Bridging the gap

When seeking advice and information, most farmers are savvy enough to sort the hearsay from fact and the ridiculous from genuine good oil, writes Ken Geenty.

In Business8 Minutes

When seeking advice and information, most farmers are savvy enough to sort the hearsay from fact and the ridiculous from genuine good oil, writes Ken Geenty.

Livestock farming relies very much on science through necessity whether it be the nutritional revelations of feeds or the genetic intricacies which drive animal production. However, there’s often a yawning gap between the highly intellectual and scholarly scientist and the practical hands-on farmer. And this is not denigrating either as both are essential to making innovations and improvements happen onfarm.

Fortunately, lots of intermediaries help bridge the gap and ensure the essential underpinning science and technology is not only being produced but properly accessed and applied. Not least among these is a vast farming media including very worthy farming magazines like Country-Wide. Then there’s a host of rural professionals including farm consultants, veterinarians, agricultural banking and accounting experts, and various

farm servicing company reps. Added are snippets of wisdom from inevitable yarns with colleagues and friends across the fence, over a beer or at footy on a Saturday.

For those technologically minded there is unlimited farming-related information on the internet. Whether it be key websites, customised apps, YouTube or Google, search for it and you’ll generally be assured of finding it.

The question often arises about where farmers get their best and most reliable information. A difficult one to answer, the consensus being across the board from the above sources.

The good oil

However, this doesn’t insulate farmers from dodgy or misleading material based on anecdotal beliefs or downright misinformation. Most farmers are savvy enough to sort the hearsay from fact and the ridiculous from genuine good oil.

Results I once saw from a farming survey concluded farmers got a big proportion of their information from vets attending to animal health issues on their farm. As well as a sound background in animal production vets spend a lot of time discussing all sorts of farming issues with their clients. So with vets there’s often the opportunity to get a double bang for your buck!

And speaking of vets, some of the best farm advisers this author has experienced have come from that profession. Two outstanding examples being Trevor Cook in the Manawatu and Chris Mulvaney, formerly from the South Island but now practicing in the Waikato. Undoubtedly there are many others as a lot of vet clubs have their own or associated specialist farm advisers.

One well-reputed adviser friend with a vet background once told me that sound nutrition was the best recipe for good animal health. A somewhat honest and constructive point of view but with a possible conflict of interest!

Getting back to the scientist working on complex research at the bench, most are passionate about what they do, and are driven by the prospect of their research having useful uptake on the farm. However, the academics in many cases don’t have a great appreciation of the day-to-day running and complexities of farming.

Similarly farmers being hungry, and sometimes impatient for new technology probably often don’t fully appreciate the funding and infrastructure dilemmas faced by the researchers. Though greatly welcoming the fruits of science and technology farmers often get a little disillusioned.

The potential to quell such misunderstandings are the likes of producer organisations such as Beef+Lamb NZ. Generally their field staff have contact with a good cross-section of rural professionals and hence can offer a useful perspective.

There are a range of flavours with rural professionals available to farmers. The serious basic researcher is unlikely to be of practical help to farmers as they are fundamentally different, often speaking with hard-to-follow scientific and technical jargon. But the more applied researcher doing onfarm related work is going to relate more directly.

Applied science

The horses for courses concept applied to this author by graduating from basic science with post-graduate and early career research to much more applied work in sheep milk production, lamb growth and applied genetics. Many researchers follow a similar path by gravitating to the more applied end, especially if farming-oriented.

Likewise most farm advisers have some form of direct involvement on the land and a practical feel for farming, adding to their knowledge and credibility. Immediately coming to mind are good friends and farm advisers Lochie McGillivray and Phil Tither with Agfirst in Hawke’s Bay and independent Ron Halford in Horowhenua. Recent contact with these professionals has given me a good insight into the great mix of modern ideas combined with sound day-to-day farming nous which seems common among farm advisers.

The modus operandi of rural professionals varies between person-to-person interaction with farmers to group activities such as discussion groups and field days. This allows you to choose the form most effective for you to access new ideas to hone your farming practices. Access to new or revised material may also be obtained through the large network of rural media. In this author’s opinion a mix of available options is good but whatever is going to spin your wheels are the ones to go with.

The generally positive benefits of outside advice towards improvement of your strategic and operational farm plans are well known. An idea of probable cost:benefit is a good indicator of the viability of different options and worth discussing with your trusted financial adviser. A ratio of at least 1:2, or a $2000 return for every $1000 spent, is regarded as a very good investment in productivity increase.

Accurate cost:benefit is difficult to assess as it relies on several assumptions, particularly around productivity increases. But a ballpark estimate can be informative for decision making and well worth the effort.