December 10, 2019

Cropping vs. Livestock and Consumer Behavior with Matthew Plunkett

Welcome to the first-ever 'Mobble's Farmers' interview session, a conversation that aims to add value to the farming community by sharing gold nuggets of knowledge and insights from our Mobblers. Taking a deep dive into their experiences and farming operations.

Matthew Plunkett, owner and manager of Oak Valley

Today's conversation is with Avenel local legend Matthew Plunkett. We cover the differences between cropping and livestock advisory, the advantages of grazing smaller paddocks, consumer behavior change and how that change has encouraged farmers to keep improving their practices. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging conversation as much as we did.

Intro

Jock: Today we have Mathew Plunkett the owner and manager of Oak Valley, a sheep enterprise up in the rolling hills above Avenel in North Central Victoria. Matthew, welcome to the first ever Mobble Farmer interview session.

Matthew: Hi Jock, and thanks for having me.

Jock: So Matt, I've known you most of my life. You lived in Avenel when I was a kid, then you moved up to a cropping operation on a farm out of Mulwala, New South Wales.

Matthew: That's right. But before that I grew up on a sheep and vineyard operation for probably 30 years of my farming life. Then through some succession planning and farm restructuring, I bought a cropping farm at Mulwala in NSW, and we were cropping there for about five years on our own. Then we sold that, to move back to, I hope, more reliable rainfall, safer farming and opportunities to expand.

Cropping vs. Livestock

Jock: Do you miss cropping?

Matthew: Haha, I do miss the fact that you can't mechanise some of the livestock stuff easily. Like even when you have a sheep handling machine, you still need good people and dogs. Whereas on the cropping side of things, you could buy a bigger machine and do more yourself pretty easily. Sit there and do the hours.

Jock: More labour intensive.

Jock: When we were chatting before, you mentioned there was a difference between cropping advisory such as agronomy versus livestock advisory? Could you comment on that?

Matthew: Yeah, I really have noticed there is a difference in advisory services of where livestock is lacking. With the cropping, you have an agronomist that can give you measurable advice. And as of yet, I haven't found that for livestock. And even with pasture, some agronomists are not as interested because we don't spend the same amount of money. So, I try to find advice, but my dad's a sheep farmer and I've got some good friends, so I use them regularly which is good.

Jock: So, as a hypothetical. If I were a farmer, maybe a cropping farmer, that was just starting out with sheep, where would I find the right advice to get started? Would it be through government information or maybe through mates and neighbours?

Matthew: I actually do think it'd be asking mates and neighbours next door and getting around on other people's farms to see how they do things and how different areas perform. I honestly couldn't say there's a good government agency that I could look at and take their advice to do it.

Jock: There looks like a lot of room for improvement there, in terms of information and advice for livestock.

Matthew: Yeah, and the other consultants that we've spoken to, they'd seem to be quite research based, maybe not as field or practically based yet, but again, I might still be looking in the wrong areas.

Jock: Now, your son Tom helps manage a property close by, which is actually your father's property White Gate. Does the experiences and information that he brings home help the way you manage your operation?

Matthew: We definitely talk about what both farms are doing. It's just a more intensely stocked farm and I'm not always sure that that's the best thing, but we certainly share what we're doing with fertilizer and breeding programs. Yes. When we're joining and stuff like that. We’re both learning.

Jock: Yes. But it's pretty early days for you at Oak Valley. By the way, it's great to have you back in the area!

Matthew: It's awesome to be back with our friends. Unreal. Our kids grew up here, went to school. I went to school here.

Jock: Haha, I thought the thing that drove you back was just to live near your mates us Lawrence's again

Matthew: Haha, my wife's best friend is Deb Lawrence. My best farming consultant is David Lawrence.

Jock: So, for everyone else listening in, Deb Lawrence is my mum, and David Lawrence is my dad who jointly run a farm just up the road from Matthew Plunkett here.

Matthew: You can laugh about that, but the Lawrence’s are very good farmers, if we could be half as good as them, we'll be doing well.

Jock: That's a lovely compliment, and I think we'll just leave it at that!

Personal Goals and Farm Improvements

Jock: So, what's next for you guys at Oak Valley? Going forward in 2020 or beyond that, what goals do you have?

