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Increasing management levels on a budget

Agriculture is getting more intense

November 20, 2007  By Kevin Elmy

Agriculture is getting more intense and requiring higher levels of management
every year. Insects, diseases, new markets, new technologies and the weather
are all driving us crazy. The options are either to turn away from these problems
and hope they will go away, find solutions ourselves, or get someone else to
find the solutions.

As in any industry faced with tight margins and a harsh economic environment,
producers will cut costs, increase production, or change production. For most,
the first thing to cut is any unnecessary costs. Increased production is the
next thing to be looked at. Changing crop types is the other option. This requires
looking at each crop grown and the net margin returning to the farm. This takes
some time working with the accounting books, but is required to see where the
dollars are coming into the operation and where the expenses are going. This
may take some specialized help outside the farm and will require more detailed
accounting practices, but will show returns quickly.

Chemical and fertilizer suppliers, local production groups, independent agronomists,
seed growers and companies, commodity groups and government agencies usually
have winter meetings, summer tours, trade shows and resource people to provide
good information. From these meetings, networking with other producers is a
great learning tool.

The internet is another tool that has a huge pile of information from around
the world. Most universities and governments have their extension department
publications available on-line, along with contact information about their departments.
Once again, it takes time to do the searches and get enough background information
to see if things fit into the operation.

The local chemical representatives are a good resource. Good representatives
will tell you not to spray or do further management if it is not required. They
will advise in their favour, but if the rate of return is low, they will advise
not to go ahead. They want to see the most benefit for you so you will continue
using the product. As professionals, they are going to try to help you long-term
and not just to pad their sales numbers. Representatives who are not looking
out for you as their customer, will not last in this industry. Companies will
spend a fair amount of time and money on product guides, identification tools,
research sites, and demonstration aids to educate and prove products.

The most powerful tool out in the market right now is on-farm trials on your
own farm. It is nice to see that in western Canada, the average yield increase
from using a product is 10 percent. However, what about your farm, under your
management practices, your soil and your equipment given that the same management
is used on all treatments. There are weigh wagons in the countryside that seed
or chemical companies have for use in trials, especially for their products.
The biggest thing to remember is that one year does not make a decision. See
how the trial on your farm matches with the trials in the area, province and
region. On two canola yield trials on Friendly Acres Seed Farm in 2005 that
were less than 1000 metres apart, the same variety went 24 bushels and then
51 bushels per acre on the other field. Topography messed up the one field,
which caused waterlogged soils and low yields.

Yield monitors and maps are a blessing when dealing with trials such as this.
From yield maps, trials can be done and then we can see what the yield maps
show. It is interesting to look at yield trial maps and see distinct blocks
of colour representing different yields. On a winter wheat field, field history
showed up as a significant difference in yield. Where a hay field once was,
yields of winter wheat were averaging 90 plus bushels per acre. Where there
was no forage history, yields were averaging 60 bushels per acre. Visual determination
is very difficult when differences are under 10 percent.

Start a producer group in the area
There were many groups back in the 1980s and they slowly disbanded. The producer
group does not need to have a huge number of members and does not need to be
solely based on crops, beef, or management. It requires producers with questions
and who are willing to share their experiences with other producers. Speakers
are available to come and share their thoughts. They range from chemical representatives,
agronomists, grain buyers and marketers, fertilizer representatives, seed companies,
seed treatment specialists, forage companies, research scientists, media, equipment
manufacturers and retailers, other producers and anyone else involved in the
agricultural industry.

Make time to have three or four meetings per year to cover timely topics. It
gives the group the ability to do comparison shopping on inputs, find marketing
opportunities, diseases or insect concerns and what to do about them, and product
reviews. This does not mean merging farms or conforming to what the rest of
the group is doing, it just helps to give a sounding board and a support net
for the group. No one is good at everything. In the group, one member may be
the cattle person, another the disease identifier, another the mechanic and
the fourth the marketer.

As an industry, agricultural managers are modest about the knowledge that each
has. Each has strengths and weaknesses. As managers, they need to know where
help is required and where to look for it. Help may be as close as a neighbour.
Industry representatives are available for producers to contact and provide
information. On-farm trials give a sense of reality since it is grown on your
land with your management. Go out, talk to producers, use the resources the
companies have available, take some classes, go to meetings and utilize the

Knowledge is power.

*Kevin and Christina Elmy operate
Friendly Acres Seed Farm near Saltcoats, Saskatchewan. Kevin is also a crop
advisor for Western Ag Labs.

* * *

Top Crop Manager welcomes reports
from demonstration farms. Contact Peter Darbishire at:
145 Thames Road West
Exeter, Ontario N0M 1S3 Canada
Telephone: (519) 235-2400, ext 235


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