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Farming down under by Andrew Palmer

Andrew PalmerIn February, for the second time in just over two years, I was fortunate enough to join the Fram Farmers co-operative on a trip to Australia, mainly around New South Wales. My top priorities for the trip were to get a better understanding of the environmental regulations that pig producers must adhere to and to look at how the Australian agricultural industry attracts and keeps staff.

There were some common issues affecting the farms we visited, the main one being lack of rainfall, meaning irrigation was being used more than usual and farmers and growers were having to apply for more ‘megs’ (megalitres) of water, and paying for it. Coupled with this were the rising energy costs for pumping the water to where it was needed, with quarterly bills in some cases increasing by over A$10,000.

For a country with so much sunshine, you expect to see lots of solar panels, but we hardly saw any. In the UK we’ve had incentives to invest in this technology, both privately and commercially, but it seems that for some reason, be it political or financial, this green energy hasn’t had the same uptake down under.

Arable farm visit

The large arable farm we visited was using technology to measure moisture levels and cropping patterns, meaning that with a shift to summer cropping, something not normally seen in Australia, the farm is able to spread the risk both out in the fields and on the farm’s business plan. By taking more control of the cropping/harvest windows and investing in new windrowing machinery, it means that crops, such as canola, don’t lose vital oil or yield potential, which can occur if you are reliant on contractors.

The family we met there have travelled the world, either on organised farm tours or through Nuffield scholarships, and it was through the Nuffield programme that a lot of our own visits came about, giving us access to businesses you wouldn’t normally see. Travelling the world and seeing different systems and technologies has certainly been a big influence on this family’s business direction and, in my opinion, is something everybody should experience during their working lifetime.

Employment

Agricultural wages in Australia tend to be above the national average; in some cases, a good stockperson can even earn more than a recently qualified vet. It’s important to note, however, that the cost of living is quite a bit higher than in the UK.

Staff recognition and reward was apparent on the farms we visited, with long-serving employees often being rewarded with additional paid leave.

As part of the conditions of their visas, overseas working travellers have to work on a farm for at least three months; this was evident on the dairy farms, pig farms and horse stud we visited. Some travellers stop for only a few months before moving on, while others stay longer and put down roots within communities.

RivaleaRivalea

Rivalea is a leading integrated Australian agri-food company based in the Riverina region of New South Wales.

The pig business is comprised of 25,000 sows, housed in five modules of 5,000 sows, with multiple buildings in each. It’s fully integrated, from the mill to the breeding and finishing units, and is also situated close to its own abattoir. A new biogas plant over one of the many slurry lagoons is providing benefits to the company and there are plans to install more.

In terms of staffing, Rivalea have training programmes which embrace progression, recognition and reward, with a clear direction in terms of career development. I found this aspect particularly interesting and it seemed to be well received by employees.

Outdoor pig farming

Outdoor pig farming in AustraliaWe also visited Matt Simmons’ 200-sow outdoor unit, whose grass sward paddocks are maintained by irrigation and rotation, this was a real eye-opener. In New South Wales they have no real need for dry sow accommodation as the winters average 20°C, so efforts are focused towards protecting the pigs from the heat and sun. Covered wallows and sprinklers within the dry sow shades all helped the pigs cope with the high temperatures and we can perhaps apply some of these techniques in the UK during the summer months. Farrowing arcs were present, but very little bedding was used, with sows often farrowing on bare ground.


The second part of Matt’s pig business is his rearing Outdoor pig farming in Australiaoperation, on a farm closer to Sydney and the specialist markets which he supplies; this location also helps them comply with environmental regulations – keeping under the 200-head site limit, before a more detailed and expensive permitting application is needed.

Suckling pig sales account for nearly 60% of the business, this helps with both turnover and compliance. Further product lines include the usual sausages, cured bacon and whole cuts, with some being sold directly to butchers, while others are sold at popular farmers’ markets.


Dairy farming

We also visited a couple of dairy farms during our trip. One such farm was a small, but expanding, 150-cow herd, the other was a 2,000-cow herd operating 24/7, milking three times per day. The owner of the smaller Dairy farm in Australiaunit is planning to expand his herd through a cow leasing company, this means he’ll keep the progeny and return the original cows at the end of the lease. This being said, he intends to sell up within 5–8 years and either retire on his savings or go in a different direction altogether!

The larger 2,000-cow herd produces specialist a2 Milk™ (a type of milk some people find easier to digest) and has invested in bull-calf rearing to change the perception of the industry and how it deals with bull calves. The owners are big believers of educating the public and offers tours of the farm and parlour on a regular basis. 

In summary

In summary, some of the key highlights and points of interest from the trip included:

  • There are clear differences between the way that Australian and UK agricultural industries are recognised and supported by both the public and the government
  • As you would expect, water is a valuable resource for all and is managed very closely. The industries seen as a priority for having good access to water are mining, power stations and vineyards, followed by agriculture. Land above sources supplying water for drinking is kept completely free of any type of industry to ensure nothing can contaminate the supply
  • While career development and progression are being considered more and more in the UK, staff recognition and reward for long service could be an area our industry might benefit from looking into further
  • Environmental regulations, particularly on outdoor units, were something we picked up on last time we visited Australia. However, the nutrient plan for a small (<200 head) outdoor unit is something that we didn’t see previously

All in all, this was an excellent trip. I learnt a lot about the Australian pig industry as well as picking up some ideas from the other enterprises we visited. If you’d like to know more about anything in particular, get in touch, or come along to one of the pig clubs I run in the East of England.

Tel: 07976 443454

Email: Andrew.Palmer@ahdb.org.uk


By AHDB Pork at 28 Mar 2018, 14:15 PM

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