John Austin acknowledges business future with children at the forefront

John Austin's family
John and Jackie Austin imprinted excellent example of work ethic and integrity on their children and grandchildren who will eventually inherit the family business.

Refining systems and succession are two subjects close to the heart of one of New Zealand’s biggest agricultural contracting businesses. John and Jackie Austin – together with their family – run John Austin Limited (JAL), employing up to 40 full-time staff (and another 20 during the season, including young internationals who have experience using heavy, specialised contracting machinery).

They have been in the business for 42 years from their Te Awamutu base, and they now service roughly 800 customers – with most of their work involving maize and grass. The business also includes agricultural contracting, earth moving, stock feed suppliers, cartage experts and leasing land for cropping.

Keeping the cropping side of the process well-oiled and operational during planting and harvest involves three managers organising work, and an agronomist. That is in addition to its mechanics and workshop staff. This is big business – completed under extreme deadline pressures – with little to no room for mistakes. Three administration staff completed the numbers.

Answers in precision

While the answers to the up-front costs of big machinery – compounded by interest rates – remain challenging, JAL has invested in and found important gains for its clients within precision agriculture. It has been an early adopter of every move within this space.

The family was the first to buy a SoilWarrior in New Zealand (which uses variable rate technology to precisely place fertiliser within the growth zone and gently mix nutrients into the soil beneath the surface, so they are less likely to wash away with the rain). It is also heavily involved in the Application (app) TrackIt. TrackIt took everything that could be tracked on-farm or in agri-business and wrapped it into a single platform. The goal is efficiency, reduced costs, more profit and scalable performance.

JAL was comfortably at the forefront of adopting strip tillage and no-till technology more than two decades ago. It completes between 40% and 50% strip or no-tillage in its corn crops, and in grass crops that percentage sits at about 85% no-till. John believes technology is the way forward and that conversation is being extended every year at JAL. It is now imbedded in every system they use – across multiple parts of the business.

JAL has been proactive in helping machinery manufacturers and app developers get it right. “In the last five years everybody has woken up to the fact that all our systems need to be able to talk to each other,” John said. “I think it’s getting better and better, and I think we will get there. The technology will not only give us better information, it will make it easier to use, and it will be more efficient for our operations.”

Results for farmers

On-farm, that progress brings meaningful gains for its clients. “Everything we do is looking at being more efficient, to reduce erosion and to do things better. We have planters that are saving seed because the GPS [Global Positioning System] is not overplanting or overlapping, which includes our spray and fertiliser use.”

“Precision agriculture now includes using yield maps to identify poorer areas and to identify the reasons why they aren’t performing. So, we can then focus on either reducing inputs into that area (if you’re not going to get as high a yield), or we do something to lift performance in that area (if it’s possible with inputs). It could be drainage or fertility issues, or whatever it is.”

“With Precision Ag, we can refine what we’re doing, and hopefully grow a tonne of silage or a tonne of grain more efficiently.” John says managing inputs is critical for the future of contracting.

“I think that our ability to be resourceful and frugal with crop inputs is going to be vital. We are starting to have the tools to know what is happening with regard to not only the crop but also Nitrogen leaching and moisture levels. That is going to be more and more important, so we are really good stewards of the land and of the products we are using.”

And to be honest, the future isn’t ours. It belongs to the kids.

Looking forward John isn’t looking in the rear vision mirror when he says the next chapter of this conversation will fall largely to the next generation. Now aged 64, he currently shares JAL’s day-to-day operations with his son Michael, 28, and he is proactively trying to avoid being a back-seat driver as Michael steps into the lead role.

“It’s fantastic to see Michael doing it so well, and the farmers loving his involvement. The next generation have different personalities, they’ve grown up in a different world, and they bring a whole set of new and exciting skills.”

“It can be potentially challenging when you still have passion and drive to make the difference yourself, and you need to step aside and let them do their thing. I’m not saying I always do a great job of it, but I’m trying hard because our major goal is to see our kids succeed. And to be honest, the future isn’t ours. It belongs to the kids.”

What will never change is the extreme example, work ethic and integrity John and Jackie have imprinted on their children…and now grandchildren. The result of this successful New Zealand business is perhaps summed up in the words of Aristotle: “Excellence is never an accident. It’s always the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution.”

© Waterford Press Ltd 2024 – Independent Print Media New Zealand

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