Couple up for farming challenge

25 Dec, 2013 01:00 AM
 Marcus (left) and Shannon Sounness, Amelup, are extremely happy with their Mace wheat yields this season.
I still believe the programs we implemented for lambing worked and will continue to work...
Marcus (left) and Shannon Sounness, Amelup, are extremely happy with their Mace wheat yields this season.

FOR more than 100 years five generations of the Sounness family have farmed at the foot of Bluff Knoll and the Stirling Ranges.

Recently the property's location and family's successful business structure allowed Marcus Sounness, his wife Shannon, their three-year-old son Preston and Marcus' parents Richard and Nanette to enter the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Challenge.

The Challenge was created by MLA in order to track the journey of six Australian beef and lamb producers over 12 months in a bid to improve the producers' overall farm business performance.

Marcus and Shannon applied to enter thanks to some strong encouragement from Marcus' father Richard who saw the MLA competition advertised and identified the Challenge's potential benefits to the current farm business.

With 2000 hectares of crop, 1000ha of pasture and 3000 Merino breeding ewes in his rotation this year, Marcus also recognised the opportunity to improve his business and jumped at the chance to take his farm production practices to the next level.

He said while his relatively young age was a contributing factor in his decision to join the MLA Challenge, the desire to see increased efficiencies and wider profit margins on-farm sealed the deal in the end.

On a broader scale, the family has already seen a number of on-farm advancements including the overall improvement of the business.

Marcus said the Challenge motivated he and his wife to visit their business adviser to tailor a strategic business plan which included the setting of a number of production targets for the future.

He said while it wasn't a case of fixing a business that was broken, it was a case of tweaking certain areas of production to create further efficiencies.

"The business is in good financial shape," Marcus said.

"It's just a case of tweaking something that's already performing.

"It can be hard to pinpoint areas of change that need to be altered in order to make a difference to the bottom line and that's our challenge."

One of the biggest challenges Marcus and Shannon identified since entering the competition was the balancing of more than one generation of family on the farm.

The Challenge also brought into focus the role of building the business in partnership with Marcus' wife Shannon.

Marcus said so far the Challenge had helped her to become more involved in the hands-on side of farm life as well as allowing room for the couple to define their individual and joint business roles.

Marcus and Shannon met at Muresk some years ago.

While growing up in the outskirts of Perth, Shannon was exposed to the agricultural industry through friends and family who lived and worked on farms.

She always knew she wanted to be involved in the industry but didn't think she'd end up on a farm as such.

Throughout the Challenge the pair have been flat out writing blogs about their progress and experiences, including one by Shannon which discusses the challenges of being a daughter-in-law and how she made her place in an established family and farm business – not always an easy gig.

As a result, the MLA Challenge has also encouraged the Sounnesses to become increasingly tech-savvy through the creation of endless blogs and Challenge updates which are available through the MLA website.

You know the farm business is technically apt when the sheepdog even has its own Twitter account.

On a micro scale, the Sounness's Paper Collar Gully property is in the 400 millimetre rainfall bracket (this year the farm received 48mm in March, 11.5mm in April, 47.5mm in May, 8mm in June, 47mm in July, 67mm in August and 100mm in September).

It sustains a dual purpose Merino flock with a variety of standout bloodlines including Centre Plus and Merinotech.

Instead of focusing on bloodlines and the stud selling system Marcus prefers to use ASBVs and ASBVs alone to determine a ram's merits and whether it will complement his commercial breeding program.

He believed the method went a long way in achieving lambing targets each year.

Their 3000-strong Merino flock lamb at the end of June.

Despite the hefty lambing targets set this season (90 per cent) a lower number of 76pc was achieved thanks to a number of circumstantial events including a storm which hit just three weeks into the lambing period.

Winds over 100 kilometres an hour and sporadic rain throughout the night forced ewes to try to escape the winds.

A substantial number of deaths were recorded as well as mis-mothering by the survivors.

