A state of chaos is the normal in most years in the dairy industry

In my quest to collect information and data about how we can best support  women in rural and regional Australia through The Wise Women Project, I interviewed Australian Rural Consultant of the Year Dr Neil Moss

Neil was as always very pragmatic, and it was this statement that was a wake-up call for me.

On reflecting on the 20 plus years Neil has been consulting to dairy farmers he said

“A state of chaos is the normal in most years in the dairy industry”

Chaos and disruption is normal. Our reflections on the past and what we consider “normal” are often blinded by our experiences of our early and formative years in agriculture. Those that became agricultural aware in the 50’s or 70’s reflect on the wetter times being the normal. I became “agriculturally aware” on the Monaro in the early 80s when my parents moved to Dalgety and bought the general store- my perception of normal is some degree of drought interspersed with occasional but appreciated wet times. The world was different – we were protected by more favourable terms of trade, lower land values and in some industries quota and floor prices. Many farmers continued to innovate and move forward during and since those times but some have stood still.

No business is immune from change and this is not unique to agriculture. Costs have risen, terms of trade have declined, land values have escalated dramatically and our need to be more efficient, that is, to get more from less, has only become more acute. Stocking rates have had to rise to keep pace, expectations of higher productivity continue and as a result, whether or not you accept the science of climate change, all farms are more exposed to drought and climate risk than they ever have been before.  These are the messages that we need to get out. Farmers need to be adopting technology, innovation, improvements in management, improvements in efficiency, improvements in resource use efficiency.

These conversations can be coupled with conversations about sustainability, the reality of carbon cycling in agriculture, emissions intensity, sustainable intensification and animal wellbeing. These factors should not be viewed as being mutually exclusive with productivity, profitability and resilience- the opposite is the true reality.

On the question of genuine financial literacy and valuing everyone in the business 

Returns in agriculture need to be carefully considered. While income is important, asset growth and wealth creation need to be factored, as well as the people who are contributing both paid and in-kind labour as well as founding capital. Unfortunately, in many cases no individual is getting income paid directly – It’s just declared as co-drawings. This can make things like tracking or contributing superannuation or other entitlements, generally taken for granted outside of agriculture, very problematic.

Ideally, all businesses should factor in labour costs and pay staff whether they be family or not

It is a critical conversation to have when you’re looking at whether a business is viable in the first place. If your business doesn’t provide for labour costs, then there is risk that what  you may be doing is effectively  indulging a hobby farming career.

When we look at this there are two things to consider

  1. Diligence when people are establishing and reviewing the business objectively to also apply a proper wage structures, to all people that are contributing. Otherwise, you are not acknowledging opportunity lost costs of all those involved.
  2. And secondarily, when we are talking about technology and innovation:
    • Identify how the technology can help and also what are its costs and requirements such as training and integration into the whole farm system that need to be considered
    • Identify who are the drivers of the adoption and uptake of technology on farms?

On the question of the adoption of technology

Frequently, it’s the women that are more engaged in exploring and bringing new technology to the farm and suggesting where it fits in. Women often have a capacity to sit back, look and say, “Well, why are you doing it that way? Maybe there is a better way and I’m going to go out and find it.”

Whereas quite often, and certainly not always, (there are great examples of technology being adopted by all genders), males can get locked into a “that’s how we do it, that’s how dad did it, that’s how we’re going to keep doing it” mindset.

It is important to not just talk about technology, it’s important we talk about adoption of change in management practices as well as technology, that reflects new knowledge in how things can be done. Quite often we do not need a new gadget or machine, just a review of how things are done and processes in light of the ever evolving on and off farm innovation that is occurring across the world- we are so much better connected these days to world-wide innovation, and it is often women that drive and thrive with this connectivity and approach to critical thinking.

It is important to conduct studies rather than rely on the anecdotal information because the people who are already having these conversations are often working with the progressive or aspirational farmers who are already on the innovation wave or are looking to get on board and wanting to do better.

We need to better understand why some farmers embrace and move forward with technology and innovation and some chose not to.

