IT may be a virtual cliff but it's very real to James Walker of Longreach. The precipice of debt that has so many in western Queensland clinging by their fingertips is driving him to extraordinary lengths to tease out answers to the growing debt burden facing many trying to keep their cattle and sheep enterprises afloat.
Earlier this year Mr Walker launched a national competition as part of the Kidworth Initiative to find real cash solutions to the debt gripping northern producers in the wake of live export cattle shipment bans to Indonesia in 2011, compounded by growing drought conditions at home.
Months later, after 80 submissions from around the country and 800 registrations to the Agrihive website from people keen to see the outcomes of the Kidworth Initiative, 10 finalists, all Queenslanders, have been announced. Share farming, off-farm investments and capitalising on the good years when they come around are some of the ideas highlighted by a mixture of the state's most experienced and most youthful heads.
"They are not university material but that's the best thing. People can relate because they are prepared by fellow producers," is how Mr Walker described the outcomes.
People such as Barcaldine's Bill Chandler, Luke Comiskey of Brisbane, Jean Robbins of Hughenden, Dave Woods at Goondiwindi, Colin Davis, Toobeah, Rowan Douglas, Mungallala, Brett McDonald, Cooladdi, Lauren Crothers and Wally Bell from Dirranbandi, Hannaford's Andrew and Claire Walker, and Margaret House from Aramac will now receive a number of prizes for their suggestions.
Ideas such as selling stock and investing off-farm could not only avoid costly feed bills but supply a 4 per cent profit, one entry calculated, earning 10pc per annum and borrowing off the equity at 6pc.
"We also had the idea of share-farming across regions, matching partners, where both have livestock enterprises in different geographic regions, spreading the risk of rainfall variability," Mr Walker said. "It's similar to agistment or leasing, but both benefit in the long term."
He said 10 finalists had been decided in preference to just one as alternate solutions would appeal to producers facing different circumstances.
The initiative has been hailed in all corners of the country: a national law firm hoped it would help producers identify the opportunities in every situation and encourage greater dialogue.
Professor John Cole, director for the Australian Institute for Resilient Regions at USQ, described it as one of the most innovative, producer-initiated responses for drought-affected beef enterprises for the past decade.
Mr Walker is now busy capturing and converting all the possibilities opened by the Kidworth competition, and has compiled a hard copy book containing the case study and all suggestions received.
Common themes show there are big opportunities to be gained by making simple changes. Things such as reviewing insurance premiums can save up to 20 per cent, which Agrihive is now sourcing specialist help to identify and deliver.
"I can picture how close that cliff edge is for many, which is driving me," he said.
"The collective factors affecting beef production at the moment are jeopardising many businesses and if we aren't careful we will lose some incredible skills. I want to get in the ring and throw a few punches for agriculture in general, starting with the beef industry."
Mr Walker and his wife Manny have had their Longreach property destocked for 20 months, after experiencing two extended droughts in 2003 and 2007. It has enabled him to concentrate on finding ways of increasing revenue for fellow producers instead.
"Collectively, the findings have revealed cost savings, which, regardless of drought, would have made the Kidworths solvent in 2014."
Mr Walker said familiar spending habits tended to end up costing a lot of money as they compounded year after year.
"Even something as simple as eartags for a 500-head herd - people can shop around and save $16,000 over a 25 year period, from a 50 cent price separation per tag."
While an alarming feature of the case study was the disillusionment expressed by many industry representatives, Mr Walker does not intend to lead Agrihive down the political track.
"We are just concentrating on cost savings for farmers. People have been looking for guidance and leadership and not finding it.
"They tell us they're looking to initiatives such as this to help instead."