How to do sustainability on a beef farm

OPINION by beef consultant Dr Phil Holmes

Crossing the barrier into a world of true, long-term comprehensive sustainability with a farm business is not easy, but it can be done.

The barrier is entirely mental. There is no rocket science; it is all about how committed you are to learning how to do it and what the word ‘sustainability’ really means.

If having a multi-generational farm business is your objective, the business absolutely must be sustainable, otherwise the kids will be handed a sentence rather than an asset.

A major advance was made in 2005 with respect to the thinking on sustainable Australian agriculture, when various forms of capital were described by Chris Cocklin and Jacqui Dibden.

Two of those forms of capital are arguably more important, because they are under the direct control of management and, unless they are sustainable, the other forms are largely rendered irrelevant on a national scale.

Those two forms are ‘natural’ (the health of the farm environment at paddock level), and ‘produced’ (the financial health of the farm business as a result of how well it is managed).

Natural and produced capital are critical because they both have the inherent capacity to bankrupt an agricultural business if mismanaged, particularly a grazing business.

Arguably, the path to bankruptcy through business mismanagement is shorter, and for no other reason than this - the financial sustainability of the business should be given primacy. 

This is a complex issue when considering the sustainability of natural and produced capital because the two are intimately linked, especially in rangeland pastoral businesses.

In fact, the aim to achieve sustainability in both concurrently must often deal with mutually exclusive antagonism, particularly during drought.

I learned this lesson with my PhD study which asked the question of whether concurrent environmental and financial sustainability is possible in a farm business.

Yes it is, subject to a change in thinking, which unfortunately is not happening enough in Australian farm businesses.

Beef consultants Dr Phil Holmes and Ian McLean.

In a recent large-scale study, Ian McLean and I employed a sustainability approach to examine the status of the Australian beef industry at the producer level. 

The results of this study are published in The Australian Beef Report. Twelve years of historical data were used from every beef producing region in Australia.

To be financially sustainable in the long term, an Australian beef business needs to answer the following questions favourably:

Based on these criteria, the majority of family-owned Australian beef businesses are not currently financially sustainable. Although there are a range of factors causing this, including lack of operating scale, the most important operational factor is the poor productive capacity of the beef herds, and hence their income earning potential.

Although there are regional differences in average herd productivity, indicating that landscape productivity plays a part, most herds in all regions perform well below the potential shown by the minority of highly productive herds in those same regions.

Sustainability, across the board is achieved by what goes on inside the head of the owner/manager, more than anything else.

Too hard you say, the criteria are too tough! Possibly so, but what would you change? Go through the list and add or edit as you see fit to create your own sustainability criteria to work towards.

In The Australian Beef Report, we broadly classified the Australian beef operating environment into either rangelands or more intensive regions and we laid out the principles pertaining to both.

It is important to mention the issue of productivity. For a beef business to be sustainable across all fronts in the long-term, there needs to be a strong focus on productivity.

Land, labour and livestock all need to be highly productive and here is a good example of the interactions that take place.

You can have the best genetics and management available to potentially provide superb livestock productivity, but if the landscapes being grazed are degraded, that potential will never be achieved.

Conversely, you may be grazing highly productive landscapes with very ordinary livestock which are poorly managed. Comprehensive sustainability in a commercial beef business mandates a multi-disciplinary approach.

This multi-disciplinary approach, and overall achievement of sustainability, will require significant intellectual capital across the industry.

There is lots of commentary on the need for financial capital in the industry, and we address this in the report, however I think the industry needs to discuss the need for intellectual capital and better acknowledge the intellectual capital that is in the industry.

Particularly amongst those producers who are sustainable, and are quietly going about their thing.

All of these issues have been identified and comprehensively discussed in The Australian Beef Report. I remain optimistic that industry sustainability can be improved, through individual producers rising to the challenge.

Both Ian and I firmly believe that the report is an essential first step to producing a truly sustainable beef business. 

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