Friday, April 19, 2024

Beef + Lamb gets back to better basics 

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Organisation is laying the groundwork for better times ahead on sheep and beef farms, says Allan Barber.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

When times are as tough as they are right now, the work done by Beef + Lamb New Zealand on behalf of sheep and beef farmers assumes even greater importance, even though it cannot make an immediate difference to market returns. 

The representative organisation has of necessity spent a great deal of time and resources over recent years on tackling proposed government regulations, reaching its peak with the ill-fated He Waka Eke Noa partnership, which ultimately failed to arrive at an acceptable position on greenhouse gas emissions with the previous government. 

Other key areas of regulation that require continuing input are national freshwater rules including Freshwater Farm Plans, sediment run-off and stock exclusion.

Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ) CEO Sam McIvor says farmers could never understand why the government was determined to tax them for their on-farm emissions when the process appeared to be driven more by public relations than by scientific rigour. 

McIvor’s interpretation of farmer’s wishes is for policy that is science-based, practical and enduring, resulting in a regulatory regime that enables a viable business model. 

It is noteworthy that other countries, such as the Netherlands, have walked back from implementing some of their more extreme agriculture policies, which would have had a serious impact on their ability to produce food, a key requirement of the Paris Accord.

McIvor urges the government to set scientifically valid targets and trust farmers to make the changes necessary to their achievement. BLNZ will support its levy payers with agreeing targets and facilitating groups and forums like community catchment groups to adopt the necessary programmes. 

The farmer organisation is determined to prioritise the issues that affect farm profitability, recognising these will vary according to region, and feedback from farmers will enable a decision about where to concentrate its efforts. 

In brief, better policy development will enable more effective outcomes.

BLNZ’s trade policy work in support of trade agreement negotiations will continue to be a very important aspect of its work on behalf of farmers, although the decreasing number of free trade agreements  available mean it becomes more difficult to achieve dramatic results. The three large opportunities are to agree FTAs with the United States, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council, none of which will be quick or easy, but there remains plenty of scope for overcoming non-tariff barriers with existing trading partners. These often prove to be equally valuable areas of gain.

For the 2024 year, BLNZ proposes to focus more of its efforts behind the farm gate, where there is greater potential for increasing productivity and profitability. 

McIvor says there is a four-step process for the farmer in achieving these improvements – gaining awareness of the issue, building knowledge (often in workshops or small groups), having the confidence to change, and lastly making the change successfully, with either expert help or peer support. 

This will occur in various ways, through field days, small workshops, regional groups, and, in a back-to-the-future strategy, an increase in the number of Monitor Farms. 

Over the next month BLNZ intends to pull together regional panels that will identify the half-dozen key opportunities and build a strategy to tackle them.

The latest BLNZ annual report cites its three key priorities as supporting farming excellence, championing the sector, and increasing international returns. 

These address the essential areas of research and innovation, reputation and policy development, and the creation of market opportunities, building consumer preference and dismantling trade barriers. 

There is little doubt these priorities cover the main needs of farmers, although not all of them will be seen as equally important or relevant to every farmer.

After several years of fighting the government on policy and regulations and launching the Taste Pure Nature marketing programme, this will be the year for an increased focus behind the farm gate, a focus on improving productivity and profitability when farmer bottom lines are drastically constrained by a sluggish global economy, higher costs, and competition on sheepmeat from Australia.

McIvor cited programmes (mostly carried out in conjunction with industry partners) like condition scoring to improve the scanning rate, facial eczema solutions, sustainable internal parasite management, farm system optimisation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Advancing Agyields data to support forage and crop decision making, low methane emitting Cool Sheep, the Hill Country Futures programme and the Catch the Rain retention project. 

A graphic example of sector improvement has been the increase in the lambing rate to 130% over the past five years, but a 30% cost increase over the same period means the rate needs to rise further towards a new target of 150%.

Past BLNZ chair James Parsons agrees there needs to be a rebalancing towards on farm extension and welcomes suggestions that Monitor Farms and similar models will again become more prominent in delivering productivity gains. 

On his Northland farm, he has found virtual fencing for beef cattle to be a game-changer, enabling effective pasture utilisation on hill country to increase to 80%. Although this may not be viable for sheep farming in the short term, he sees this as an area for BLNZ to facilitate as part of its extension work.

In Parsons’ opinion, many farmers find new systems too complex to get their heads round, especially when regulatory and financial pressures produce a mental overload. Technology is very important to improving productivity and he believes BLNZ is best placed and qualified to create the right environment for its adoption by providing leadership and advice. 

Without the representative body he is convinced the sector would be leaderless and unable or unwilling to invest in its future prosperity.  

Sector profitability may not be good at present, but this is invariably cyclical and we can expect better times ahead. It is important farmers are well placed to benefit from an upturn when it comes and BLNZ will be a critical factor in helping them to take full advantage of it.

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