Questions we should be asking

  • Who is adopting the technology,
  • Are they using it to its best advantage?
  • What are they doing with the data that they’re collecting?
  • Where do you get your information on technology?
  • How is that information communicated to you?
  • Who in the farm team is responsible for bringing it to the table?
  • What processes of review do you have before adopting a technology?
  • What are the real barriers to technology and change being taken up- is it capital, culture, consensus, access, training or poor explanation of potential benefits and across business synergies?

On the question of the importance of a commitment to lifelong learning 

We all know many very successful people who do not have a tertiary education- a university degree or similar is not a pre-requisite for success!  However, many of the most successful farmers I am lucky enough to work with adopt a lifelong approach to ongoing continuing education, and learning, albeit less structured. These farmers understand the drivers of their business, they appreciate the critical importance of timing and decisiveness, they understand and manage their key risks and they continue to update skills and knowledge. A profitable and resilient industry needs farming management teams that consider all of this.

In the wake of some of the recent natural disasters I have been doing some recovery work with farms that have been less exposed to both broader industry extension efforts and use of consultants. Irrespective of the real devastation that they had experienced, the failure of either delivery or uptake of messaging and practices that many farmers and advisers consider as basics and fundamentals was deeply concerning. We need to find better ways to connect innovation and technology right across the broad spectrum of aspiration and ambition

On the question of how do we inspire change 

To inspire change the industry has used role models and it has had various programs. The issue I see is the industry continues to preach to the converted. You have the same 30% of farms that attend 90% of the structured education extension offerings.

There is a large component of industry that will never embrace or adopt change, time  or the next natural disaster or industry price shock will unfortunately catch up with many of these business.

Concerning as it is we may need to accept that it doesn’t matter how hard or what we try and do, there’s going to be many farms that are never going to or want to progress-and that is ok and that is absolutely their choice.

There just must be an acceptance of that.

While the Australian public is in general deeply supportive of agriculture and farmers, the tolerance towards repeated bail outs and support packages may be wearing thin. There is a need to be honest and transparent with the farming sector that next time there is a drought or a price shock, if they haven’t gone out and upskilled, and improved, and taken the opportunities that are there to make their business more resilient, then the public’s tolerance and acceptance of taxpayer funded bail-outs being delivered are being continually eroded

Very few farming businesses are optimized and there is existing and evolving technologies and management changes  that can continue to improve efficiency and resilience. People must look on their side of the farm gate first, assess and challenge the operations and structures in their business and see what they can adopt and how they can improve management and adopt technology, and just not blame the milk price next time something goes wrong. This is not to say that issues around inappropriate milk pricing structures should remain uncontested when they do occur as has recently been the case.

This wise woman is very grateful to have this very wise man in her life – thank you Neil

Agriculture a career that should be attracting all the talented people

As mentioned in a previous post I have joined a global leadership academy. As part of my onboarding process I was invited to do a DISC profile.

And wow the four hour debrief process with Doug McCrae  was extraordinary.

I learnt, not surprisingly for all who know me, I am a high D. I also rated very highly on the Intellectual scale. This doesn’t mean I am smart.  It means I have a high thirst for fact-based knowledge.

I am confident this is one of the big reasons I love working with the Young Farming Champions.  I learn so much from young people in other farming industries

The science and technology on Australian farms today is quite extraordinary and quite a bit of that science and technology is driven by farmers and their advisors

I got very excited when I saw this blog post  Its planting season – our Young Farming Champions have got their big toys out to grow the food that feeds us. from the Young Farming Champions today

This video from Onus Agronomy on the biggest air seeder in the world just blew my mind

I remember as a newly married very young pharmacist who suddenly found themself a dairy farmer’s wife driving up the road to Clover Hill. It was soooooo steep they didn’t even have a tractor ( or a horse) and planting seed meant doing it like they do in developing countries dispersing it by hand.

