By Katrina Weatherly | Western District Farmer | May 2012
LAST year a leading Angus seedstock producer,Tom Gubbins, was named Australian Livestock Producer of the Year in a competition run by the Kondinin Group and ABC Rural. It seems appropriate that in this year, The Year of the Farmer, we take a look at Tom’s operation and see how it is that the Te Mania Angus stud holds or has held every on-property and show sale record. The award citation reads that ‘Te Mania’s dominance of the Angus Group Breedplan EBV’S is unparalleled, with twice as many trait leaders as the nearest stud’. Maybe we need to ask how Te Mania has achieved this dominance.
Even as a young boy computers held a fascination for Tom. His grandfather had the wisdom to purchase him a little Sharp computer and it wasn’t long before Tom had the device playing Mastermind with him. He became fascinated by its inner workings and by the time he undertook his Diploma in Farm Management at New Zealand’s Lincoln College he possessed a fair amount of mastery with computers and was able to hold ‘tutes’ to help some the Bachelor of Commerce students understand them.
It was not long before Tom could see the potential computers held for the agricultural world. He saw a way of using technology to assist with data collection and genetic improvement. With some initiative he stretched the possibilities of Microsoft Office to write a program to produce the Te Mania bull sale catalogue.
“It was a matter of extracting all the data and creating a great big Word document, a Mail Merge,” Tom explained.
“It made it all so much easier and quicker.”
He set up a little sideline business called ‘Access Your Beef Data’ and sold agricultural software to about ten farmers. In the United Kingdom Tom continued this line of selling agricultural software, visiting farmers and helping them to install it on their computers . These farm visits and conversations with farmers really mapped Tom’s future path. Already he was at the forefront of technology and could see where he wanted it to take him.
He was in the right place at the right time when he landed a job with Lloyds of London as a computer consultant, where he was able to show how to create client directories and scan documents that could be stored in the memory of the computer. It was a big step forward from using them as simple word processors or glorified keyboards. By the time he left Lloyd’s in 1992 emails were just beginning to find their way into the office world.
Tom returned to Te Mania at Pardoo. In 1928 Te Mania Angus had been founded by Tom’s maternal grandfather, Edwin Wilding in
New Zealand ’s south island. The stud had its beginnings in Australia in 1971 when Tom’s father, Andrew Gubbins, imported two young sires and 58 females from Te Mania New
From day one the stud had been at the forefront of data collection. As early as 1950 Frank Wilding had kept records of animal weights. Tom explained that some of this data is still being used in research today and “use of computers has meant all this collected data can be related back to the animal much more easily.”
Tom’s parents Andrew and Mary Gubbins were very early users of ultrasound technology at Te Mania. An old modified video machine recorded information that was used to estimate levels of intra-muscular fat in each animal. Te Mania Angus has been a pioneer in the use of objective measurement and the use of both AI and ET programs. By being frontrunners in the use of new technology programs, they have accelerated the genetic profile of the Angus breed.
The use of Breedplan has enabled genetic predictions of an animal’s ability to marble. The more recent adoption of structural measurement has meant traits regarded as fairly subjective have been able to be put into a lineal score. These scores have then been analysed to see if there is any heritable pattern.
“All the time we are after something that is heritable,” Tom explained.
“Critics will sometimes question how we can possibly measure something and relate it to the animal but if we keep on coming up with the same results over and over again then it must be right.”
However the early adoption of trailblazing technology hasn’t always worked to Te Mania’s benefit but this has not stopped Tom pursuing new technologies. There have been times when, despite encouraging results at the start, further data collection has proved disappointing. This was the case with IGF-1 technology when a hormone that originated in the pig industry but was also later found in cattle, was believed to correlate to the animal’s nett feed intake and to its whole of life feed efficiency.
Preliminary trials were encouraging, showing a high correlation but to find heritable patterns it was necessary to collect nett feed intake data for every animal. This cost about $500 per beast, making it cost prohibitive for breeders. In a twist of irony, further data collection over three or four generations showed that the correlation was not high anyway.
One of the biggest problems for seed stock producers today is that the phenotype, what you see, often contradicts the genotype, the inherited factors.
“When we sell a bull today we are selling something you can’t see, the genotype that represents what the genetic package is. Scientific studies show that the relationship between the phenotype and the genotype is not that high.
This is difficult because no matter how much effort Te Mania make to record accurately and run the animals in large groups so genotypes can be compared, to ensure the EBVs are right, on sale day buyers will still tend to trust what they see rather than what they read. Tom sees this as a massive problem for seed stock producers because an animal selected on phenotype is not going to give as fast a genetic improvement as one selected on genotype.
Other livestock industries don’t seem to have this problem and it puzzles Tom why it is specific only to the beef industry. While the prime lamb industry has approximately 45 cents per DSE genetic gain every year, the pig industry figure is 55 cents; but in beef cattle the figure is as low as 15 cents per DSE genetic gain annually.
“We need to make a greater push towards educating beef farmers in this area,” Tom reflects.
In his view one of the major challenges facing beef producers today is the understanding and implementation of new genomic technology, or using the DNA sequence of organisms for genetic mapping. Scientists are now working on integrating genomics with Breedplan selection indexes to relate the recorded traits of animals to economics by building financial indexes for the genetics. This gives businesses a key performance indicator and has enabled Te Mania Angus to assess their performance gain over time on a single index.
