WHEN brothers Peter and Neville McMahon started up their McPiggery business in the 1970s, they ran a 3200-hectare property at Kulkami, near Lameroo.
Today, the business had expanded to cover almost 18,000ha, spreading from Marama near Karoonda, to Wilkawatt near Lameroo, to south of Parilla and to Coonalpyn.
It also employs 30 people, including Peter and Jenny McMahon's three daughters and their husbands.
Peter and Jenny's grandchildren are now the fifth generation in the family involved with agriculture.
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The couple's eldest daughter Kate Venning is married to Sam Venning, McPiggery's cropping manager, and they have two daughters Madi, 10, and Evie, 8.
Their middle daughter Kim Thorpe is married to Haydon Thorpe, who works across the farming operation, and they have two children, daughter Ada, 5, and son Kobe, 3.
Peter and Jenny's youngest daughter, Nicole McMahon, is married to Duane Simon, who is McPiggery's sheep manager, and their daughter Billie is 1.
All three of Peter and Jenny's sons-in-law are also from country backgrounds with Duane and Sam growing up in Pinnaroo and Haydon hailing from Kangarilla.
They also bring their individual skills to the business, with Haydon previously working as a carpenter, while Duane had been a shearer and Sam always had a passion for cropping.
Their daughters' skills are also well-utilised in the management team, with Kim having completed a rural business management degree through Marcus Oldham College in Geelong, Vic.
Diversification can be a business's downfall if there is too much going on at once.
Nicole is a CPA accountant and worked for several years in Adelaide before returning home to the family business.
Kate does off-farm work and is employed three days a week as a teacher, as well as helping out whenever needed in the McPiggery office.
Diversification in the three enterprises has been key for the McMahons.
"Diversification can be a business's downfall if there is too much going on at once, and there's not enough labour to make it work during critical or busy times of the year," Kim said.
"However, McPiggery have set up the business with separate enterprise managers to ensure planning, focus and resources are given to each enterprise. This ensures each enterprise is viable and performing well, in their own right."
Mallee ties extend back 90 years
The McMahons have farmed in the Mallee since 1929, when Peter and Neville's father Ignatius moved into the region with his family.
Ignatius' father Charles had originally farmed at Peterborough, but sold the property and plant and moved to Adelaide, where he got into the property market.
But when the Depression hit in the late 1920s, and unemployment skyrocketed to 30 per cent, the bottom fell out of the property sector.
This led the McMahon family to farming again, clearing land at Kulkami.
Our piggery in the beginning was like on most farms, it was just a sideline business.
From those humble beginnings in the region, today the family crop about 5000ha, producing about 8000 tonnes of grain annually.
All the grain produced goes to the pigs, unless an excess is produced in a particularly good season.
They could run up to 9500 ewes but due to the present seasonal conditions, that number is down to 7300.
About 2000ha is sown to pastures, while the piggery is a 1650 sow enterprise.
Peter always had an interest in pigs and what started as almost a hobby grew substantially when he decided to grow them himself, rather than buy them in.
"Our piggery in the beginning was like on most farms, it was just a sideline business," Peter said.
"In the wheat quota days of 1970 there were pigs under every sheet of iron in the Mallee.
"We were buying in store pigs to grow out, however this ready supply of store pigs, with the ending of wheat quotas, would eventually become limited, so we moved into breeding our own pigs. Across many years we developed what was a sideline into a standalone business.
"Not that it was a plan for myself, Jenny and Neville, but now with all the family involved, our business has continued to evolve, growing the sheep and cropping enterprises."
We've all found a demand for our skills within the business.
Peter took a great interest in building as a young lad, and before leaving school at the age of 15 to help on the family farm, as many did in those days, he aspired to be a technology and design teacher.
Jenny said that Peter's note books have always been filled with plans, drawings and ideas for piggery systems and designs.
It's therefore no surprise that the piggery has expanded over the years through Peter's passion and interest for building.
Peter likes working with people so is comfortable with the demands of balancing staff with work requirements.
"Labour is the backbone of our business" Kim said.
"We really value our staff, and dad holds a high regard for working closely alongside our people and appreciates and values the strengths of each individual."
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With Peter's brother Neville always more of a sheep man, the two brothers focused more of their attention on their own areas of interest, while still working alongside each other.
"Neville was always very willing to teach and was never afraid of letting someone have a go, he let Duane make his own mistakes and worked well alongside him to help hand over the reins of the sheep side of the business," Nicole said.
"Sam worked his way up in the business to fully manage the cropping side. He started in the piggery enterprise and has worked hard to get to where he is today."
Kim returned home in 2006 and worked initially in the piggery and then the sheep enterprise and since having children has spent most of her time updating and improving business processes and systems in an enterprise which has fast grown from a small family business to the larger operation it is today.
Nicole highly values her off-farm experience with other businesses prior to returning home. Her accounting skills have proved valuable for farm reporting and budgeting.
"We've all found a demand for our skills within the business," Nicole said.
We're now focused on making sure we're maximising all of the businesses, so they can stand on their own.
