Business management: dairy's big challenge

21 Sep, 2017 11:54 AM
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Mary Harney: Moving toward doing a smaller number of significantly larger research projects is more likely to give long-term benefit.
I really strongly believe the future of the industry will be the people.
Mary Harney: Moving toward doing a smaller number of significantly larger research projects is more likely to give long-term benefit.

Business management and helping farmers make better use of the information available are major challenges facing the dairy industry, according to the outgoing chief executive of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation Mary Harney.

Ms Harney, who was appointed to the role at Gardiner in 2012, will leave the organisation in October to become the chief executive at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

She said farm business management was a big issue. “Definitely there's some room for upscaling there,” she said.

The lack of business management on farms, such as full business plans and budgets, also created a blockage when trying to help farmers improve other areas, such as feedbase management, because it was not possible to show that certain methods were more profitable than others.

Ms Harney said for the industry as a whole, the big issue was rebuilding trust in the supply chain so farmers were confident in making business decisions and capital investments.

The overall national volume of milk production was also going to be a challenge for Australia’s export partners, “who I understand are already querying how strong is the supply out of Australia”.

Ms Harney said helping farmers make better use of the available information was also critical.

Gardiner, as part of a new feedbase program, had just completed a major piece of research in which it interviewed 150 farming business pairs in the three Victorian dairy regions looking at what was behind farmer decision-making.

“We can get the most value out of home-grown forage if we understand more what makes some farmers go further along that path than others,” Ms Harney said.

“It is about understanding them. And I believe that is reasonably unusual to take that sort of a tack, in asking them directly about the wider extension program.”

The research revealed different farmers had different levels of knowledge and different preferences in how they liked to learn.

“There is a generation of farmers who were around when the last major push happened, which was, of course, Target 10, so they feel they need more advanced input,” she said.

“They are after measuring, up to using satellites and all the technology we can put in front of them.

“But the next generation didn't get the introduction to the fundamentals like they did 20-30 years ago.

“So you are always going to have a group of newcomers to the industry, the older ones who have had different training along the way, and what we need to be able to deliver is something that works for each of those segments.”

The research also revealed differences in how farmers wanted to receive information - that interestingly was not related to the age of the farmers.

“Some of them have a clear preference for getting material online or on the move,” Ms Harney said. “Others will still prefer to come in and read a newsletter, a piece of paper on the table.

“So I think with modern technology, we can very cheaply and very easily target the extension materials to the farmer's preferred learning style, and I am not so sure that we have done that in the past.”

Bigger projects

Ms Harney said the more complex nature of science had also seen a change in research projects, not just in agriculture but generally.

“The cost of science has gone up, genomics has exploded in terms of data management and the cost of all of that,” she said.

“So the day of doing smaller scale projects - we are moving away from that - not just in agriculture, but generally.

“Moving toward a strategic position, where we do a much smaller number of projects but significantly larger quantum, is more likely to give you the legacy and long-term benefit.

“So we have moved from an annual round of smaller projects, which stood Gardiner in good stead for a decade I suppose, to really large, sort of $3.3 million projects, one of them called Improving Herds. That was our first flagship.”

That program, which involved the major industry groups involved in herd improvement, provided economic data and modelling to show that if people made breeding decisions based on the good scientific research that was available, they would, in fact, be more profitable.

The new feedbase project would take a similar approach.

People first

The projects that have been closest to Ms Harney’s heart are the Gardiner people development projects.

“I really strongly believe the future of the industry will be the people,” she said.

Ms Harney said Gardiner had been able to fill gaps in people development that were not covered by the industry’s other major research organisations, Dairy Australia and the government.

“We have a put in a really major people project for the manufacturing sector of the supply chain in collaboration with Monash University, called the MITI program, the Monash Industry Team Initiative,” she said.

Under the program, for the past three summers, groups of Monash University students have worked with various dairy processors.

“These teams of four are there for 12 weeks and address real challenges the companies have got that for various reasons they might not have been able to get on top of,” Ms Harney said.

“The companies themselves identified that engineering capabilities were a deficit for the dairy industry and that in earlier years they had struggled to compete with the mining sector, and they struggle because they are in rural and regional Victoria, by and large.

“Many graduates are unaware of the complexity and sophistication in dairy manufacturing out in the regional areas.

“So we were able to match the best of the best from Monash, right up to PhD level, and put them out in the factories and at the end of 12 weeks they have really delivered some amazing outcomes for the companies.”

More importantly, the project has met is key performance indicator of attracting these young high-calibre engineers to the industry, with a number being employed by the companies at the conclusion of their studies.

Ms Harney was also behind the establishment of an alumni of leading farmers who had already done some sort of professional development in the past 25 years.

“We bring them together on an annual alumni so farmers who can share success stories together and have the positive angle for the industry,” she said.

Dairy industry

Ms Harney said she had loved her time in the dairy industry.

“It is very easy to be passionate when you are with other passionate people, and you do find some incredibly passionate dairyfarmers,” she said.

“I also remember when I started - given that I didn't have any background in dairy - I was so pleasantly surprised about how supportive and inclusive the industry was. Everyone was there to help me understand it and get on top of it.”

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