101 – Outsourcing farm management?

In some parts of Australia, economic and social changes in agriculture are resulting in extreme time pressures on farmers. Perhaps it would help to re-think the farm-management paradigm in these areas.

Looking at demographic changes in Australian agriculture, Neil Barr has identified a split. Some regions, relatively close to population centres and with attractive environments, have growing rural populations and decreasing average property size, due to the growth in numbers of “lifestyle” landholders. Other regions, further from cities and green or wet places, continue down what has been the traditional trajectory of increasing farm sizes and falling rural populations.

Farmers in the latter areas face increasing farm management challenges. These include the difficulty of managing a larger property, staying on top of the growing complexity and technical sophistication of agriculture, and issues with labour.

Traditionally, most farms employed additional farm labour, but over time new farm machinery has tended to substitute for labour. However, farms in some areas (especially Western Australia) are now getting so big that the availability of good quality farm labour has become a key constraint. The current high demand for labour in the mining industry in Western Australia has created an acute problem for some farmers, but even without that, there would still be a chronic problem.

Since livestock production tends to be more labour-intensive than cropping, many farmers have made the obvious switch in emphasis. From a simple financial point of view, this is a sensible response. However, there may be hidden costs for long-term resource management or the environment. For example, some of the key management responses to dryland salinity involve livestock: grazing of perennial pastures planted to contain saline areas, or grazing of salt-tolerant species on areas that are already salt affected. Livestock can also play a valuable role in systems used to manage herbicide-resistant weeds, both by the grazing itself, and because a broader range of weed control options can be used on pastures than is possible on crops.

My colleague Ross Kingwell is interested in whether there is another way to tackle the livestock management problem to get around the shortage of on-farm labour. He is commencing research to examine the feasibility of groups of farms combining to outsource their livestock management requirements to specialised services. He is asking whether outsourcing arrangements can generate commercially and socially worthwhile opportunities for farm families with large broadacre farm businesses. Is it a practical idea? Could there be environmental benefits? Would it be worthwhile governments supporting such an approach, and if so how? It will be very interesting to see what comes of the research.

You might be so interested that you’d like to work with Ross on the project. He has two years of funding for a research officer, and he has his own labour shortage to contend with. If you know of anyone who may be interested, please advise them to contact Ross ASAP (rkingwell at The appointee could also enrol in a masters degree on the subject, if they wished.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia