PEOPLE POWER: Stockmen and women at work on Degrey Station, east of Port Hedland in Western Australia.

PEOPLE POWER: Stockmen and women at work on Degrey Station, east of Port Hedland in Western Australia.

Finding opportunities

Looking internally for opportunities in Pilbara cattle operation


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WHETHER it be capitalising on what is shaping up to be a great era for the northern cattle industry or pulling through one of the toughest droughts on record, the game plan is the same for go-ahead Western Australian beef producers Mark and Narelle Bettini.

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WHETHER it be capitalising on what is shaping up to be a great era for the northern cattle industry or pulling through one of the toughest droughts on record, the game plan is the same for go-ahead Western Australian beef producers Mark and Narelle Bettini.

Look internally for opportunities, play to your strengths and make full use of core assets.

The couple have been at the forefront of a number of progressive northern beef production concepts, including reducing grazing radiuses and cutting-edge human resource management, and it has all stemmed from looking to ensure they are ‘doing the best with what they have.’

With Mark’s parents John and Ethel, the couple run 15,000 head of cattle on close to 950,000 hectares across four properties in the Pilbara region, including the homestead, Degrey Station, east of Port Hedland.

It’s Degrey and Sherlock river floodplains and grasslands that runs to plains and range foothill country with some rugged hills. Pastures are all native – spinifex and roebourne plains, ribbon grass and buffel.

The home station is home to a high grade Brahman herd, and the others run Droughtmaster crosses, with most of the cattle turned off going to the Indonesia and Vietnam live trade market, generally at 300 to 310 kilograms by 12 months and 380 to 400kg by 18 to 20 months respectively.

Little bulls go to Israel at opportune times and cattle that don’t fit into export markets are taken through to about 550kg for the domestic market, aiming for an average cow carcase optimum of 330kg. This year, the Bettinis also opted to use country in the south west of Western Australia to background cattle for the feedlot market.

Failed summers

Degrey Station has had failed summers two years running so nowhere near the normal pasture production has been possible.

Calves were weaned light, down to 70kg and supplementary fed. Weaners received pellets up until reaching weights of 130kg, then they went onto a weaner lick.

Yearlings were sold off and replacement heifers were agisted. Breeders were also given a urea-based loose lick.

“It was probably the driest we’ve ever seen it,” Mr Bettini said. “It was the simple fact it was so dry and we had to ensure absolutely every bit of feed was utilised that made us look to grazing radiuses.”

CSIRO research conducted on Degrey Station supported the view that cattle walking long distances to watering points not only used more energy, thereby hindering their weight gain potential, but did not efficiently utilise the pasture.

Some areas were underutilised and others heavily grazed, Mr Bettini said.

So the Bettinis have started to roll out an infrastructure program that will see an additional 55 concrete and poly tank troughs installed.

“Speaking very conservatively, we think the project will allow an additional 1200 head to be run in the short term but longer-term we are hoping for a far larger herd increase as a result,” Mr Bettini said. “I want to give the breeders I have the best chance of cycling to get in calf next year. As time progresses, if we do feed budgeting and work out we can run more, we will.”

It was the pasture utilisation improvement work, combined with innovative and comprehensive staff management policies that jointly earned the Bettinis the highly-esteemed annual Rabobank Dr John Morris Business Development Prize in August. The couple were presented with the award in front of their fellow graduates of the 2015/16 Rabobank Executive Development Program (EDP), a ‘mini-MBA-style’ course for Australian and New Zealand farmers.

While Mark oversees operations and financial management, Narelle looks after the human resources.

Cutting edge human resources

Given the operation has 25 permanent employees and up to 20 seasonal employees, people are clearly integral to the success of the Bettini operation.

“If your staff are not engaged, it can cost your business with potential ramifications for productivity, workers compensation and animal welfare,” Mrs Bettini said.

“For us, we are driven by animal welfare, low stress stockmanship and good quality horsemanship. We want to move those things to a higher standard across the industry. If you want to make change, you need to train as many people as you can.”

The plan is to try to retain managers for at least two to five years to keep productivity ticking along and allow for them to have an influence on entry-level staff.

Balancing the concept of engaging staff in the business with retaining leadership requires a degree of relinquishing control, according to Mrs Bettini.

“It comes down to good quality recruiting, then allowing people to do their job without being micromanaged,” she said.

Enticing quality staff to stay for more than one season involves training, incentives and ensuring a work/life balance but it starts when you recruit, she said. “Checking their core values align with ours when they are employed and making sure they are clear on what we are about and how we do things – what our culture is – is very important,” Mrs Bettini said.

“Be transparent.”

Keep it simple

The Bettinis say every investment they make is now looked at objectively to ensure it will generate a return. 

They live by the philosophy of ‘do your costings, don’t necessarily follow the pack and keep things simple’.

“You don’t have to have to be the biggest business to get best returns –  the EDP brought that home for me,” Mr Bettini said.

“The key to remaining profitable in the northern cattle game will come down to a combination of things that underpin efficient beef production but one of the most important, we believe, will be the ability to utilise all your resources in a sustainable way.”

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