Theres strength in numbers when raising revenues

13 July 2001

Theres strength in numbers when raising revenues

By Hannah Velten

PRODUCERS working together to find solutions to local management and marketing problems during the foot-and-mouth lull will be best placed to take financial advantage when farming reverts to full throttle.

Iain Riddell, SACs senior agricultural adviser, says monitor farms and producer discussion groups will both have a role in improving physical and financial performance through collective learning and measuring performance.

He expresses his views after a Farmers Club Charitable Trust-funded trip to New Zealand to study such farms and groups. "The UK has fallen behind in technical efficiency in the past 3-4 years because of reduced labour on farms and increased focus on subsidy related issues and record-keeping," says Mr Riddell.

Fewer producers weigh cattle or monitor grass height, which means they do not have baseline performance figures to show how they are performing and this limits technical improvement, he says.

Mr Riddells view is supported by the experience of MLC Cymru manager Gwyn Howells.

Based on the New Zealand model of monitor farms, the Welsh Sheep Strategy set up three Technology Interaction Resource (TIR) farms in May 1999 and two more last year, says Mr Howells.

About 20 producers are attached to each TIR farm, which is studied for 3-4 years. The group meets every 2-3 months to look at the farm from a business perspective and develop a plan to improve its performance.

A facilitator, chosen by the TIR producer, and other advisers are on hand to offer specialist advice and monitor any changes made on farm. Another 500 producers receive newsletters and information is passed on at TIR farm open days.

"The process of sharing ideas, listening to advice and seeing improvements on the TIR farm means local producers are motivated to find solutions to their own farm problems and adopt alternative practices to boost returns," says Mr Howells.

Derek Morgan, owner of TIR farm Safn y Coed, Llangurig, Powys, says he has learned from producers and advisers discussing his farm management. "Having the groups support and advice gave me the confidence to cut down on ewe numbers, something which I had been thinking about.

"I sold fewer lambs last year, but returns were similar to the previous year because of shared ideas to improve fertiliser management, grass mixes in leys, use better rams and do faecal egg counts."

As part of the monitoring programme, the group moved away from relying on gross margins to working out cost/kg for lamb production. "This was an eye opener and really focused the mind. The figure gave us a benchmark, so we could compare each others systems and discuss the reasons for differences."

Group buying of dog food and fertilisers was also organised and ideas put forward for a locally branded marketing co-operative. But F&M has halted all open days and farm visits.

"Although members still talk on the telephone, it is not the same as sitting down and looking over facts and figures or walking around the farm," says Mr Morgan.

The most cost-effective forum for collective learning is through discussion groups, says Mr Riddell. "Monitor farms work best on a national level to provide information on a network of farms across a large area, but they have to be substantially funded."

In the Scottish borders, Mr Riddell is involved with 75 members of two suckler discussion groups which meet three or four times a year.

"These informal groups focus on finding solutions to topical, local issues. They are looking into a replacement heifer co-operative to cope with local shortages caused by F&M, with the possibility of creating a fully integrated beef production system."

Using maternal Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), five producers would breed quality suckler herd replacements with known disease status for 10 suckler herd units. Bull calves would go straight to the finishing unit. The commercial suckler units would use terminal sires on heifers to produce uniform calves for the finishing unit, which would have the benefits of scale to reduce feed, marketing and performance recording costs.

Local producers meeting and sharing ideas to plan action against potential problems and increase performance is the future of UK farming, says Mr Riddell. "New Zealand producers believe that if they are not attending meetings off-farm, they are making no progress." &#42

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