SOUTH Gippsland beef farmer Ross Batten can't stress the importance of keeping an eye on production costs enough.
He runs a 400-hectare farm at Buffalo, north of Fish Creek, with his wife Madeline Buckley, and admits to always having a calculator nearby to work out where he can maximise profit and minimise inputs.
"Our big focus is on the cost of production," Mr Batten said.
"Costs have risen so quickly and returns have dropped so dramatically, that it's all about staying in the game now – and being able to weather a period like this."
The couple moved back to Madeline's family farm, with their three children, about 15 years ago.
Although Mr Batten had spent a long period of time working as a soil conservationist with the Department of Defence, and then followed that up with a project management role at AusAID, he admits he's been able to transfer those skills to running a beef farm.
"When you think about it, farming is all about project management," he said.
"It's about drawing a circle around the farm – and measuring the inputs and outputs."
That message was further refined at a BetterBeef program, run by the Department of Primary Industries and Environment (DEPI) – which Mr Batten undertook about two years ago.
"That program was about having a good handle on your enterprise," he said.
"It's important to understand what the profit drivers and where the costs are."
Programs, such as BetterBeef, equip farmers with the skills to evaluate and monitor their businesses.
"It gives farmers the confidence to be in control of their farm and make better decisions," he added.
"And it's that informal, group environment, which gives farmers the reassurance to refine ideas."
The couple are also part of the Fish Creek Beefcheque discussion group.
Back on-farm at Buffalo, the pair aim to run the business as efficiently as possible.
This year the couple joined 580 Angus cows in spring and will calve down 440.
"We are trying to drive down the medium-age of cows in our herd," Mr Batten said.
"That's so we can get to get away from metabolic disorders such as grass tetany."
A high number of heifers are joined each year to replace older animals.
"We had 220 heifers, but we selected the ones that had good udders and ones that we thought could raise a good calf," Mr Batten said.
The business is big on ease of calving.
"Any heifer with a problem does not get to stay," he said.
"My wife calls me merciless."
But it's that ruthlessness that's led to positive results, with conception rates at 90 per cent.
Bulls must be proven, fertile and structurally sound.
"For the first 21 days, we watch to make sure they are serving the cows – and then they are rotated," he said.
Mr Batten preferred to shop around for the best value and quality sires.
"We take a good look at the B3 Index to make sure they can produce a nice article for the feedlot," he said.
The herd calves down in early September over an eight to nine week period.
"We tend to set stock when the cows are calving down, but rotationally graze 90pc of the year," Mr Batten said.
Pastures consist of ryegrass and clover – and are grazed heavily in rotations, then given a 45 to 55 day recovery period.
"The cattle go in at 1600-1700 kilograms per hectare of dry matter and come out at 1100kg DM," he said.
The cost of producing hay and silage was a big on-farm input.
"I don't believe the sort of hay you grow in South Gippsland always brings in a good return, particularly when compared to northern Victoria where the hay has higher levels of energy and protein," he said.
This year, the couple conserved 300 bales of hay.
"We didn't make silage this year, but we bought a truckload of northern oaten hay," he said.
The hay will be fed to the cows during the winter months if required, while yard weaning is also carried out.
Steers are turned off at 450-500kg and sold direct to the JBS feedlot.
"We haven't always tied ourselves into the feedlot market though," he said. "It's so important to look around and evaluate the market to find the best price."
Mr Batten always considered the net price, not gross, when considering other marketing options (such as the saleyards), because the net figure took into account selling and freight costs.
During the past year, the farm also produced some animals geared towards the JBS quality-assured program (grass-fed).
"It might mean we will keep some animals on-farm longer, but it's basically about the abattoir guaranteeing supply to its customers for 12 months of the year. They are putting out forward contracts – and it's worthwhile, but it's not for all of our stock."
In terms of the operation's long-term plan, the idea was to run an efficient farm.
"That's a constant thing … you can't remain static in this industry."