Matthew: Yeah, we're trying to get a full lane-way system in, which will probably take two or three years. And as we're doing that subdivide some paddocks, from 60 hectares down to about 25 to 30ha.Those laneways will make mustering more efficient. At the moment our shearing shed and yards are at one end of the farm, (4 kms from one end the other). So I've bought yards that I'm putting in the centre of the farm and the lane way will run through that. So, it's mostly fencing, lane ways to make things more efficient. Some soil tests and getting the fertilizer and stocking numbers up, because you do actually have to have the numbers.

Jock: That’s true! You mentioned that you're buildings smaller paddocks. What’s the driver for reducing paddock sizes?

Matthew: We've got a lot of creeks, so if the paddocks are smaller, you can muster them easier. Grazing - we have hills, so you can graze them better. Also improve our pasture with some spraying and the way we move stock around, not necessarily full rotational grazing, but just being able to control what's being eaten in a paddock and keeping good ground cover in the paddocks - so we don't get erosion and stuff like that.

Jock: Awesome, sounds impressive.

Consumer Behavior & Farm Transparency

Jock: Moving away from Oak Valley, what challenges do you think we will see in the livestock industry in the time to come?

Matthew: Oh, I'm actually surprised and nearly shocked at how much people (and it’s a good thing) care about animal welfare. Some of what the activists are saying maybe ill informed. But we definitely need to always improve what we're doing. Obviously mulesing, exports and things like that. So yeah, these are probably some of the challenges I didn't foresee when I was changing from cropping.

Jock: Yup. For sure there's a bit of a change in the consumer behaviour. It's sort of forcing farmers to be a bit more open with what they are doing to show everybody that we are actually doing the right things that we do look after our livestock.

Matthew: Yeah, that's right. And even people wanting to know where their product comes from. That's another thing of having not just our stock in good health, but our farm in good health. Knowing what we're putting on the farm, we don't want to be putting on toxic chemicals, we want to be doing it as environmentally friendly as we can. But we've got to make money, so we've got to be sustainable in both ways.

Jock: For sure! I don't know about you Matt, but we're quite proud of what we do on farm and we're happy to show people what we're doing.

Matthew: Oh love it - especially with other farmers. I am involved in a few fertiliser research projects. Landcare around here are doing a variable rate fertilizer trial on our farm on a broad scale. There are four farms in the Northeast and we're one of them. We'll have lots of people come onto our farm to see how those things are working. I'm proud of that, and happy to have other people come and look, and for us to listen to what they have to say and learn from other's experiences. That's a good practical way to improve everyone's property, I think.

Jock: Yeah, absolutely!

AgTech and Problems to be Solved

Jock: In the world of AgTech, I know for a fact that you use our livestock farm management software Mobble - are there any other innovative products that you guys have used or are using on farm at the moment?

Matthew: I do use GPS on the farm for spraying with section controls. But yeah, Mobble is a good one because I work off farm a bit and then I'll rely on my son to occasionally move sheep and maintain the property. Or even my dad if I was away. And because of Mobble, and the way you can have multiple people and devices connected to the one property, as soon as someone moves a mob I can see it, and see what's happening on-farm. They can see where the stock are and my stocking rates. Just better informed of what’s going on I guess.

Jock: That's fantastic. So yeah, a way to make sure everything's running ship shape... I will start to wrap it up now, one last question. What problems would you like to see solved within your business?

Matthew: Well that's a tricky one. There's probably a few there. It'd be good with the fertiliser trial we're doing, if we can go to variable rate fertiliser, it might mean that we save money and use fewer chemicals. They use variable rate in cropping and it's very successful, I can see it being useful on our pasture country as well, where the hills are very different to the valley. So that's probably my goal, to find out if it is worth implementing.

Jock: Spot on.

Jock: Thanks for your time Matt, and thanks to all those who have tuned into our first ever Mobble Farmers interview sessions. I hope you've enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation all the way from consumer behaviour to on farm management as much as we did.

Matthew: Thanks Jock, it’s great to see young people inventing new technology, and it doesn't matter whether it's Mobble or anything else out there. I'm keen to learn and see us all thrive in agriculture.

Jock: [thumbs up]

p.s. If you have any feedback on this article, ideas on how we could improve, or if you would like to be apart of future Mobble interviews - let me know at j@mobble.io

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