Update highlights value of preparing for success

Experts offer growers key agronomic and people management advice

Farm Business
Cam Nicholson at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino

Cam Nicholson at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino


A strategic approach will help farming enterprises remain resilient and thriving.


Practical advice about how strategic agronomic and people management, as well as smart community engagement, could make farms more productive and profitable was the focus of the GRDC Farm Business Update in Geelong earlier this year.

Presenters included:

  • Victorian grain and livestock producer and Nicon Rural Services consultant, Cam Nicholson, who spoke about increasing profit and minimising risk from grazing grain.
  • Human resources consultant Liz Jamieson, of Rimfire Resources, about best practice staff management.
  • Australian Farm Institute general manager, Katie McRobert, about the social licence to operate.
  • Long-time grazier and consultant, Lachlan Polkinghorne, about personal insight on maintaining a resilient and successful business (the key tenets being to focus on the people in the business, including looking after your own physical wellbeing and having a clear business strategy).

Cam Nicholson, Nicon Rural Services consultant and Victorian grain and livestock producer

Grazing dual purpose crops could increase on-farm profits, but a strategic approach and planning from the outset of the season is critical, says Cam Nicholson (pictured above), who has been grazing winter crops since 2003.

In particular, he says, early sowing could increase benefits both to crops, by maximising yields, and to stock, by providing more nutrition leading to healthier animals and an increase in stocking rates through more twin births.

But he says growers should proceed carefully and be wary of "simple economics" that could overstate the benefits of grazing crops without taking into account the bigger picture of the whole farm.

For example, gains grazing grains provide such as stock weight gain, extra grazing days, spelling pasture and savings on supplementary feed should be considered alongside very real potential grain losses and seasonal risk when calculating overall margins.

"The reality is, when you are grazing crops those calculations don't take into account any loss of grain value and from the experience we have had it's quite common to lose some grain yield because of grazing," Mr Nicolson says.

Across 190 comparison trials over 15 years, Mr Nicholson found that while in about one-quarter of cases yield gains can be made with grazing (thanks largely to the removal of disease and weeds), in most cases some yield was lost.

"The take-home message is that, in most cases, the most frequent result is that we lose a bit of grain yield as a result of grazing those crops," he says.

These findings were corroborated by the GRDC Grain and Graze 3 investment, which has included whole-farm modelling across 30 years and seven sites in southern and Western Australia.

Presenting an Inverleigh (Victoria) enterprise as a case study, Mr Nicholson showed overall benefit to the farm's bottom line of grazing grain was on average about two per cent.

This small benefit, however, could be increased with a strategic approach to management, he says.

Modelling involving early sowing showed gains were tripled, on average, from two to seven per cent through greater yield aided by more post-grazing recovery time.

More opportunities to graze crops with more stock led to healthier animals, producing more twins and more live lambs, providing a low risk opportunity to increase stocking rates and increase profits, Mr Nicolson says.

"So I think there is value in grazing crops in the whole farm system, but if you take a traditional approach where you just sow at your normal time there isn't a huge amount to be gained out if it," he says.

"But if you're willing to change your system a bit with early sowing, and start to think about how you manipulate your stocking rate pressure, particularly via encouraging more twin-bearing ewes, that's where you'll start to really push the dollars out and that's where the extra profit will be."

Liz Jamieson, Rimfire Resources

Liz Jamieson at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino

Liz Jamieson at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino

Human resource (HR) management was no one's favourite job but a proactive approach would pay for itself in improved profitability and workplace culture and fewer fines and claims, Liz Jamieson says.

Ms Jamieson, who works with agribusinesses designing workforce frameworks and policies, explained at the Updade how HR compliance and best practice could positively impact the recruitment, management and retention of skilled staff not to mention, ensuring businesses remained compliant with the law.

"Fair Work Australia is not going to accept any excuses of 'I didn't know', so you really have to be on top of this when you manage staff," she says.

In a "candidate-driven" market where demand for proficient, skilled workers was outstripping supply, employers need to work hard on good HR policy to attract and keep the best staff who would have a positive impact on the business, she says.

Ms Jamieson says employers need to understand their HR obligations across six key phases:

  • Recruitment: including position descriptions and compliant employment contracts
  • Remuneration: including award rates, keep and salary benchmarking
  • Keeping records: including original and compliant payslips, timesheets and rosters
  • Entitlements: including flexible work hours and parental leave policies that in an employee's market could set a business apart
  • Managing performance: including disciplining employees and incentive schemes
  • Termination: including knowing rights as employers and obligations to employees.

She says having robust HR policies and practices in each of these areas would not only ensure a business complied with the law, but would also help create harmonious, productive workplaces, while providing unambiguous, clear processes should things go wrong, she said. Keeping up to date with changes to legislation was also important.

"You've got to get your house in order," Ms Jamieson said. "You do comply with other laws in your business (so) why is employment law any different. It sounds dull, but it's really important," she says.

Katie McRobert, Australian Farm Institute general manager

Katie McRobert at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino

Katie McRobert at the Geelong GRDC Farm Business Update. PHOTO Melissa Marino

Social licence, says Katie McRobert, is a bit of a buzzword. But beneath the rhetoric lay an issue of real substance - community trust. And, she says, this can not be taken lightly.

To lose social licence or the public's trust could mean to lose your business, so it is vital agribusinesses are aware of the issues and on the front foot.

"You've got to look at the positives that will resonate with people," she says.

Establishing community trust was vital in an era where issues could be spotlighted by interest groups often through social media campaigns, blurring lines between opinion and fact for short term political gain.

These campaigns "where emotion trumps evidence" could influence the public and policy despite often having very little basis in fact. This was illustrated, for example, by policies on genetic modification and gene-edited crops settled "not on science, but on sentiment".

But, Ms McRobert says the best way to approach such issues to build trust and ultimately maintain social licence is not to attempt to trump emotion with evidence in arguments in the heat of the moment.

Instead, she says, look for common ground, shared values and big picture goals such as food security and a healthy environment "and then go backwards to explain how you are going to get there together".

Meat & Livestock Australia, for example, had a target to make its industry 'carbon neutral by 2030' a campaign that Ms McRobert says is not just a good example of "getting ahead of the game and being on the front foot" but also using language that resonated with the wider community.

"It's a goal that people can understand and a goal people can get behind," she says.

Opening new lines of communication is also valuable, she says.

Popular US podcaster Shark Farmer and YouTuber the Millennial Farmer, for example, offered a window into their operations, highlighting issues from different angles and demonstrating how social media could be harnessed for proactively building relationships with the broader community.

"It's about communicating differently about the shared goals and common purpose," she says.