Tom’s message for young people embarking on a career in agriculture, particularly those brought up on a farm, is that they need to make sure they are entering agriculture for the right reasons, not just drifting into it.
“They need to have a different career first,” Tom adds, with the appreciation that his parents insisted on that philosophy with him and he will encourage it with his children.
“Young people need to work out what their skills are, what makes them passionate,” Tom explains.
“If you enjoy doing something you will do it well. If they are keen to farm because they like animals, they need to focus on that area.”
Tom is not an advocate of farm diversity, believing that farmers should choose their strengths and go with them. He suggests there is some room for cereal cropping and running a ruminant but multi-tasking gets complicated when too many enterprises are run together. Most people have an animal preference and it is Tom’s belief that they should run the animal they prefer. They will make more money out of doing what they enjoy doing he explains.
Using computers to performance record and assess quantitative genetics is Tom’s passion. At school and university, problems with dyslexia meant he struggled academically. He has a good vocabulary and knows what he wants to say but he is unable to get it right on paper. However Tom has been able to use computers and modern technology to help him bridge the gaps.
He and his wife Lucy have put all their emails on google mail or gmail. This technology allows Tom to write emails at work and Lucy to enter his account at home, check the grammar and spelling, then send then on for Tom. This has made a huge difference for Tom who can now send emails with confidence, without feeling he has to dumb everything down or be over simplistic in his correspondence. With some amusement Tom added “Just make sure you choose a partner who has the skills you are lacking!”
Some years ago Te Mania moved from Pardoo to Mortlake because they could double the carrying capacity for the same capital land value. Tom explained that in effect they had been ‘manufacturing in Collins Street’. At Pardoo they were making the wrong type of land use. The choice was stark; either they needed to stay at Pardoo and become dairy farmers or move to somewhere else and remain beef producers.
Tom takes animal welfare seriously, believing the issues should be a priority for all livestock producers. He sees that the animal welfare voice is one that is going to become louder and we ignore it at our peril.
“Animals need to live a stress free life, one that ends swiftly and painlessly.
However Tom believes there is always a spin off between animal welfare and economics.
“That doesn’t mean we should be putting profit ahead of animal wellbeing, but it is about finding a balance that is sustainable”. He sees animal welfare as the luxury of a wealthy nation. In third world countries like Africa where people wake up in the morning worrying about whether their children will survive, whether they have food and shelter, people have a completely different attitude to animal welfare than in places where people live a fulfilled and affluent life with time to give consideration to their conscience and concepts like animal rights and welfare.
If an animal is in distress at Te Mania it is put down immediately to relieve its suffering. This may not always be the most economical course of action but it is the most humane.
Tom sees city perceptions about farming practices as a major problem because the ignorance of the urban/rural disconnect is divisive. He explains that “years ago many Australians had an Uncle Bob in the country, where young urban dwellers could spend time in the holidays milking the cow, killing a lamb for the table or shooting a rabbit. But today where urban people are more disconnected than ever, they regard these kinds of practices as inhumane and barbaric.”
Misconceptions from the urban population bother Tom. Water consumption for cattle beasts has been calculated on a rainfall amount that falls on agricultural land grazed by beef cattle. Because beef is consumed off that land ‘authorities’ have calculated that beef cattle use 50,000 L/kg, a crazy figure higher than that for rice growing. Of course the difference between measuring environmental flows where animals are consuming the grass in wet areas of northern Australia and someone pumping water out of the
Basin and evaporating it on a flat area of ground are huge.
“How the hell does that kind of misinformation ever get public airing without being peer reviewed?” asks Tom.
He is a firm believer that if you look after the environment it will look after you.
“You can profit from the environment by being caring to it.
For this reason they have moved away from soluble fertilisers, using them only at levels that will not cause negative side effects. They have also minimized the use of chemical sprays, believing that every time sprays are used there is a side effect.
“Chemicals may solve a short term problem but will almost certainly create a long term problem.
However he believes it is not yet possible to grow profitable crops without using some chemicals. Organics is not a real option because the production losses are just too huge and the land is being under utilized in this kind of regime. Again it is a matter of finding that middle ground, creating a balance that allows a certified system, the use of some chemicals in clearly defined cases, with the side effects addressed.
Generational change and family partnerships are things that have worked well at Te Mania. Tom continues to work with his wife Lucy, his parents Andrew and Mary, as well as his sister Amanda and brother in law Hamish. He emphasizes their important input to the success of the family business and their clearly defined, crucial roles that complement each other.
Communication is important. Regular meetings are held with an independent chairperson; annual strategy meetings take place with different people pulled in to conduct the meeting or lend expertise on a variety of subjects. Every three months a family meeting is held to make sure goals are being met and achieved.
It is not hard to see how Tom Gubbins impressed the judges in The Livestock Producer of the Year award last year. From a very early age he has chosen his path, his passion, and used the tools of modern technology to benefit his program and achieve his goals. With this kind of mastermind it is little wonder that Te Mania Angus has managed to achieve and sustain such market dominance.