Thursday, 28 March 2013

Communicating with the industry

Communication is key to the work EBLEX does. Whether it is research that shows how to improve efficiency in your herd or flock, latest market prices, countering negative arguments about the industry, showcasing our activity or simply letting producers, processors and industry organisations how to get hold of us, a lot of time and effort is devoted to getting messages out. And yet, we will never be able to reach 100 per cent of the people we want to.

We work on the estimate that there are around 60,000 beef and sheep farmers in England. We do not have a list that we can refer to check this or so we can contact each one directly. Because levy is collected at point of slaughter or export, it is the abattoirs and auction markets with whom we actually have the contact to physically collect the levy that funds us – not the individuals who serve them. Data protection rules prevent them, or Defra, giving us details of each and every levy payer.

This presents a challenge when we want to be sure we are passing on information to everyone and checking that what we are doing is useful and relevant. Hence, we use a variety of channels, knowing that we will not hit everyone with one route but by using many, we are reaching as many as we can, and we do an annual survey among levy payers to see how we are doing.

The Better Returns Programme (BRP) is core to our activity. The knowledge transfer programme, which has 27,000 signed up members, delivered nearly 250 events between April 2012 to March 2013, with 5,400 producers attending. More than 130 events carried a stock selection message and there was a 96 per cent satisfaction rating among those who attended one of the live to dead days. We mail out three BRP bulletins a year with a pack of the latest information, any new technical manuals and updates on activity in other EBLEX departments, like marketing. Our annual communications survey shows that two-thirds of people who have attended a BRP event have changed a business practice as a result and there is an 80 per cent satisfaction rating with the materials received.

The survey also shows that the majority of respondents read the main farming press, and their local paper, so we ensure a regular flow of news releases is fed to the editorial pages of these publications. This is another important way we communication new schemes, the resources we have on offer and update people on specific activity or issues.

This is backed up by our social media activity. On Twitter, we have 3,200 followers who regularly “retweet” daily messages we post, signposting new content on our website, news stories or specific events.

The website itself has more than 500 pages, plus associated documents and publications. All of our BRP technical manuals are accessible online. There is also an R&D section to look at the outcome of the latest projects, a comprehensive market intelligence section – with close to 150,000 page views in January, the most viewed section of the website – information about the EBLEX board and our governance, and presentations from high-profile events. In addition, we offer more generic services like a weather update and industry news feed to try and giver as much as possible of interest to the industry in one place, lessening the need to go to multiple sites.

Then there is the monthly enews newsletter with 10,000 subscribers, our Facebook page which has a strong following among young farmers, and even this blog, which is regularly read by more than 200 people each week, but as many as 1,200 on occasion. The idea is that by communicating across this broad range of channels, we can reach as many of our levy payers as possible.
We do still get comments with people asking what we do and suggesting that they do not know what we are bringing to the industry. All we can say is that we are doing all we can but it is difficult to reach everybody all the time. However, feedback on the offering is vital and we welcome it. If there is something we are not doing that you think we should be, let us know. And if there are other methods of communication we could be using, we are happy to investigate. So hearing from you what you would like from EBLEX, can help make our ongoing communications work as effective as possible. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Learning lessons from New Zealand

In February I spent just under three weeks in New Zealand, with the main objectives of topping up my knowledge of feed budgets and going to the International Sheep Veterinary Congress. I also managed to fit in trips to twelve farms, an abattoir and a feedlot. The one overriding thing I learnt from the trip was that the lamb production challenges in the UK and NZ are very similar – namely variation and uncertainty in farm gate prices, and the weather (too wet here, too dry there).

It was interesting to see that NZ producers are struggling to ensure that EID is cost-effective and used to improve management decisions. On both sides of the world, the ability to really define your question needs to be improved. In the words of NZ producer Blair “Munta” Nelson "If you are not going to change the management of the mob, why spend time collecting the data?”. I believe that EBLEX needs to help English producers identify key profit drivers as this then provides a focus for business improvement.

Blair (Munta) Nelson on his quad bike in the King Country – he was cutting down trees to feed stock
Reassuringly, grazing management in NZ is not all perfect, but they do know how to get it right to ensure high quality feed at the crucial time. For example, I saw seed heads in a lot of paddocks, but in the current heat wave these are providing shade to the high quality feed at the bottom. The producers know that come winter the cows will be in the paddocks taking these off. The confidence and knowledge of what grass can do, combined with the understanding of the role of certain classes of stock within their businesses, gives them a huge amount of flexibility.

With high cereal prices, low straw availability, variable lamb prices and potentially lower grass growth rates, this is not the time to do what you did last year. Seeing the benefit of feed planning for large farm businesses in NZ made me realise that we need to get a better understanding of what our land can do.

Most of the producers I saw were making their land work hard. They tended to grow specialist finishing crops for their lambs with plantain, chicory, clovers, lucerne and brassicas being common. This was part of a reseeding rotation and they ensured they had enough of any mixture to ensure a viable grazing rotation in order to minimise diet changes.

All in all we have a lot to learn from New Zealand’s lamb industry, but there are also some things they could learn, such as management of triplet bearing ewes and strategic use of creep feeding. Increasingly the level of ‘knowledge exchange’ between the two countries definitely has benefits for both sides.