For many people, the concept of retirement conjures up dreams of long beach holidays, time to explore undiscovered hobbies or grand notions of towing a caravan into the sunset. This is not the road Bruce Wood has decided to travel.
Standing on the precipice of retiring from a 40-year career in the oil and gas industry, Bruce leapt into livestock production, about as far away from the grey-nomad existence as one can get.
“I grew up on a market garden in what is now a part of Brisbane. Livestock and agriculture were something completely unknown to me,” he chuckles.
The desire to enter into the world of agriculture was not one he took on a whim, but a highly considered opportunity to secure long-term financial security for the entire Wood family.
“Having retired from full-time employment, I didn’t want to lay around and occasionally call the stockbroker, I wanted to be in a situation where I took an active role in my investments and that very quickly concentrated down into livestock,” he said.
The seed for this seismic shift had been planted in 2011 after a series of work trips to the Hawke’s Bay region on the east coast of New Zealand‘s north island. Dotted with small scale grazing and dairy enterprises, the district is considered one of the Kiwi Kingdom’s most productive agricultural zones.
“I wanted to be in a situation where I took an active role in my investments and that very quickly concentrated down into livestock.”
Observing rotational and cell-grazing operations on one of these visits, Bruce was initially struck by the method’s high yielding results.
Mimicking natural behaviours
Involving the frequent movement of livestock through a series of paddocks, rotational style grazing methods allow landholders to decide when and for how long a pasture will be grazed and rested. The concept is designed to mimic the natural grazing behaviours of wild herd animals and has been shown to accelerate the healthy re-growth and density of pastures in the right conditions.
Returning to Australian shores, the idea of replicating a similar business model played on Bruce’s mind for a time before the opportunity in 2012 to purchase Carolside – 684ha of highly productive grazing country near Naracoorte in South Australia.
“I began looking at rainfall maps and records around Australia trying to figure out where I could find similar climatic zones to New Zealand and quickly realised there was a match with west Victoria and southern Australia,” explains Bruce.
Carolside proved to be the perfect launching pad for Bruce and the Wood family to establish Locmaria Farms – their sustainable and safety-conscious grazing portfolio which prioritises ecology and meticulous data management of each grazing animal, similar to what Bruce had witnessed in New Zealand.
Fast forward to 2022 and the group has since bought five of Carolside’s neighbouring properties, expanding the title to 1600 contiguous hectares straddling the SA/Vic border. Harrington, a separate 400ha property has also been added to the fold, providing additional pastures for Locmaria Farms’ 13,000 first cross merino flock.
Building a team
Curating a team of grazing consultants from across the ditch has played an integral role in this expansion.
“If your goal was to get a team to play the very best rugby in the world, you would look to the coach of the All Blacks. If you want to be the best at first-class temperate grazing, the same thing applies. They are very, very good at that niche,” he said.
While the business continues to grow, attention to stocking rates and pasture productivity remains at the core of the decision making processes. Roughly two thirds of the Locmaria holdings have been developed into cell grazing. With the right infrastructure, Bruce hopes the final third will follow suit, allowing the group to increase their stock numbers to 24,000 in the next four years.
Our target is to eat 85% of grass grown from direct grazing and cutting silage.”
“Grass is the critical resource here. You need to know how much of it you have and how much is being eaten at any given time. Our target is to eat 85 per cent of grass grown from direct grazing and cutting silage,” he acknowledges.
For these targets to be reached, Locamaria Farms now employs six staff across each of the properties. It wasn’t long into the recruitment phase Bruce became acutely aware of what he perceives as an industry-wide gap in adequate worksite safety procedures.
Creating a safe business
He’s not alone on this front. Farmsafe Australia, a not-for-profit organisation monitoring workplace injuries in agriculture records an average of 50-60 deaths on farms each year. Similarly, Work Safety Australia lists agriculture as one of the most dangerous industries due to the number of deaths and severe injuries obtained by workers across the sector.
Only safe business can be efficient.”
After years of following strict worksite safety protocols on oil rigs and gas plants, these figures did not sit well on Bruce’s mind.
“I’ve come out of working in the oil industry and everyone knows that journey starts in safety. If you don’t have a safe business you have a serious ethical issue about how you’re treating people and secondly, you don’t have an efficient business. Only safe business can be efficient.”
This recent crusade has seen Locmaria Farms revise a number of its operational procedures to help mitigate the risks of on-farm accidents. Speed limits now apply on internal roads, quadbikes have been replaced by side-by-sides and front-end loaders on tractors are slowly being phased out in favour of telehandlers. Aside from these physical changes to infrastructure and policies, Bruce credits the shift in workplace culture as a significant achievement for the team
“We work with the team to create a culture which they can own, be a part of and deliver those outcomes. None of us ever want to wake up in the morning and hear that someone has been hurt on the farm,” he said.
“The team has come an amazing distance over the last few years. Everyone knows they can stop any job at any time. A junior farmhand can walk up to a supervisor and say ‘I don’t like that’ and they’ll discuss the best way forward for everyone.”
Follow the data and stick to your guns
Eleven years on, Bruce remains optimistic for a long future in Locmaria Farms and the opportunities the organisation could have to provide future investment and employment for the next generation.
I don’t think the average person realises how important an effective agricultural industry means to Australia and how much bigger it could be.”
With the National Farmers’ Federation releasing its roadmap to growing the agriculture industry to a booming $100 billion industry by 2030, he feels confident in the industry’s growth trajectory but would like to see more opportunities for cross-sector engagement and resource sharing.
“I don’t think the average person realises how important an effective agricultural industry means to Australia and how much bigger it could be,” he said.
When asked to impart some words of wisdom to others looking to challenge traditional farming methods, his advice is simple.
“Listen even less to people telling you why it won’t work. I came into the livestock industry with no experience and somehow I think that was the single greatest resource. Sometimes if you don’t know how things work you have a major advantage. Follow the data and stick to your guns.”