Thursday, 23 May 2024 11:55

Viability of farming questioned

Written by  Peter Burke
Toby Williams believes mustering with a drone would not work on his farm. Toby Williams believes mustering with a drone would not work on his farm.

People are starting to question the viability of sheep and beef farming as profitability in that sector falls to one of its all-time lows, according to Federated Farmers board member and Gisborne sheep and beef farm, Toby Williams.

He's heard that even some of the better farmers in his district are far from optimistic about the future of the sector and saying they may be better selling up and moving to town.

He says when it comes to succession planning for future generations, farmers are worried about passing on debt or have fears that they may even fail to make the business profitable in the future.

Williams compares the state of sheep and beef farming now to what it was like in the 1980s when massive change took place.

"In the '80s we had the ability to make our farms a lot more efficient. We went from 90% lambing to 130% over 20 years, but today we don't have the opportunity to go from 130% to 160%, so we need to find ways on-farm of being more efficient," he told Rural News.

He says for him, apart from interest payments, labour is his biggest bill, so he's tried to cut his labour costs - not by cutting staff wages, but by taking less money out himself.

He says as a business owner he triages what needs to be paid and number one is the bank, because if he doesn't pay them he may lose the farm.

Paying staff is number two on this list and while there might be an option to cut staff and save money in the short term, repairs and maintenance will not get done so long term the bill will be higher. The third priority is animal health and welfare and that includes shearing, even though wool returns are but low.

"You must focus on the big things and put off spending on other things. Fertiliser is out the window: nice to have and in many cases a need to have. But paying the bank is more important than putting fertiliser on and you can survive for a short time by doing this," he says.

Dairy Support an Option

Toby Williams says sheep and beef farmers must look at diversification options, which may be easier for some than others.

He says for those in the Horowhenua, Waikato and Canterbury, dairy support may be an alternative to sheep farming.

Toby Williams 2 FBTW

Gisborne sheep and beef farmer, Toby Williams says even some of the better farmers in his district are far from optimistic about the future of the sector.

A move towards changing the mix to more cattle has been talked about but this has pros and cons and the talk is that there will not be a huge move in this direction. Williams says beef is a good option because of its versatility - especially in the hamburger market and with growing demand for beef in Asia.

Technology is being talked up as a pathway to greater efficiency on farms and NZ farmers have a proud history of being early adopters of this. But as Williams and other farming leaders have pointed out, technology should only be invested in if it produces tangible benefits and fits with the nature of the property.

Drones for use in musterin is a classic example of this and one that would be a wast of time and money, he says.

"It might be okay in, say, the Wairarapa, but here in Whangara, we have blind country and huge paddocks, so mustering with a drone would not work for me. Anyway, why would I want to be out musteng with a drone when I can go out there with my dogs? That's a cool part of this job," he says.

Williams also points out that by mustering on foot, you get a feel for what's going on with the land and the stock and instantly pick up things such a worm challenge or the state of the covers. He says technology can help, but there is also a need for intuitiveness on the part of a farmer to pick up little things technology wouldn't.

"We need to be able to look at the grass and determine whether it is over grazed or under grazed. In which case do I need to bring some cows in to tidy it up or look at other things such as a weed challenge and what to do about this," he says.

Finally, Williams says more needs to be done to get young people into farming. He says there is a need to change the perception that still exists that farming is for 'the dumb kids'. This, he says is so far from the truth because farming is a large and complex business and requires some high-level skills.

He says it's great to see more young females entering farming and they should be encouraged in their career choice. Williams says farmers of today need to listen to what young people aspire to in terms of farming and encourage them to meet these aspirations.

"We need to have an open mindset and encourage them to do things differently, just like our parents allowed us to do," he says.

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