Kim said with all three arms of the enterprise - pigs, sheep and cropping - the family was working towards making them all standalone businesses in their own right.
"When we originally started, the focus with the crops was feeding the pigs, and the sheep utilised the country that couldn't be cropped," she said.
"But we're now focused on making sure we're maximising all of the businesses, so they can stand on their own.
"A major part of this plan has been the acquisition of better cropping land, which has allowed the sheep enterprises to expand as we convert marginal cropping land back to pastures.
"The recent purchase of a Coonalpyn property, as well as taking us to a higher rainfall zone, was an additional expansion of the sheep enterprise because of its standalone success."
Name well-known in saleyards
McPiggery has built up a great name for itself at the Naracoorte first-cross feature sale and is always among the top price pens.
The McMahons have been sending ewe lambs to the selling centre for more than 10 years.
In that time, they have received four blue-ribbons for having the best presented sheep in the sale.
In 2017, the family set a record for ewe lamb prices at Naracoorte, making $326, a record they still hold.
But they did not sell through Naracoorte last year and instead offered their draft six weeks early through AuctionsPlus, due to the adverse seasonal conditions.
It was a move that paid off, with 1470 of their March/April 2018-drops making extremely good money, selling to $306 and averaging $266.
One of the keys to the family's success with their sheep is Duane's passion for sheep and all aspects of the industry, from breeding and genetics, to nutrition and innovations in the industry.
Duane said by using rams from different studs, he was able to select towards the top of the catalogue at each, rather than having to go further down the line by just attending the one sale.
Duane said while 60 per cent of their ewes used to be mated to Border and terminal sires, and the rest to Merinos, that figure has gone down to about 45pc, as they are trying to create more selection pressure to lift the quality of the ewes they have on the farm.
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The family has also moved to six-monthly shearing in the past three years.
"With six-monthly shearing, the main challenge is to hit the 65 millimetre to 70mm staple length to maximise our return on wool," Duane said.
"I estimate there is an extra kilogram of wool cut a year and there is easier health management of the animal for fly control and lambing."
Duane said there were a range of management strategies he used to get the most out of the sheep side of the business.
"We reclass all of our ewes and hoggets annually," he said.
"We've also been pregnancy-testing for about 12 years, which allows us to focus nutrition on multiple baring ewes and destock dry ewes if feed is limited, or rejoin dry ewes to maximise returns.
"We're always working on nutrition and we've also done a lot of work on our pastures. By using a mix of perennial pastures, sown feed and annual pastures, we've been trying to reduce our feed gaps."
Always keen to be involved with industry work, McPiggery will this year be the SA Merino Sire Evaluation Trial Site.
Hay importance increases
On the cropping side, Sam also has a strong interest in industry involvement, having served as the president of the SA No-Till Farmers Association, of which he is still a committee member.
The involvement fits in well with his farming philosophy of having full stubble retention and a focus on ground cover.
With 5000ha of continuously cropped ground, Sam sticks to a rotation of 50pc cereals and 50pc break crops for grass control. Break crops include lupins, peas, beans and vetch.
"We're now doing a lot of hay, some for the export market and some domestic," he said.
"Ryegrass control and moisture conservation is the main reason hay is in the program.
"I try to get four or five years of grass control. Rather than having one break crop followed by cereals, I try to string break crops together to reduce grass burden."
Luckily, we can draw in other labour units, from other parts of the business, at seeding and harvest.
Hay also helps give options in other areas.
"Frost is still the thing that causes us the most grief," he said.
"Last year we cut nearly 2000ha for hay, and 600ha of that wasn't planned to be cut but it was due to frost."
As well as Sam, three full-time staff work on the cropping side of the business.
"Luckily, we can draw in other labour units, from other parts of the business, at seeding and harvest," he said.
"We have floating labour units to do anything from trucking or fencing, and they can directed to different areas of the business."
Straw bedding from the piggery is used in the cropping program.
"I've been spreading it on our lighter soil types, to try and get more cover on those areas," he said.
The family works closely together and Jenny says there have been a few major keys to success when growing the McPiggery business.
"Good communication with each other is very important, as well as looking after the staff," she said.
"Being passionate about what we do has also been key, as well as being bold enough to try new things on-farm."
Kim said all of the family were very big on community involvement.
"We see that as being fundamental to rural towns," she said.
"We all hold volunteer positions on various sporting and community groups."
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Jenny and Peter often host university veterinary and animal science students to complete the practical components of their studies.
"We enjoy supporting these students in furthering their passion and interest for the pig industry," Jenny said.
With so many family members involved in the business, Kim said succession planning and looking to the future was something that was constantly being worked upon.
"We hold fortnightly manager meetings, along with quarterly family board meetings, to make sure we're keeping a strategic focus within the business," she said.
"It's easy to get bogged down in the operations and lose sight of the big picture - so a conscious effort is made to spend time working on the business and not just in the business."
Nicole said getting advisers' input into the business was also crucial, to get an outside perspective on how to ensure the business continued to grow into the future.
The family is focused on not just this generation, but the generations to come.