The family's neighbours' flocks were also hit hard by the weather event.

Progeny of ewes which started lambing only a week or two earlier survived due to their size and development.

"It was so disappointing because we had done a lot more this year to try to improve our lambing percentage in light of the MLA Challenge," Marcus said.

"I still believe the programs we implemented for lambing worked and will continue to work into the future."

Despite not having received any spring rain to speak of in the last five years, Paper Collar Gully also supports a substantial cropping program each year.

This season Marcus sowed Crusher, Gem and a Clearfield hybrid canola variety as well as Mace and Scout wheat and Oxford barley (most of which is kept for feed and the excess sold to market).

When Farm Weekly caught up with Marcus and Shannon last week they hadn't quite finished harvest despite having a brilliant season so far.

Marcus joked that the header had only caught fire once and he had about 200ha of wheat and the rest of his barley program to go.

He said the oil content in his canola had been fantastic – the Gem in particular – and the wheat had yielded well above average so far.

A string of warm weather had provided a good run for trucks to deliver loads straight to the Albany port terminal despite having a number of grain pad, shed, silo and field bin storage options on-farm.

For more than 10 years the Sounness family have also run a grain dryer which helped to bring their harvest program forward in order to minimise risk.

Marcus said the MLA Challenge had demonstrated the need to drive his livestock enterprise to be highly profitable, especially when it was in competition with the cropping enterprise for hectares on his South Coast property.

"Maintaining the level of profitability within our livestock enterprise means that I have the freedom to toy with the cropping mix a bit if the need ever arises," Marcus said.

"At the moment I think we have a highly efficient ratio of cropping and livestock rotations."

So far the MLA Challenge has prompted Marcus and Shannon to implement a number of small changes in order to reach their targets set at the beginning of the competition.

The setting of a number of joining, lambing and weaning production targets throughout the financial year has already produced some impressive results in the last quarter which marked the halfway mark of the Challenge.

The couple targeted a condition score of three for ewes at joining.

On average the final results showed the ewes were in fact a 3.5.

For the lambs they targeted minimum 20 kilogram lambs with an average weight of 25kg and managed to achieve a 27kg average with very few below the minimum.

When it came to the Sounness's weaners nothing made more of an impact than the family's decision to stop mulesing six years ago.

The couple said without the mulesing recovery period, lambs continued to grow throughout the winter and achieved a much higher survival rate.

In 2013 the Sounnesses also tweaked their weaning practices to include a Hecton weighing crate which made weaning much easier.

At weaning all lambs were given a fully effective drench, booster vaccination and preventative fly treatment then put onto the best feed the family had ever seen.

In keeping with their targets Marcus and Shannon also tailored their pastures to target a lower worm risk in their weaners and managed to shut up pasture paddocks for two to three months.

Perennial lucerne and chicory pasture paddocks far exceeded the couple's pasture targets despite the cold dry June which stalled pasture growth throughout the farm.

They credited well set up paddocks and an exceptional spring for the abundant feed levels.

Marcus and Shannon also made a key decision to maintain their stocking rates to reduce profit risk and took opportunities during cold days (during harvest) to re-drench their weaners and draft them into wethers and ewes in a bid to boost their growth rates and reach the family's turnoff targets.

Marcus and Shannon admitted they'd need to keep their pedal to the metal to reach their ambitious turnoff targets by July 2014.

In essence, the MLA Challenge has helped Marcus and Shannon to identify their key decision-making points within their livestock system (eg weaning, lambing, joining) and further identify the key performance indicators (eg lambing percentages at lambing, condition score of ewes at joining, weaner weight at weaning).

"It has guided our decision making at every corner and given us an idea about how that might impact production in the next quarter," Marcus said.

"We've set short-term and long-term targets and are trying to achieve them.

"A tool like this gives you purpose which is reflected at budget time and has also given us ideas about the areas in which we need to up-skill.



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