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Farmer networks can bring numerous benefits

Disease! Not On My Farm? has looked at how being part of a farmer network or group can have a positive effect on your business.

Being part of a farmer network or group is an opportunity to share best practice and knowledge, but can also enable farmers to benchmark their businesses by comparing performance indicators against the group.

The principle of benchmarking is if you can measure it, you can manage it. Examples include disease rates or cost of production of a kilo of beef.

Knowing how you compare to others highlights areas where there is room for improvement and provides evidence on which to base decisions.

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Ian Alderson has been a member of the Sainsbury’s Beef Group for 20 years. The committee of 12 farmers has representatives from all parts of the UK and is an important link between the retailer and its farmer suppliers.

 Ian Alderson, sheep, beef and chicken farmer and DNOMF? Ambassador
Ian Alderson, sheep, beef and chicken farmer and DNOMF? Ambassador

“It’s a great opportunity for us to work more closely with the retailer and speak to people in various roles within the supply chain, including processors, beef buyers and scientists,” he says.

“I’m really pleased they want to hear what we have to say, and, in turn, we can learn more about what they want from us and discuss with them whether it is practical for us to deliver.

Group members are involved in a number of projects and trials. The findings of these and the knowledge gained is then rolled out to other farmers in the wider supplier group.

One trial we were involved in aimed to find the best age to finish cattle.

The main point to come of out of this is the optimum time for slaughter is 24 months, after which eating quality starts to deteriorate. Breed made very little difference; age was key.”

Mr Alderson says this has really focused him on making sure his cattle finish within this time frame and central to this is keeping them healthy.

“We can’t afford to have any setbacks, so we are very much taking a preventative approach to disease and working closely with our vet to this aim.

This enables us to use fewer medicines. Group members make their medicine records available to Sainsbury’s to enable the retailer to gauge our antibiotic usage.”

Mr Alderson finds abattoir reports helpful in highlighting incidences of, for example, liver fluke or pneumonia, as he buys-in stores and does not always know an animal’s full history. This information can also be compared against other members of the group. He also has access to the group’s financial benchmarking programme.

“This is not all about comparison, although that is beneficial. The process of inputting your own costs is, in itself, a very useful exercise.

It makes you look at everything and it is often the little things which make a difference, not the big things which would normally worry you.

While it is good to see how you compare to others, looking at every aspect of your own business and realising where the weak points are makes you realise you have to do something about it.”

But Mr Alderson says the most valuable aspect of being part of a group is working with other farmers.

“Farming is constantly changing and every year brings new challenges. Speaking to other farmers in different situations, both locally and from other parts of the country, is really useful. Not only for sharing knowledge and best practice, but for discussing ideas and problems.

Being one of the Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassadors has brought similar benefits. Talking to farmers working in other sectors of the industry makes you look at things from a different perspective.”