Grains Research and Development

Date: 02.03.2015

Expert minds tapped for business ideas

Author: Nicole Baxter

Image of a man and woman with a laptop

Peter and Toni Unger, Alectown, New South Wales, have improved the way they manage their business in the past 15 years and say independent enterprise specialists are an important part of their team.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

Key points

  • The Ungers surround themselves with independent specialists
  • Meeting with a business coach and board prompted management change
  • Internal communication said to improve with weekly meetings
  • Lupin area expanded to boost nitrogen and break disease 

A New South Wales family has taken the emotion out of decision-making by engaging enterprise specialists to actually challenge how they run their farm business

New South Wales mixed farmers Peter and Toni Unger’s approach to business management can be compared to fitting a tap to a spring of life-giving water.

Snapshot

Growers: Peter and Toni Unger
Location: Alectown and Yeoval, New South Wales
Farm size: 2711 hectares owned; 647ha leased at Yeoval
Annual rainfall: 533 millimetres
Soil types: red clay loam to heavy black mulching clay
Soil pH: 4.8 to 8.0 (calcium chloride)
Enterprises: cropping and sheep (2500 ewes)
Typical crop rotation: canola or lupins/wheat/barley
Crops and varieties grown: EGA Gregory, Suntop and Livingston wheat; Gairdner and Hindmarsh barley; 45Y84, 575CL and Carbine canola; Quilinock lupins 

The husband and wife, who farm with Peter’s father Ian and worker Eric, east of Alectown, 25 kilometres north of Parkes in central-west NSW, tap the ideas of business leaders to nourish the growth of their own farm business.

Peter and Toni say they like to surround themselves with smart people in order to be challenged to come up with new ideas for improving returns on their 2711 hectares.

According to Peter, 44, maximising returns in a mixed-farming system comprising crops and sheep is about being challenged and open-minded.

Toni, 39, agrees, adding that a sound knowledge of costs of production and carefully assessing why and how things are done is also important.

For Peter and Toni, surrounding themselves with knowledgeable people means having an independent crop consultant, sheep nutritionist, wool specialist, access to marketing advice and a business coach.

While their crop and sheep consultants are permanent fixtures within their team, their business coach was engaged for five years on an “as-needs basis”.

Business policies

In 2010, when Peter and Toni started with small business advisory firm Principal Focus, they met with a business coach on a monthly basis and then bimonthly to put a series of policies in place.

Toni says this involved transferring knowledge from their heads onto paper and organising this into folders, which they felt was important for their employee Eric.

“If we want to travel, for example, we can give him a folder of information that outlines our approach,” she says.

Having the ‘paperwork’ in one place has also allowed Peter and Toni to take some of the emotion out of their decision-making.

“We like to be flexible and have a range of well-thought-out fallback positions in place.”

Toni says having policies for sowing are handy, to prevent them from becoming emotional and planting too many hectares to one crop if, for example, prices for one commodity spike at the start of the season.

The arrangement with Principal Focus also involved enterprise benchmarking, accounting and meeting three times a year with a board of management to question their financials and offer advice.

Toni says they now have a full set of standard operating procedures and an entire folder devoted to occupational health and safety.

Aside from changes to office management and administration, Peter and Toni have noticed communication within the farm working group has improved.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the couple initiated a formal Monday-morning meeting. Peter and Toni meet around the kitchen table with Ian and Eric to work on ways to improve the business.

“We’ve divided the business into the different areas such as cropping, sheep, maintenance, marketing and administration, for example, and discuss what went well last week and what could be done better this week,” Peter says.

“It also gives Ian and Eric an opportunity to say what didn’t go well and how we need to make improvements,” Toni adds. “The meetings show our team how seriously we take the business and demonstrate that we want to be held accountable for what we do.”

“We like everyone in the team to suggest stuff, to take ownership and feel like they’re valued and important because they are,” Peter says.

When it comes to administration, Peter and Toni are a true partnership. While Peter pays the bills, Toni does the data entry, and they work together on their business position statement and budgeting.

Enterprises separated

The Ungers run their sheep and cropping enterprises on two separate properties.

The focus of the 2711ha near Alectown is cropping, while a 647ha lease 70km north-east, near Yeoval, is devoted to fine-wool Merino sheep and prime lambs.

Pastures at the Yeoval property comprise lucerne and clovers, and the Ungers are experimenting with grasses. Electric fencing and watering points have been added to rotationally graze sheep for better pasture use.

“I think we’re a lot better at producing a more productive animal than we were 10 to 15 years ago. We’re three micron finer, at 18.5, and we’re running electronic eartags to record data more efficiently from the ewes and lambs,” Peter says.

“We just need to come up with a system that indicates if a ewe raises twins or singles.”

In September, Peter and Toni’s lease at Yeoval expires, so unless more country is found, their sheep will return to Alectown. In this case, lucerne and clovers will be undersown as a feed source for the sheep.

Lupins will also be planted across more hectares as a disease break and to add more nitrogen and organic carbon to the soil.

Peter says there is talk that maybe two years of break crops are needed to prevent crop diseases such as crown rot, particularly in EGA Gregory wheat.

“So I’m wondering if sowing lupins might help lift our wheat yields; pump nitrogen in and increase the organic matter, especially on paddocks that have been direct drilled for 15 years without a legume,” he says.

More information:

Peter and Toni Unger,
0428 653 211,

unger.pt@bigpond.com

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