Free-range fosters new future

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

With cattle stations in the Kimberley and chicken and pork operations in the Great Southern, Graham Laitt knows WA agriculture from top to bottom.

And the Milne AgriGroup owner is convinced that after some dark times the industry could be at the dawn of a new era.

His optimism is based on the emerging markets to the north of Australia and opportunities that are as much to do with quality as they are with quantity.

But Mr Laitt believes WA agriculture will need to re-invent itself in some areas to take full advantage of new markets.

Milne is best known for its feeds division which has been operating at Welshpool for more than 100 years. For the past decade Mr Laitt has put the company on an innovation path.

Most of its sales now come from new products and new market categories. The best known is Mt Barker Free Range Chicken, regarded as one of the strongest brands in WA and built on high animal welfare values.

Free-range farming models and a shift in focus from grain to producing meat protein are central to his vision for the future.

He is already growing lupins and other crops through an irrigation project in the Kimberley and looking at the merits of using small biodiesel production units to cut fuel costs. And he is marketing a share of the cattle operations to overseas interests with a view to gaining entry to China or other key export markets.

Milne produces feed for livestock and it produces chicken, pigs, cattle and, up until recently, sheep to feed consumers in Australia and overseas.

Mt Barker processes 80,000 birds a week with plans to increase that by at least 40 per cent. Plantagenet Pork produces 500 pigs a week and the Liveringa and Nerrima stations produce 15,000 cattle a year for processing or export.

The company considers animal welfare as core to its business. It has developed a successful free-range farming model for chicken and pigs and begun a major capital expansion after an injection of $14 million through Mr Laitt's private family company.

The model sets Milne apart from the intensive farming practices for chicken and pork that have been targeted by animal rights activists and led to break-ins on some farms.

Mr Laitt said demand for high animal welfare standards was not a threat to farmers but a chance to add value.

"It is one that should be seized," the 64-year-old said.

"For most farmers animal welfare is core business as well as a core value but farmers have to be more successful in communicating this to consumers."

Mr Laitt hopes to use animal welfare to differentiate products in overseas markets where increasingly wealthy consumers want safe food and are prepared to pay for quality.He is banking on those customers understanding that this starts on the farm.

Mt Barker chicken is increasing production to catch up with demand and provide a platform for export growth.

Five farmers are qualified to produce chickens under the Milne model with another about to sign on.

Milne applied the techniques and philosophy from its chicken business to Plantagenet Pork, developing the system to the point where pigs roam paddocks from breeding through to finishing.

Breeding sows and their piglets are housed in little huts, known as pigloos, on paddocks until weaning. Weaners are put in groups on another farm until they grow to slaughter weight.

Mr Laitt said the system required intensive management.

"Correct soil and site selection is vital if the environmental impact of the pigs is to be a blessing for the farmer rather than a problem," he said.

"The pigs are moved usually every two to three years and the site is rehabilitated and cropped to benefit from and remove any nutrients. After the rehabilitation the pigs can be moved back. It is important to have sows farrow on land that has not been used for farrowing before.

"With other protocols, Milne farmers have been able to achieve a very high health status in the pig herds and avoid the need to use antibiotics."

Mr Laitt said Milne had a list of farmers wanting to qualify as pork producers if it increases market share.

Milne general manger of free range farms David Plant has brought many of the lessons he learnt in free range production in England and Europe to WA.

Mr Plant said the Milne model was a way of working cooperatively with growers and securing the critical mass necessary to enter overseas markets.

While the opportunities are limitless, working capital is not. Mr Laitt, who cut his teeth as a lawyer before joining the Peters & Brownes Group and overseeing rapid growth during a 14-year stint as chief executive, believes a lack of capital is holding back agriculture across Australia.

Milne had to prioritise capital expenditure on meat products to start its expansion. And Mr Laitt is marketing a share of the cattle operations to overseas interests with a view to gaining entry to China or other export markets.

Meat and Livestock Australia figures released this week show the value of beef and veal exports rose 8 per cent in 2012-13 to $5.07 billion. Export volumes to China grew tenfold on last year to 92,279 tonnes, and market value rose almost 600 per cent to $411 million.

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