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Is the beef industry at risk of getting left behind?

ANDREA DAVY, Rural Weekly

CHANGE is hard.

Change is uncomfortable.

Change is also necessary for survival in everyday life. Agriculture is no exception.

THOSE were the first few lines of Richmond grazier and ag-tech entrepreneur William Harrington’s Nuffield report.

 LEARNING ABROAD: Hollie, Jack (then two, now four) and William Harrington during William’s Nuffield Scholarship study tour in Canada. Picture: Contributed

In 2016 the father of two travelled across Europe, Asia and the US on a mission to learn about the use of remote monitoring technologies in agriculture and how adoption could be increased by beef producers.

Despite a wealth of evidence that implementing modern technologies can increase business productivity and efficiency on cattle stations, the uptake by some producers remains slow.

His trip abroad highlighted the latest ag-tech developments and Mr Harrington returned home with a deeper understanding of change.

He is now urging the industry and governments to think harder about the concept of change and the methods they use to encourage producers to adopt new technology.

“Change is often uncomfortable and difficult and resistance to change is a part of human nature,” Mr Harrington said.

“External factors like financial pressures, global markets and drought are placing a burden on producers and this is going to create unprecedented change in the industry, whether we like it or not.”

While Mr Harrington shrugged off the notion Australian beef producers were particularly “bad” at adapting to new technology, he agreed there were some producers in need of an attitude shift.

“I wouldn’t want to generalise the beef industry,” he said.

“There are some incredible examples, like Sundown Pastoral Company in NSW that has technology incorporated into every part of their operation.

“But then you get people my age who don’t own a mobile phone and they don’t use a computer.

“Australia has one of the more innovative beef industries in the world and the future of our industry is bright but we must increase the rate of adoption of technology in order to realise our full potential.”

Mr Harrington has walked the talk in adopting new technology.

He was pushed into diversifying the family business as his home station, Olga Downs, wasn’t big enough to sustain two families.

His parents, Carmel and Peter, as well as his wife, Hollie, and sons Jack, 4, and James, 1, all live on the property, which has been in family hands for many years.

After studying computer engineering at university, Harrington Systems Electronics was launched in 2005.

In recent times the family launched Wi-Sky, a business providing high-speed internet to remote areas.

Wi-Sky made headlines after its launch, as news of a grazier taking the bush’s poor communication system into his own hands and building a better solution caused a stir.

During the development and launch of Wi-Sky, Mr Harrington noticed conflicting views on adopting change first-hand.

“There were some people who just weren’t interested in it,” he said.

“They believe that basic, slow satellite internet was enough for a beef operation.

“But then there were people clambering to get hooked up. It’s interesting as the internet is fairly mature technology, the benefits are understood.”

During his Nuffield research, Mr Harrington studied the Adoption Curve, a graph that highlights which groups embrace change first and why.

He has since noted the adoption bell curve perfectly mirrored Wi-Sky’s uptake.

Mr Harrington’s report outlines there are many barriers to change in agriculture, including tradition, time and financial investment, unrealistic expectations and scepticism of technologies.

In order to work through the change needed to modernise the beef industry, approaches that support and promote early adopters, emphasise the value of education and training and prioritise an improvement in the communications infrastructure in northern Australia are a critical starting point.

“Government-mandated change can be unpopular but sometimes it’s the only way forward,” he said.

“I think it should only be used as a last resort.”

Mr Harrington made mention of the National Livestock Identification Scheme, which was introduced in 1999 to improve traceability within the beef industry, was met with resistance from producers.

“The beef industry went into the process kicking and screaming,” he said.

“It’s important that industry understands that sometimes a government mandate can be a useful way to promote change and working with government can be effective.”

CASE STUDY

THE Harringtons have installed cameras at troughs on their station, situated near Richmond in northwest Queensland. The move has cut water checks on the property from three times a week to once a week.

“So we still make the checks, because we want to see other things, but now we head out with the right tools to fix the job,” Mr Harrington said.

“We have found it has given us a lot of freedom.

“We don’t feel chained to the property. It means we can duck away for a weekend in Townsville and know that everything is okay.”

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