Learning from others key to Action Group success

// Research

Farmers involved in a Red Meat Profit Partnership Action Group in the Bay of Plenty are finding that learning from others is paying real dividends.

Brad Strange

“We’ve got a very good Action Group,” says Bay of Plenty farmer Brad Strange. “I take something away from all the expert speakers but learning from other members of the group has been the strongest aspect for me.

“We’ve got a mix of all ages and people doing different things, we have some very knowledgeable members and we are constantly interacting. I’ve made quite a few changes and decisions as a result of the group and am already seeing some benefits.”

The Central Bay of Plenty group made up of eight farm businesses, all in the greater Kaituna catchment, was launched 18 months ago. Members decided they wanted to focus on a range of issues – learning, outcome, including livestock performance, business planning and environment.

Formation of the group was initiated by its facilitator, environmental consultant Warwick Murray. Warwick, who has an AgCom degree from Lincoln University and a Masters from Canterbury University, spent 20 years working for DoC, including managing their policy arm in Auckland and farming operations in the Hauraki Gulf, and then 10 years as general manager of land management for Bay of Plenty Regional Council. Much of that work was focused on working with farmers to support them around environmental performance and water quality issues.

“I was very excited when I heard about the Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) Action Groups,” says Warwick. “By and large, farmers want to do the right thing around the environment and this is one scheme that really provides the support to help them to do that.”

Warwick contacted Te Puke farmer Rick Powdrell, who has steadily transformed his Emerald Hills farm into a diverse drystock operation, with a strong environmental focus.

“Rick, who also became a member of the group, called around farm businesses he thought might be interested,” says Warwick. “It took quite a lot of work to get the group up and running, but once we did, I was surprised how keen they all were to get on the front foot with the environmental issue.

“About two thirds of them have sheep and beef and the rest have beef and quite a few do dairy support too. With them all being in the Kaituna catchment, which is under some risk from a water quality perspective, I thought they might be a little defensive, but they really want to learn more about what they can do to get moving on it.”

Brad farms sheep and beef, with some dairy support, over 166 ha at Paengaroa, having purchased the property about two years ago with his wife Rachel and mother Robyn.

“I’m all for lifelong learning, I attend every field day and take as much as I can from them, so this seemed a very good opportunity,” he says.

“We discussed at our first meeting what we wanted our main focuses to be. I was particularly interested in environmental planning as I studied environmental management at BOP Polytechnic & AUT before I decided to take up a career in farming. Warwick does a great job organising us and keeping us on track, which is really important.”

Most of the Action Group meetings have been held on members’ farms, as well as the group undertaking field trips.

“In the environment space, we have had two sessions with expert speakers,” says Warwick. “Thomas Grant, a land management officer from the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (BOPRC) and Patrick de Jong from Interpine in Rotorua, came to talk about what is coming from a water quality point of view, including what the council is doing to try to reduce sedimentation and improve water quality, and about the opportunities around planting, in the carbon space, and the One Billion Trees programme.

“The group got quite a lot out of that I think, including some degree of confidence that they have options. Farmers are facing significant challenges and need information to understand both the challenges and the opportunities. Getting better understanding around what is going to happen and what your input is likely to be is good for morale and peace of mind.

“Thomas and Patrick also came along to a site visit we did to Brad’s farm. It’s classic deeply incised volcanic ash country that runs towards Little Waihi, with deep-sided gullies and easy tops. Brad was trying to decide what to do with the steep gullies, which are classic run-offs for sediment. What really impressed me was how forthcoming the group was with inputs and advice and questioning Brad’s thinking, in positive ways.”

Brad says this expert input has been vital in helping decide a planting plan for his steep sidlings, which he sees having environmental and business benefits.

“We have steep sidlings and waterway issues. We wanted to plant and were looking at lots of different options. It was interesting when I heard Patrick talk about the 30 per cent canopy cover planting and exotic hardwoods. I knew you got paid the most for exotic hardwoods, but I was unaware of the 30 per cent canopy cover planting.

“We looked into it further and decided we would order our first lot of plants, Chinese Elms and Trident Maples. I like the fact these will only grow to around 10 meters but grow just about as wide as they are high. They handle steep slopes, wind and hopefully they will hold the sidlings well and address erosion issues. As long as the planting is under 100 ha, you can claim the same amount as for planting the sidlings completely, this means we can still graze under them and we will graze them with a lighter class of stock.  So, in profitability and environmental terms, it ticked every box for us.

“We are very excited and so is Thomas Grant from the regional council because it is something that hasn’t been done before with these species of plants. Thomas has been extremely helpful in helping us along the way, not only with this but with our entire environmental plan.”

Warwick and the group decided to split RMPP’s Taking Ownership of Your Financials workshop over three sessions. Scott Neeley, Senior Relationship Manager with ANZ in Tauranga, took two sessions to cover the course work and Warwick led a separate session focused on helping the group get their Action Plans and KPIs in place. Te Puke accountant Trudy Ballentine also took a separate session that covered succession planning and business planning.

“That was very much tied up with the group’s business planning focus,” says Warwick. “They found it very useful. For some, it was the first time they had sat down and really played with the numbers and they got to see the power of a KPI and how useful it can be.

“We have also had a combination of field days and discussions around productivity, particularly around positive utilisation. Consultant Duncan Walker from Perrin Ag, did a session on farm system analysis, including running different scenarios for one of the group member’s farms through Farmax. We went together to a Beef + Lamb New Zealand event with agronomist Tom Fraser, talking about pasture utilisation, and matching feed demand with supply.

“We also visited Wharenui Station in the Rotorua basin to look at cropping and Duncan came to that too. That was very interesting for the group. Cropping works well for the station given their farm system but it raised awareness for the group members of the very careful management needed and the substantial risk around a failed crop.

“We did a site visit to John Ford’s farm at Rotorua; John, Catherine and their team won the Ballance Farm Environment Award in 2015. They run an intensive bull-fattening operation, along with some sheep run on their steep country, and John really understands the value of data and every aspect of his farm; he can put a number on everything.

“The group loved that. They saw the real value and the power of having real information about what is going on, on your farm. That’s something the farming industry could do a lot better. We are going to do further sessions looking at members’ farming systems and how each farm can tweak its systems – and how to apply these metrics.”

Brad says that, as well as now having a financially-viable environmental plan in place, membership of the group has also resulted in other positive changes which he believes will ultimately benefit his farm business.

“I’ve made a lot of little changes. For instance, one of our member businesses just do bull calf rearing and they are very good at it. I hadn’t reared calves before and doing it well is more complicated than you might think, but I have learned a lot from them so now I rear a handful each year.

“I had also been thinking for a while about deferred grazing but hadn’t had a crack at it. Another member of our group, Brian Thomas, has done it in the past and talking to him gave me the confidence to give it a try. I deferred 25 ha over late spring and summer which allowed the grass to reseed sidlings, including all erosion areas. I believe that giving the pasture a rest, results in longer residuals, deeper root systems, a lot more clover, improves worm numbers and in general improves the soil biology. It was very successful and that’s something I’ll do rotationally round the farm now, a different section every year.”

Warwick says it is very satisfying to see the extent of valuable peer to peer learning going on.

“I think the real learning is in the conversations the Action Group environment enables you to have. Both among themselves and with the expert speakers. It isn’t just what the experts have to say, it is the conversations group members are having with the experts, the questions they feel confident to ask in the group environment and the discussions that come from that. All the people we have had in have been very good at providing the input where needed, in terms of facts and figures and providing their view when asked but they don’t ‘preach’.“