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Red Meat Targets: science on farm

Take a measure, like feed on offer.  Science and technology is everywhere in our lives and work. However it often appears complex and difficult to understand. Sometimes it literally is rocket science, adapted to everyday life and not just travel to the moon.

However, it is perhaps the simplest aspects of science that offer the greatest power. Simple things like the principles of measurement and record keeping, of meaningful comparison, and of critical thought.

These principles can turn every farm into a research and development centre.

Measure and Record

Taking measurements and making records sometimes seems painful, but many producers recognise the dollar value of such figures and bookwork. For example, taking measurements, like weighing stock, provides a definitive description. It's not open to argument or exaggeration. It is what it is. And when it's written down it's not subject to the vagaries of memory either. Instead it can be used to work out weight gain between two times, and determine whether the feed provided has met the target, or whether stock are performing as expected.

This can very definitely be worth dollars, as Rob Tole has described at some of our More Beef From Pastures events. On his farm near Cressy, Rob has recorded weight gains and used this information to source cattle that perform, significantly lifting average daily gain per head by 0.3 kg.

Other records like rainfall, and the number of DSE's carried across the year, can also be invaluable. They can be a reminder of what happened and why, and a prompt for considering the future options. By the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia, another More Beef From Pastures producer advocate, Mark Higgins, described how using these records has helped him manage his stocking rate. Mark's point was that recording what's been done in the past, and understanding why, can allow better decisions to be made in the future.

Similarly, indicators of performance that describe where you stand right now, are a first step to setting the path ahead. Calculating cost of production uses measures of live-weight produced and records of costs incurred to describe just how much it cost to produce each kilo of live-weight grown, a number that can be sat alongside the price received. Fred Perry, More Beef From Pastures producer advocate from King Island is one of many to use this information, calculating a cost of production of $0.78 across more than 450 kg per ha in a breeding based enterprise. Even when the number is not as nice, it is important to know, and can be the starting point for driving changes in approach and profitability.

Compare

Making sense of information usually requires some form of comparison. But the comparison has to be fair, reasonable and meaningful. In short it's apples with apples. Very often this simply means making a measure, or calculation the same way, so that there is no unintended difference to distort the comparison. That could mean treating stock the same way each time to minimise the effect of time off feed or water. It doesn't matter whether the stock are weighed straight off feed or empty, as long as the same approach is taken each time. An impressive but meaningless weight gain can be contrived by weighing empty first and then full at the next weigh time.

Another example is seen in the calculation of cost of production. To get a meaningful trend from year to year, the calculation should be made the same way each time. The More Beef From Pastures calculator offers a standard approach to getting to an important number. Day to day comparisons need some thought too. Purchasing feed seems straightforward on a cost per kilo basis. However feed sources all vary in their moisture content and energy concentration. An informed comparison is best made on the cost per megajoule of metabolisable energy. Using dry matter % (the proportion of the feed that isn't water) and the energy per kg of dry matter, the cost per megajoule can be calculated, and a meaningful comparison made.

Be critical. With information collected, comparisons made, careful and critical thought is the next ingredient. Here we seek to understand what we see, not simply take it at face value, but test whether we have a true picture of the situation at hand, and what it means.

For more information contact Peter Ball at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture on 03 6233 6810, or email - peter.ball@utas.edu.au