David and Sarah Smith

Planning to succeed

Nothing is left to chance in David and Sarah Smith's sheep and beef farming business.

The Otago couple has been on a trajectory of business and personal growth and environmental improvement for some years, but it was their involvement in ANZCO Foods' Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) programme that gave them the impetus to lift productivity and profitability to another level.

The couple, who farm 1450ha of rolling to steep hill country near Waikouaiti, joined the programme in 2015. One of a group of five other farm businesses, they started out by identifying the key focus areas in their business. These were soil fertility, improving the productivity of their ewe flock and fine-tuning their bull-beef finishing systems.

At the same time, they developed their business goals and critical success factors.

In addressing all three focus areas, they used advisors and experts made available to them through the RMPP programme to analyse the cost-benefits of various management options and execute the appropriate changes.

Keen to gain a greater understanding of their soil structure and properties, they attended workshops before undertaking full-farm soil tests to establish a fertility baseline. They took 65 samples at a cost of $3000, but the resulting saving in fertiliser costs were around $50,000.

This, says David, was because fertility was better than they thought and this allowed them to be more strategic with their fertiliser applications.

With the aim of lifting the productivity and profitability of their sheep operation, the couple changed genetics and has been buying in their 1150 Romdale ewe lamb replacements. All of their 4200 ewes are put to a terminal sire.

Sarah and David are now weighing and body condition scoring their ewes five times a year and working with their vet to draw up an annual animal health plan.

Farm consultant Simon Glennie has run Farmax models to determine which pastures best meet their feed demand at different times of the year.

Sarah says they toyed with the idea of selling all their lambs store instead of finishing them, but the Farmax models were able to show them the impact this policy would have on the rest of the business and the difference it would make to their bottom line.

"It was a really valuable process to go through."

By focusing on doing the basics well – subdivision, water systems and strategic feeding at critical times – the couple has increased their average lamb carcass weight by one kilogram to 18.6kg and moved their average kill date forward by three weeks.

The couple took a similarly analytical approach when putting their 450-strong bull beef operation under the spotlight. A trial of calf-rearing, in combination with Farmax modelling, showed that the Smiths would be better off buying 15 month bulls at 400kg in autumn. They use EID to monitor and measure growth rates at key times through the year.

The couple has investigated setting up a techno-system but has decided against it at this stage.

"We believe we would get more benefit continuing to subdivide the whole farm rather than concentrating on a small portion of it," says Sarah.

They credit their RMPP programme for giving them the contacts, avenues to investigate, support and advice when working through the decision-making process around setting up a techno-system.

Monitoring and measuring

Sarah, who along with a Bachelor of Commerce has a Diploma in Agribusiness Management, has completed an Agriwomen Development Trust Understanding Your Farm Business programme, which has been instrumental in setting up and using financial and farm data management tools such as Cashmanager and FarmIQ.

FarmIQ has enabled the farm team to record data such as animal health treatments, fertiliser applications, pasture covers mob movements and stock weights on their phones. Sarah can also create farm management plans and events, and these are sent directly to phones as reminders.

This farm data underpins the couple's decision-making and allows them to make timely and informed management decisions.

"Through all our recording and monitoring we can see if we are going off target and why, then and act quickly to make the right changes," says Sarah.

The pair say one of the highlights of being involved in the RMPP programme is having the opportunity to visit some top-performing operations. These have highlighted the importance of doing the basics really well, knowing your business inside out and how critical timing is. A recent trip provided the catalyst to re-assess where they were at, where they had come from and where they wanted to go.

They broke their farming business down into sections and carried out a SWOT analysis on each.

"This really helped us clarify our goals and priorities," says Sarah.

They have also set up an advisory team around them, having identified the people they wanted to be part of their business. The meetings they have had with this team has generated valuable discussion. But most importantly the couple has a clear plan in place to reach their goals and objectives.