Our family changed a lot of things on Clover Hill. We started that process by teaming up with the best in the business and thanks to dairy pasture guru Dr Neil Moss we became trailblazers in pasture utilisation and getting the best nutrition outcomes for our cows which meant consumers got the most delicious, nutritious milk we could supply.  If you want to read some of our story you can see some of our research trials here .

It is seven years since I was part of the team that made decisions on what to plant in planting season at Clover Hill so I reached out to Dr Neil Moss to see what progressive dairy farmers on the south coast of NSW are planting.

This is what Neil had to say

South Coast Dairy farmers are continuing to lift the bar with their choices for pastures as they move into winter. We are seeing continued uptake of improved ryegrass genetics as farmers work to improve both early season pasture yields and late season pasture quality where required. There has also been increased uptake on some of the older techniques used to increase early season yield including co-planting ryegrasses with one combinations of winter cereals and short term brassicas giving low cost options for shifting the feed curve “to the left” while not compromising spring pasture growth or yields.

The ever-persistent challenge of farming with, rather than against, kikuyu has seen a variety of techniques used to improve early over-sowing outcomes including low dose chemical suppression, use of heavy mulching or pre-cutting of silage and increased use of disc planters. Early results with the good season have been encouraging to date.

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We are also seeing increased use of forage herbs such as chicory and perennial legumes again to improve the pasture mix while also increasing warm season feed quality. 

We learnt a lot in the early days. We learnt for example the power of language. Things like it was smarter not to call your trials Zero Grass and instead call them Salad Bowl Mix trials.

I am super excited that Neil and our South Coast farmers are setting the standard for high quality pasture for South Coast cows to produce safe, affordable, nutritious milk for Australian families.

Speaking of Neil he was most recently the appointed Scientist responsible for the Dairy industry 2020 Fire Recovery Response in NSW and in this podcast he speaks to Agriminders host Chris Russell about how farmers have been aided by these plans in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2020 bushfires, as well as the lessons learned  along the way to help improve the government’s response in the future.

 

Something in it for everybody!

Todays post is by guest blogger Dr Neil Moss our farm consultant and one of the great team of experts who shared their vast experience and knowledge with the participants at our recent Field Day

Neil shares his field day banter with you ……….

One of the great privileges of working in dairy consultancy is being able to observe and collect innovations and exciting ideas from successful farmers in one location, and then mould, adapt and apply these to a wider variety of situations with other farmers that are also willing to innovate and try new things.

Dr Neil Moss and Dr Richard Eckard share the benefits of planting legume pastures with Field Day particpants

Dr Neil Moss points out the stoloniferous habits of some his pasture

Our recent field day at Lemon Grove Research Farm was a great example of just this concept. For many years I have been working together with clients on their farms  developing pastures that break away from the norm and start to cover some of the gaps in their pasture production and risk management systems.

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It was a colourful and diverse group of farmers who stood in Neil’s pasture salad bowl 

The field day wasn’t just a great chance to showcase some of these great pastures and how we go about getting them. It was also a great opportunity to explore how farmers’ ideas and observations can be captured and developed into farming systems, and how individuals that think “outside the square” and challenge conventional wisdom can shift “out of the box” concepts and techniques into the mainstream with benefits for many.

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The participants got some backgrounding from Lynne Strong

Using some concepts and techniques that I originally observed on a farm owned by David and Audrey Moxey on the Mid-North coast of New South Wales (Thanks guys!!) we are now working in just this way. Some great on-farm ideas based on Dave’s experience and a little innovation have now been morphed into a widely adaptable pasture system that may have substantial production and environmental benefits for those that can apply them. David had successfully negated some of the production challenges posed by low summer feed quality by including lucerne, chicory and plantain- tap rooted legumes and herbs with great summer growth and feed-quality, in his planting mixes. We had been sowing these with ryegrass to drive more winter and spring growth but this system was still exposed to summer grass invasion and the need to use significant amounts of nitrogen fertiliser to get the most out of them.

Now it was time to think and adapt! What if we used more winter active chicory cultivars dropped the ryegrass out and started to control some of the summer grass weeds with selective herbicides! It worked a treat.

