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Brenssell Family


When Lloyd Brenssell’s great-grandfather Harry was running Fernvale in the early 1900s it is hard to imagine that he would have foreseen how his descendants would be doing business in 2016. In those early days of felling and fencing if someone had mentioned to Harry that soon everything he needed to know about Fernvale would be in the cloud, perhaps he would have looked skyward and nodded sagely. 

While great-grandson Lloyd continues to keep an eye skyward, these days it’s the cloud he’s accessing through the palm of his hand that holds his interest. Based predominantly in West Otago, the Brenssells currently graze 41,000 stock units (60 per cent sheep, 40 per cent cattle) over close to 10,500 hectares.

“Transparency, clarity and communication is key to the success of our operation so we’ve worked on building a framework that supports that from the ground up.”

It’s a business that has doubled in size in the past decade spreading its footprint from West Otago into areas of Central Otago. As the business has grown, so has the complexity of running a large operation, since taking over the reins of the business in 2014, Lloyd has sort to employ a range of business management tactics more commonly seen in metropolitan boardrooms.

“As the business has grown quite substantially in a short space of time we’ve had to put in place some pretty strong management guidelines to ensure that everyone on the ship is rowing in the right direction,” he said.

The foundation for expansion

Technology has been a major enabler for the sharing of information across the Brenssells’ business with everyone employed by the business hooked in via their smart phone.

“All up we have seven people working on the farm, they’re all connected into what’s going on via a farm management app, we use it to track everything from OH&S to stock weights and farm inputs, it’s been a game changer,"

“All information is synced in the cloud regularly so at any given moment there is transparency across the entire operation, it’s basically replaced every logbook and diary on the place,” Lloyd said.

While technology has enabled better tracking and communication throughout the business Lloyd says that it has by no means lessened the importance of face-to-face meetings.

“We’ve really tried to look holistically at how we work across the business, it’s a bit like a pyramid actually. At the base we have developed a number of policies that serve to outline what we expect from everyone that works on the place, myself included, on top of this are the procedures outlining how we expect everyone to enact these policies."

“We share these via the app but it’s only really the beginning, we have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting, which I see as being critically important, it has to happen. If for any reason someone can’t make it we reschedule for the next afternoon."

“Having that face-to-face time and ensuring we’re all on the same page is still so important and I don’t see how it could ever be replaced by technology.”

Further up this pyramid the Brenssells are also seeking input from those outside their operations by way of an advisory board. “We’ve extended invites to people who have a lot of agricultural experience, basically every couple of months we’ll spend an afternoon presenting to the advisory board about where the business is at and where we’re going."

“We’ll also discuss potential external concerns such as interest rates and market headwinds, we have selected people for the advisory board who will challenge us and provide guidance and direction.”

In addition, every quarter the Brenssells meet with their accountant and Rabobank Rural Manager to discuss financials.

“Every quarter we sit down and discuss budget versus actuals to see how we’re tracking. Rabobank have placed a lot of trust in our business and we couldn’t have expanded so quickly without that support."

“To ensure that trust is maintained we like to keep those communication channels open so that any potential issues such as increasing interest rates can be addressed before they become a problem.”

Focused profitability

Lloyd does acknowledge that there will always be aspects of the business that are out of their control so instead of looking outwardly and trying to influence the market they are focussed on ensuring their business is as efficient and as profitable as possible.

“Our focus has really been about risk management. Given the rate of expansion we’re pretty heavily financed so we need to be confident that we can handle that debt load."

“Expansion in itself has given us substantial productivity efficiencies but we are also looking at each individual paddock and asset and ensuring it’s as productive as possible.”

The geographic spread that the Brenssells now occupy has helped to mitigate some of the weather risk from cold winters and hot dry summers with stock being moved from Central Otago paddocks toward the western blocks as feed begins to dry off.

From Lloyd’s perspective a focus on feed is critical to profitability and thanks to the technology he uses, he has the data to support this focus.

“We’re tending to run a lot more livestock in the hillier country in Otago as we’ve been priced out of the flatter areas,” he said.

“This country tends to be a bit more marginal and sometimes you have to work a bit harder to make sure that stock are getting adequate feed."

“What we’re finding that with both ewes and cows if we can get their condition score up from say a three to a four prior to joining, their birthing rate goes up by more than 10 per cent.”

There is 36 hectares under irrigation to grow additional feed and further drought proof operations.

Technology has also been adopted in the Brenssells sheep stud operations Fernvale Genetics where there is now a large focus on genetic testing. “We have around 2,500 stud ewes and currently sell around 700 Romney, Romdale, Suffolk and Sufftex rams a year."

“Using the DNA testing we’re able to obtain parentage of the lambs at tailing time with over 99 per cent accuracy, we’re also able to look for a significant number of genetic markers such as weight gain, fertility, propensity for multiples and fleece type."

“We have strict breeding policies when it comes to our stud as we want our customers to be assured of quality, being able to show customers the DNA record of an animal they’re buying provides additional transparency to that transaction.”

While almost a century has passed since the first Brenssell occupied the Fernvale farm, three generations are currently working toward its future.

Lloyd and Angela, their three school-aged children, along with Lloyd’s parents Harry and Pru, are proud of what’s been achieved so far and one can only wonder at what farming at Fernvale will be like in 20 years’ time when perhaps yet another generation of Brenssells takes the helm.

Sheep and farmer