Monday, 16 April 2012

Fresh Eyes

I have a theory that inheriting a farm or ranch is bad for the progress of the industry. Is this envy, because I'm not in line to take over a family business? Subconsciously, perhaps, but instead I prefer to think my theory has developed as I've made the following observations.

I have noticed that newcomers to farming take nothing at face value. They question everything and have no preconceptions about how and why things are done in a certain way. New Zealand agriculture is, I believe, an example of this on a national scale. In NZ, it is common to encourage new entrants into the industry, share farming in the dairy sector being a prime example. I am sure it is as a consequence of this that farming over there is much more innovative than here in the UK. We've copied a lot of their ideas from rotational grazing to the use of plate meters and the building of a grass wedge.

Conversely, inheriting a farm often means also inheriting the ideas and practices of the previous generation, especially when the 'inheritance' takes 30+ years to be fully completed and during this period the parents and grandparents are still, to a greater or lesser extent, involved and in control. Indeed, it is not unusual for a farmer to only become the decision maker on the demise of his parents, and he or she is often in their fifties, or older. They want a few years in charge before handing over the reins, consequently their children are in their fifties or older before they take charge, and so on and so on..... A fifty year old is likely to be a better businessman than a twenty year old but is also likely to be more conservative, therefore less willing to innovate and change his paradigms.

This is the reason I believe inheriting a farm is often bad for the progress of the industry.

George Brizuela-Kirk inherited a farm, a 1,000ha ranch in Paraguay. However, in his case, he didn't inherit the practices (good and bad) of his father. Instead, following graduation in Agriculture and Economics, he took himself off to Argentina and Australia to experience farming and life there. Further travels followed, he moved to the UK, completed an MBA and worked for various banks and financial institutions.

It was the death of his father that brought him back to Paraguay. He inherited one of his Father's ranches and a thousand head of cattle but was unencumbered by any historic practices. Indeed, he'd seen a wide variety of farming methods during his travels and also had an excellent financial and analytical take on business as a result of his subsequent career.

George amongst his herd of predominantly bos indicus cows, with a smattering of bos taurus blood. They were due to stay in this paddock for another four days before moving on. The amount of grass cover will improve as George continues to rotate and rest paddocks

Straight away, he could see the business had to change. Costs were too high with a labour force of eight people, produce was being taken and sold behind his back and environmentally the farm had been raped - soils were hungry and forage production was low.

Within a few months, George has started to turn things around. His workforce is now down to two men. He has subdivided the farm and has moved from set stocking to a rotational grazing system which is already starting to produce more grass. He also innovates, for example they have started collecting small coconuts - more the size of walnuts from this particular variety of palm tree - and grinding them down as a free source of high oil, protein rich feed for his fattening cattle. He knows of nobody else who does such a thing.

Milling coconuts for cattle feed. George hasn't yet had the feed analysed but so far the livestock weight gains seem good and the cattle have suffered no deleterious effects. From its texture it's easy to see it's high in oil and I'm intrigued to know what the analysis is.

As the farm is starting to grow more grass, George is focussing on increasing stocking rates. He's currently at 1 livestock unit per hectare, already considered above average for his region of Paraguay. His belief is, with the right grassland management, he will reach 4 LU's per hectare. This will be done solely through the use of cattle as a management tool, with no reseeding or additional costs incurred.

Currently, the farm is divided into 13 main paddocks (with a couple of these subdivided further). The cattle are on a 60-day rotation and looked in good condition at the end of a long drought and for the start of their winter period. Given that George has only been practicing this method of grazing since October last year, the progress he has made is remarkable.

However, we debated for some time which field the cattle should go into next. The dilemma was as follows:

The first field available had previously run out of drinking water during the drought, consequently the cattle hardly grazed it before they moved on to a new pasture. Because it was hardly touched, this field has a good quantity of grass in there, and it's all still very leafy and growing well. It had been rested, by default, for longer than any other field on the ranch.

The alternative field has much less grass on it. The green area wasn't too high and as a consequence I suspect a lot of the available sunlight was not being captured and turned into dry matter. It was only growing slowly because it hadn't yet got the leaf area to allow it to speed up growth, it was still in the early stages of the regrowth cycle.

One other factor to bear in mind: George estimated that there was probably another month to go before the ranch's grasses entered their winter dormancy period.

Which field would you graze?

George's instinct was to put the cattle into the field with the most grass. This would keep them occupied for up to a fortnight, allowing the second field, with much less ground cover, time to regrow.

I argued that instead he should put the cattle into the second paddock, the one with less grass. My reasoning was that the first field, with the greatest green area, was much more efficient at converting sunlight into dry matter. To make a financial analogy, you could say it was like having £140,000 deposited in a bank account which paid interest at 20%. The second field, with lower grass cover, was the equivalent of having £70,000 deposited in a bank account earning 4% interest.

By leaving the field earning you the greatest amount of interest/dry matter, the total growth on the farm will be maximised, even if the cattle have to be kept on a tight ration for a short period.

What that additional growth also demonstrated to me is that there is still huge scope for George to improve rest periods, by increasing stock density and having fewer groups of cattle, and that the rewards for achieving this are enormous.

Fortunately George, looking at the problem with fresh eyes, recognises this and despite the huge gains achieved in just over half a year, knows there is still a lot more to do. He has a clear vision of the future and, unencumbered with traditional practices, is drawing up his own road map to decide how to get there.

His inheritance looks to be in safe hands and I can't wait to return in a few years' time to see how much more progress George has made.

1 comment:

  1. therefore inheriting a farm is not a bad thing for farming .... it's who inherits it is the bad thing, Is that it George?