Farmers network

There was plenty of discussion and networking opportunities

The run-up to the GFC saw a near tripling in price of nitrogen based fertilisers. Linked closely to the petro-chemical industry, it was clear to see that one of the key future “risks” we were facing was “nitrogen shock”- and believe me, many were shocked at how high the prices went and how exposed their systems were. Coupled with this, a growing understanding and acknowledgement of the potential environmental and greenhouse effects of high nitrogen fertiliser use was raising eyebrows – it was clearly time to observe, adapt and act!

Audience at Lemon Grove

Tracey Bob and Vicki thought it might be worth a try in Berry and Pyree

The Strong’s at Jamberoo are fantastic innovators and have been great clients to learn and grow with over the last 12 years. When we discussed these new pasture strategies and some of the benefits they may bring, they could not wait to give it ago. Taking considerable risk they dedicated 12 hectares to some new plots and away we went. For two years we worked to refine the system, adding clovers and modifying our winter agronomic strategies to see where we could shift the feed production curve to. We had what we thought were some great successes and picked up a few lumps and bumps on the way.

Michael in Lucerne @ Lemon Grove

But now we needed validation. We needed to be more certain that what looked, felt and seemed good was actually delivering! Testimonials and feel good stories (has anyone out there ever read a bad testimonial????) were and should never be enough to persuade farmers to drop what is tried, tested and true and expose themselves to even more risk! We needed a bit of data. Here’s where we were lucky enough to apply for and successfully receive some research funding through the Caring for our Country grants program.

Daff and Martin Royds

Marcelle from DAFF interviews Martin Royds

We could now put some numbers to what we thought was happening allowing farmers to make better decisions based on observations with real infield “controls” for comparison.

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We still had a few weeds to tackle

So what have we found so far? We have appear to have a resilient pasture system that is giving us as much feed (this year anyway) as the traditional kikuyu based pasture system commonly utilised on the coast. The feed quality is dramatically improved and most importantly, our nitrogen fertiliser usage has dropped by over 50% at this stage. Weeds can still be a challenge! This linkwill take you to the presentation of our full results to date.

Feed quality0028

Farm field days are a great way to present information and stimulate cross pollination of ideas. We had many farmers there, some from dairy, some from beef and small holdings, some with conventional farming backgrounds, others pushing in different directions with organic and biological ideologies. The great thing was that the barriers that seemed to exist between these farming “churches” appeared to subside allowing all to ask question and share ideas- farmers learning from farmers, picking out what may or may not work in their farming system!

The day was all about interaction. Interaction between farmers and those from the services sectors, between representatives from government and environmental bodies and the educational institutions. Personally, I really enjoyed the interaction with all the attendees.

Stephen Weidemann and Dr Richard Eckard

Stephen and Richard in the dairy at Clover Hill

I also got a buzz from bouncing off the other guest speakers attending the day including Richard Eckard and Steven Weidemann who were only too happy to step into the fray and openly share their knowledge and experience as well! I hope everyone enjoyed the day as much as I did!

Back to Lynne

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Let’s not forget the gorgeous man who always not only brings the lunch he cooks it too

Phil Monoghan

and serves it. Big shout out to Phil Monaghan and Weston Animal Nutrition

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and special thanks to Phil Duncan from Bishops Nowra and Carl Pratten from NAB Nowra who sponsored the drinks. This is Carl talking to Albion Park dairy farmer Craig Tait

Will it put money in my pocket

Tomorrow we open the doors of our research farm so the local farmers can see what’s been happening over the fence.

Our consultant Dr Neil Moss will be taking our visitors on a farm walk where he will share our pasture trial results that increase pasture protein and energy, lift milk production by up to two litres a day and use less fertiliser.

The farmers will be asking lots of questions and the first thing they will want to know is what’s it for them and their cows. That is exactly the question they should be asking because farmers are just like the rest of the world their first priority is to feed their families and just like everyone else their work and commitment should be valued at its real price. ( Ditto for their cows)

Neil is using his presentation tonight to set the scene. Would his slides entice you to come?

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