Adding Value

Lone Star Farms is a business built for the future. Their value-add business model focuses on creating premium product and finding markets that will pay top dollar for the result.

The search for a production advantage has taken them on a digital journey, where farm management software has helped them with everything from identifying their best paddocks to Mycoplasma bovis.

Trying to photograph Lone Star Farms General Manager, Boyd MacDonald is a logistical nightmare – not because he is shy but rather he never seems to be in one place very long. When he spoke with The Farmlander, Boyd was heading to Golden Bay to spend time at one of Lone Star Farms’ seven sheep and beef operations.

Lone Star Farms is a business that has identified – and is working hard to perfect – the value-add business model in the growing market for the discerning consumer. The social consciousness movement is leading the industry to address consumers that want to increasingly understand the inputs that went into the meals they are about to eat.

“We are focusing on trying to grow high marble grassfed beef and focusing on growing Omega lambs,” Boyd says. “It means looking at ways to get up the value chain and producing a quality product.

“We are working with First Light Foods and their marketers in North America, while our lamb through the High Health Alliance is selling in the food service businesses of New Zealand and Hong Kong. Our aim to produce the highest quality grass fed protein with the lowest impact on the environment.”

For the uninitiated, “marbling” is intermuscular fat – the speckles of fat that sit inside the muscles. Boyd is emphatic when discussing the virtues of value-add product. He is a Board member of Headwaters, established in 2006 to breed ewes with high levels of fat in New Zealand’s high country. Headwaters’ own Omega lamb project complements the high marble grass-fed beef on Lone Star Farms.

“We have both Wagyu Cross and straight Angus – we just believe with its high marbling it’s a quality product and it will command a high premium at the end of the day,” Boyd says.

“Omega lamb has the health benefits that Omega brings. It’s a differentiated lamb product and high in marbling as well – it’s a great tasting product.”

A point of difference in the market is a great start but Lone Star Farms wanted to set the bar higher for their product. They wanted to be able to tell a story to their end users, so they began to investigate how farm management software could elevate their business.

Lone Star Farms started by collecting their own data and storing it in their own database. They also developed their own farm management software projects internally, trying to find the right solution for their unique operation. Boyd says having the data is one thing – but being able to use it effectively is what really counts.

“We had been looking around for a good while, trying a few products. FarmIQ came along and we have been using that, widespread across the business,” Boyd says. “Our staff find it quite easy to put data into and collecting that data and using it helps us make better decisions – more timely decisions.”

Boyd says the Lone Star Farms team have been using FarmIQ for the past few years and their farm management software has grown as FarmIQ has. “It’s been developing and will continue to develop for years to come,” he says. “Some of our managers are trialling the Health and Safety part of FarmIQ and it has also given us some pretty reasonable production data.”

The production data helps to drive the value and volume focus of the business. Boyd believes the “pretty useful information” helps Lone Star Farms make timely decisions, leading to more accurate predictions than what was possible without the data.

“It certainly helps us identify our high performing paddocks. People ask why that paddock performs better than others and we can drill down into it and hopefully find some answers,” he says.

“A lot of the software is a tool at the end of the day. It’s not the complete answer but it’s a part of what you do and helps with those decisions. You can make decisions based on some facts, instead of what you think is happening out there.” The ability to identify not just high production paddocks but the stock that had grazed on them had an unintended benefit. When Boyd discusses the ability to make decisions based on facts, he turns to his experience with Mycoplasma bovis.

Lone Star Farms has been caught up in the outbreak, with two infected properties confirmed by the Ministry for Primary Industries. Farm management software helped provide unique traceability when it came to stock movements, which meant lower cull numbers.

“With Mycoplasma bovis, being able to prove where our stock had been on-farm and what stock had been in the vicinity of infected stock was pretty huge,” Boyd explains. “It saved us from having to slaughter over 3,000 head of cattle. What it allowed us to do was narrow the restricted areas down on those two farms, as we were able to show where the stock had been in relation to one another.”

With farm management software having proven its value from a traceability perspective on-farm, focus can revert back to showcasing that traceability to consumers. Boyd says quotability is a big deal to high-end markets, so the more information is available to consumers, the more likely they will be receptive to your story.

“Software is going to help with that, in the same way it helped us with Mycoplasma bovis,” he says. “It’s just another attribute you can add to your product.”

It’s an attribute that continues to evolve at a rapid rate, much like the desires of consumers and markets. Boyd anticipates farm management software will continue to adapt and provide solutions to reinforce its own value.

“We’ve run through a few of our own products and templates. Where the farm software struggles a bit is the prediction side of it, having historical data but not being able to turn it into predicting,” Boyd says. “It’s an area where if you can pull all the data together like soil moisture and climate data, it would be good. FarmIQ are starting to do that. We need as many of the computer programs as possible to be able to talk to one another, as we only want to be entering data once.”

Like other Farmlands shareholders, Lone Star Farms has the option of a free Health and Safety farm management software through FarmIQ, called SafeFarm. Boyd says Lone Star Farms is familiar with the Health and Safety functions of farm management software and appreciates it is there as a support mechanism, running complementary to existing protocols and practices on the property.

“It certainly can improve the compliance side of things,” he says. “Compliance is one part but the other, bigger part is culture. I’m not sure culture can be trained by a computer – that’s up to our managers and staff to create a safe culture. Culture is more important than compliance in my book.”

As a relatively new addition to the primary sector arsenal, for many farmers and growers in New Zealand farm management software retains a fear of the unknown. The staff at Lone Star Farms have had an opportunity to grow their own digital skills as the software has evolved over time.

“Everyone’s been pretty open (with accepting farm management software) and we’ve let them play with it for a while,” Boyd explains. “Once they start playing with it and they identify how it can help them, they can pick it up, run with it and drive it. Once they see how it can help them with their roles, it’s not a difficult sell at all.”

Boyd says he has noticed that his younger staff are “a lot less frightened” of the farm management software and have a tendency to adapt “a bit quicker than some of us older fullas”. His advice for those new to digital farm management is to just “give it a go”.

“The farmers out there that are inquisitive enough will already be having a look and the ones that aren’t, won’t,” Boyd says. “Choose one of the smaller parts, have a look and see if it adds value. If it is then keep going and look a little deeper.

“With the demands that the consumers of our products have, we’ve got to the point where we’re going to have to manage a lot more precisely than we have in the past. Now we’re doing a lot more management of individual animals, individual paddocks and areas and individual crop management, such as fertiliser management, proof of placement and how much water or irrigation a paddock may need.

“It’s only going to get more, not less. They (farm management software) are a tool but they can certainly help us big time by helping us farm a lot more precisely than we have in the past, which will have positive flowon effects for the environment.”