to build numbers up when the season turns, the opportunity for good prices and good feed will be gone.”

Classes of animals which can be progressively sold are identified and strategic grain feeding, agistment and fodder crops are used to keep pastures available for priority breeding stock. Perennial pastures ensure year-round feed, while fodder crops (turnips, forage brassica and oats) provide more feed options for growing stock.

The Fergussons work with an animal nutritionist to develop feed budgets before lambing and joining and use information from programs such as Pasture Principles to assess feed quality and quantity.

This year, lambing dates will be adjusted to match observations from CSIRO’s Pastures in Space program, which uses remote satellite sensing to estimate pasture production.

“We traditionally lamb for six weeks in September and October, but August and September have slower pasture growth rates so we’ll delay joining our Merinos by two weeks to assist ewes in late pregnancy,” William said.

The Fergussons are also redeveloping pastures to lift carrying capacity with the aim of increasing their beef herd from 400 to 500 breeders and lifting ewe numbers to 12,000.

They renovate 120ha of pasture each year, with 300ha in a fodder crop rotation, and are developing 120ha of irrigation to grow ryegrass.

Happy and safe

The Fergussons value their five full-time employees and improving work health and safety (WHS) has been a priority for staff retention and efficiency gains.

Three years ago, Melissa joined forces with five other Tasmanian businesses to collaboratively develop WHS polices to suit each farm. She has driven on farm changes including a workshop overhaul (new tools, storage and personal protective equipment), emergency preparedness, inductions and a maintenance program.

“The focus on practical work rather than paperwork has created a safety culture,” Melissa said.

“A proactive, efficient and professional workplace means staff know when they go out to do a job, their equipment is safe and will work properly.

"This has had a flow-on benefit to overall farm management, as we now focus on getting a job done effectively and safely.”

The Fergussons are investing in safer and more efficient farm infrastructure, adding covered areas and an auto-drafter in sheep yards, and redesigning cattle yards and building central laneways to aid stock movement.

Business focus

Building a resilient business isn’t limited to management and markets.

“We also see resilience as something to aim for in ourselves,” Melissa said.

“It’s a factor in how we cope with challenges – we try to approach climate variability as part of normal operations. We don’t panic when it’s dry, we have a plan and we adapt it to the circumstances.”

Underpinning this resilience is a passion for what they do – for Melissa, it’s the business administration and for William, it’s managing livestock.

They supplement this passion with a thirst for knowledge (Melissa has a Bachelor of Commerce, is a graduate of Rabobank’s Executive Development Program and the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and has completed MLA’s Business EDGE workshop) and advice from external consultants.

They believe a resilient business will be a business for the next generation.

“One of our values is to leave our business in a good state for our sons, if they want to come back,” Melissa said.

“We like working together, and we want it to also be fun and rewarding for the next generation.”

Will, Sam and George have had the opportunity to study and work on and off farm to learn about their family business and the industry. This year the Fergussons will start to develop more formal business structures, including a family constitution and advisory board to help facilitate a smooth transition to the next generation.

More information
In 2017, the Fergussons offered a 'virtual' farm tour of their property to attendees at the MLA-sponsored Tasmanian Red Meat Updates.
Watch a virtual farm tour of Grindstone Bay

Email Melissa and William Fergusson

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