Profound results for Action Group focused on benchmarking and lifting performance

“This Action Group is different from most others in that our members decided from the outset to focus on benchmarking,” says Steven Howarth, facilitator of the King Country AgFirst Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) Action Group.
Wednesday, 27 May 2020

“Rather than regularly bringing subject matter experts in, our members opted to put their resources into the use of Farmax. It has worked very well for them. There is so much horsepower in this group. The group has used its RMPP funding and they have decided to continue with the group and are now funding it themselves.”

Group member Matt Buckley, who farms sheep, beef, and dairy, across five units and a total of 2,400 ha at Te Kuiti, says the impact of the group on his farm business has been “profound”.

“As a result of being in the group, we’ve changed the way we purchase livestock and the timing, moving to being mainly autumn-based. Also, the cattle we winter are mostly bulls and we have lifted overall liveweight per ha by 30 to 40 per cent. We used to average around 700kg of liveweight wintered and we now average 1,000kg. We think there is room to eventually go up to 1,200kg.”

Steven is a sheep and beef consultant with AgFirst, focusing mainly on farm systems, stock policies and grazing management.

“Not long after joining AgFirst five years ago, I was asked to get involved with one of the first pilot groups, with ANZCO in the King Country,” he says. “I helped with some benchmarking and scenario analysis with the purpose of building resilience into farm systems during dry summers.

“Prior to working with AgFirst, I spent five years with Farmax, supporting farmers and consultants, so I come to it from both sides of the fence. I really enjoy working with farmers and seeing their farm businesses grow.

“When RMPP launched the Action Network, we invited farmers to get in touch if they were interested in being part of a group focused on benchmarking and lifting performance.”

There was good interest, so an initial event was held to discuss how potential members saw a group operating and what tools they wanted to use. The decision came down firmly with Farmax, the planning and budgeting tool that enables farmers to test the commercial and biological feasibility of different land-use scenarios.

“We launched the King Country group over two years ago and have nine farm business members,” says Steven. “The overall goal is to help each individual farm business to reach the goals they set for themselves through the Action Group. Members did not want to focus on specific topics – benchmarking is the focus, with the investment, time and effort going into using Farmax.”

The group meets five times a year. One meeting is office based, the others on group members’ farms.

“Early on, we set the ground rules including what is shared in the group stays in the group,” says Steven. “They decided to be totally honest and open with the benchmarking and share everything. “Everyone puts their names to things, right down to their operating profit – but not debt. We run each farmer’s annual accounts through Farmax.”

Before each farm meeting, Steven provides a handout to all members with background on the farm business they will be visiting. This includes resources, stock numbers and benchmarking information.

“We put the goals of that business right at the top because that is very important,” says Steven. “What are the goals, what is the infrastructure, what does benchmarking tell us about that business? We are very open as a group that every farm has its strengths and weaknesses. At the farm, members all contribute around where they see that business doing well and where there are opportunities to do things better.

“They share their knowledge and ideas and where they think that business could change X or Y. There is no difficulty in getting the group talking. The challenge is keeping to time as they are so engaged in these conversations.

“At the end of the day, everyone presents their recommendations back to the host farmer. For instance, at one meeting, members recommended that the farmer retire an area of his farm to wetland. At another meeting, there were suggestions around changes to the sale and purchase strategy for cattle.

“The fifth meeting of the year is office based and we get every farmer in front of a computer and they run Farmax for the year and make plans for the year ahead.”

While the group decided against having subject matter experts in for formal presentations, they do regularly bring people in to support discussion within the group – including Steven’s colleague, AgFirst consultant Bob Thomson.

“Bob has a wealth of knowledge and has presented on areas include dairy beef and high performance breeding cows” says Steven. “We’ve had fertiliser reps in and one farmer had a significant problem with worm resistance, so we asked a vet to join the meeting. We’re also lucky to have Sarah Dudin, a Land and Environmental Management Consultant, in the group.”

Steven says members have made many changes as a result of being part of the Action Group.

“Matt has made significant changes to his bull beef system. Another member has changed their ram genetics and is sourcing ewes from another group member. One farmer picked up the opportunity to increase the weight of two tooth and ewes and is now prioritising the flock to achieve this.”

Matt says the changes he has made to his farm business as a result of the group also include capital fertiliser inputs, additional temporary fencing and increasing the winter round length.

“We’ve increased fertiliser application from 25 units of P to 40 units over the past two seasons, divided up our grazing cells with temporary fencing and increased our round length from 60 days to 90 days.

“Working with Steven is great – he has very good technology knowledge and Bob brings additional farming expertise. I’m now using Farmax monthly and have a formal catch up with Steven every quarter. Alongside the benchmarking, the group is a great way to keep abreast of innovative things people are doing. There is a real variety of age, experience and background and different sizes of business so everyone brings different perspectives, but we also have shared challenges. It’s about sharing knowledge and continuing to keep asking questions and pushing yourself.

“Our Stock Managers have really got on board with what we are doing as a result of the Action Group, so we’ve also started our own in-farm group for the team members across our units.”

Going forward as a self-funded group, members plan to meet three times a year on members’ farms, one meeting as an off-farm special topic and one office-based meeting a year.

“We’ve had a Zoom meeting during the COVID-19 lockdown, to keep sharing ideas,” says Matt. “It’s a really great group, it has a lot of traction and it is going to be really good to start getting round the farms for a second time and seeing the progress they have made.”