Seeking a bullish solution

01:43, Jan 31 2009
KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Angus Mabin uses a simple approach on his farm near Waipukurau in Hawke's Bay - he only has bulls and they are only fed grass.

Simplicity is central Hawke's Bay farmer Angus Mabin's watchword. He runs a simple farming system, running only bulls on the 1000 hectares (2500 acres) he and wife Esther farm near Waipukurau.

The bulls are fed only grass - no supplements or crops. And he has a simple, no-nonsense explanation of it all - he's turning grass into meat.

So uncomplicated and undemanding is the work moving the bulls around the farm that he had to admit, after 20 years of it, that he was getting bored.

"I asked myself, am I ready to give up the gumboots and the motorbike?" he muses. "And I came to the conclusion that, yes, some off-farm stimulation would be good for me."

So, last year, when New Zealand's biggest meat company, the Dunedin-based cooperative PPCS, asked him to accept appointment as a director, he didn't hesitate.

And when elections come up later this year, he'll be asking farmers for their vote.

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But for a man who likes the simple life, it can have its frustrations, not the least of which is the difficulty of answering farmers' queries about why lamb prices are so low.

"I've been asked to give them `something to hang on to' as we go through tough times, but it's not easy," he says.

"You can talk about allowing time for the over-supply from the Australian drought to pass through the markets, then there's the same problem from drought in America, and, of course, we all hope exchange rates will fall, though I'm not holding my breath.

"Basically, there's no silver bullet. Throwing money into marketing will not yield good returns if too many players are undermining each other in the marketplace while competing furiously in the paddock for stock. In that scenario, the only winners are the powerful British supermarkets."

A move to merge with fellow meat cooperative Alliance failed last year and the sprawling PPCS has turned its gaze inward.

It has launched Project Right-Size, which it describes as matching its processing capacity with stock throughput.

Already, two small plants have closed and there is speculation that more will follow, particularly in the stock-starved Hawke's Bay.

Mr Mabin can't reveal details but says the result will be a "much more efficient entity" and that the benefits will flow back to farmers.

"Farmers want to be proud of the company they own and the building blocks are being put in place to create that," he says.

He was appointed to the board after three years on PPCS's North Island supplier council, set up in the wake of the takeover of local meat company Richmond.

He says PPCS is a different company from the one that fought a long and bitter battle for Richmond.

A new chairman and a new chief executive have taken the board and management down a more "inclusive" line, becoming consultative and open, listening more to the opinions and concerns of suppliers.

It is devolving more responsibility to regional management, is making sure its pricing is more transparent and has taken a lead with new procurement initiatives.

A deal with high-performance lamb producer Rissington Breedline to supply British high-end retailer Marks & Spencer with quality product is an indication of where the industry's future lies.

"I can see a subtle and detectable change as farmers respond to the new openness," he says.

Crucial to this in the North Island is the need to strengthen the level of confidence and trust between the company, its field representatives and farmer suppliers.

"The more we know and understand each other's business, the more we will prosper in the good times and the better we will battle our way through the bad. We must act as a team."

Mr Mabin, 48, took over the family farm in the mid 80s, a time of great turmoil in the meat industry.

When the subsidies that had cocooned the sheep industry were removed he made the radical decision to sell all his sheep and go into bulls.

 "It was a no-brainer," he says. "I knew that half my sheep income came from the subsidy and I was going to lose that. Still, a lot of people said I was mad."

He kept some deer and for the next 10 years velvet prices underpinned finances when beef prices fell. His next big move came in the mid-90s.

Spurred by a slump in beef income, he looked for ways to lift his performance.

So he visited Rangitikei farmer Harry Wier, who had developed a method of farming bulls more intensively, moving them around a circuit of small paddocks.

Mr Wier explained that the key to hisTechnoGrazing system was to find the "sweet spot between maximising the intake and minimising the waste", where the animal's appetite was perked up by the move to the next paddock but at the same time ensuring it had eaten everything in the paddock it was leaving.

Mr Mabin says he was an instant convert. "The light came on within five minutes of walking in the door. Seeing was believing; it was as simple as that."

He decided to sell his deer, moving from high-value stags to low-value bulls, and installed the TechnoGrazing system's custom-made electric-fencing equipment and water reticulation.

The result was a lift in productivity, a fall in on-farm costs and a reduction in animal health problems. And, most importantly, profitability returned.

The system has stayed virtually unchanged for 10 years. The bulls are bought as yearlings in spring and buying continues regularly during summer with about two-thirds on the farm by the end of February. The rest arrive in autumn, after the summer dry.

The winter weather is normally kind enough to allow steady grass growth and by late October the first of the bulls are ready for slaughter.

However, sometimes droughts force a change. Last year, the slowdown in grass growth could be plainly seen in the small paddocks lying ahead for the bulls and Mr Mabin was forced to reduce numbers.

He was lucky to find the market still holding and managed to avoid losing money. He slowed down the rotation to give the pastures longer recovery time.

In July, when the rain finally fell, he resumed buying, but the bulls were light and now, when it is time to kill them, weights are low and income is down. Dry weather returned during the last three months of the year and again growth rates dropped.

Now, Mr Mabin says "it's been a battle."

"Eighteen months of difficult weather mean we have to keep right on top of costs at a time when they are rising rapidly. Dealing with the double whammy of poor prices and bad growing conditions tests one's resolve. This is a relatively low-cost production system but I just have to keep looking for ways to make it more efficient."

He remains a big fan of the TechnoGrazing system. "It's a really, really simple way of farming," he says.

"The beauty of it is that you can tell at a glance, by what the bulls are leaving behind when they move every second day, how well the pasture is growing. I've got to know it so well now that it is in my bones."

And the bulls add entertainment. "They're like silly little boys. They fight, they can be hard on fences and gates, they dig holes - there's always something to be mended.

"But they can also be comedians, the way they sidle up to you and try to call your bluff, the way they paw the ground and bellow - there's never a dull moment.

"They become like pets and I have very mixed feelings when it's time for them to leave the farm."

The Dominion Post