A FOCUS on profit over production, managing a changing climate and societal awareness of the way food is produced will be the pathway to prosperity for beef operations in North West Queensland, according to one of the latest Nuffield reports.
As a 2018 Nuffield Scholar, fourth-generation Queensland beef producer Colin Burnett travelled to New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and the United States visiting producers and identifying key features of sustainable, prosperous businesses.
Nuffield Australia builds capacity for Australian food and fibre industries to be world leading in adoption of technology, best practice and innovation and the research of the 460-plus scholars has resulted in significant productivity lifts in sectors like beef.
Mr Burnett and his family own and operate an 83,000 hectare beef cattle enterprise spread across properties at Julia Creek and Richmond.
His Nuffield work found there were many similarities in opportunities and challenges between beef operations in his part of the world and livestock business models in other countries and therefore lessons to be learned.
"While there is no silver bullet for long-term prosperity, those three key areas emerged as critical for long term sustainability, which to me means a prosperous agriculture industry which leads to whole community viability," Mr Burnett said.
There were tremendous opportunities for the beef industry in NWQ, he said.
New technology, increased farmer knowledge and demand for food was driving business efficiency.
However, there was a serious risk of losing future prosperity if basic business management principals, intellectual capital, climate change and the global outlook for beef weren't considered.
Production traditionally has been placed ahead of profit around the world, including in NWQ," Mr Burnett explained.
"In northern Australia, it costs an average of $2.10 per kilogram liveweight to produce beef, and a focus on this figure will drive greater profitability."
He pointed to Ryan Farms, a diversified beef and dairy business in New Zealand, as an example of how profitable decision making had led to big expansion.
"The Ryan brothers constantly look at the profitability of what they call 'banks' - their pasture banks, cash banks and staff banks, for example," he said.
"Hedging against commodity price changes has been a major part of ensuring sustainability and that is very relative to NWQ."
Examples of input cost hedging included buying in bulk, or as part of a co-operative - which was evident in the United States, Mr Burnett reported.
Outward hedging that Queensland beef producers could look to include taking advantage of scarcity, timing markets and value adding.
Managing changing climates was a problem faced around the world and a risk inherent to the beef business that should be addressed as part of normal management, Mr Burnett's research concluded.
"Australia has the most variable climate in the world and those in Queensland have the most variable climate in Australia," he said.
"At our place, we had 963mm in 11 days last year then seven months of no rain.
"Seasonal subtropical climatic patterns determine stocking rates, weight gains, breed type and market price fluctuations, along with the time of year we can sell."
His report advises producers to review management techniques with pasture in relation to highly volatile rainfall patterns, to look at soil moisture content as a major benefit to the bottom line and to consider how best to fill feed gaps for cattle.
Beef businesses need to address the changing global image of red meat and the first step is to lift social awareness of what it is a northern Queensland cattle producer does, according to Mr Burnett.
"Your story is the most important part of your social licence and part of that story is maintaining high ethical standards," he said.
"Consumer perception of products is becoming more and more important. The big markets for our beef like Japan and Korea want to know more and more about how we produce. Price, country of origin, health and safety, food integrity, animal welfare and carbon footprint are just a few factors consumers are placing importance on.
"NWQ beef has a great story to tell on all these concerns.
"With little to no deforestation to produce beef here, we are adding to environmental sustainability in consumers' eyes. Use of antibiotics is rare - we produce clean pasture based beef."
Mr Burnett's Nuffield research had support from Consolidated Pastoral Company, AACo and ANZ Bank.