In today's competitive environment, the word efficiency is all too often used solely in an economic context. But there is far more to the concept of efficiency than a strict cost-per-bushel analysis would indicate.
Whether a farmer is covering 3,000 acres and struggling to keep up, or farming 500 acres coupled with an off-farm job, time is the most valuable input - and there simply isn't enough of it to go around.
The goal, then, is to increase efficiency by saving time. And there are many ways to accomplish that goal.
Certainly, adopting time-efficient and cost-effective technology is one way. On a whole- farm basis, proper equipment sizing surely ranks number one because timely planting and harvest have the greatest overall effect on a farm's production. Properly sized equipment also provides farmers with the most efficient use of available labor.
OTHER TIME-SAVING strategies include reduced tillage or no-till, timely maintenance practices, employing herbicide-tolerant crops where conditions dictate, and using specialized pieces of field equipment that complete several tasks during a single pass.
And while it may seem contrary and counterproductive to include learning-intensive technologies like field mapping and precision farming techniques in a time-saving context, they should not be overlooked. While they are time-intensive in the early learning stages, there can be large returns from those efforts in later years.
FINALLY, IT'S IMPORTANT to examine your approach to office work and paperwork that most farmers hate. Consider the office trash bin one of the most important members of your management team. Use email, get comfortable with the many resources available on the Internet, make lists and set priorities.
And once your priorities are established, don't let petty interruptions change them. After all, one of the most powerful - and efficient - words in the English language is also one of the shortest. That word is - no. ?
Six Ways To Spike Productivity
Purdue University economist Howard Doster has seen or heard just about every product or idea meant to improve efficiency. In fact, for the past 32 years he's staged an annual Top Farmer Crop Workshop where over 7,000 farmers have gathered to examine the latest available technologies and attend educational seminars.
The workshop's goal is to help those farmers improve efficiency and maintain a competitive edge. Here's what this farm management specialist has identified as proven ways for farmers to increase productivity:
1Base equipment purchases on efficiency, not emotion.
"To be a low-cost producer, you have to properly manage your personal time by using the biggest equipment available," he says. "That is my overriding theme. In the eastern Corn Belt, it means your equipment must be sized so you can plant in 10 working days and harvest in 27-30 days."
To complete spring planting in 10 days, Doster says, a grower would need: four-row equipment on 500 acres; eight-row equipment for 1,000 acres; 12-row for 1,500; 16-row for 2,000; and 24-row equipment to farm 3,000 acres.
"If you want to be productive and competitive, there is no good substitute for managing your personal time on anything else," he says. "What many farmers don'trealize is that machinery costs are size-neutral on a per-acre basis. So a properly sized set of equipment to cover 2,000 acres costs a little less than twice as much as that needed to cover 1,000 acres within those blocks of time. It's the most efficient way to utilize a farm's labor requirements.
"In the next three years I think we'll see major changes in farm size. There's a lot of opportunity in growth, and a major opportunity to increase efficiency for those who farm enough land to use the largest machinery."
2Use a properly sized combine.
Top farmers know what is required to complete an efficient harvest, and Doster says workshop attendees prove it.
"For the producers who attended the 1968 workshop, average farm size was 700 acres, and 85% of them had only one combine," he says. "Last year, average farm size of the group was just over 2,000 acres, and 85% still had only one combine.
"Those farmers understand the relationship that ties efficiency to farming more acres by applying labor management skills on a much larger volume. Most acres, though, are still farmed with less than the largest combine necessary for peak efficiency. But those days are numbered."
3Do maintenance work when it should be done.
Downtime during the critical planting and harvesting windows is the one thing that must be avoided at all costs. Everyone knows it. But everyone doesn't follow through so that they're set up for success.
"The time to do maintenance and repairs on your combine is in December, right after harvest when you still remember all the things that need doing. Same for planters. Do maintenance and repairs right after planting. If you are doing that work just before planting or harvest, you must get off that cycle. Get everything field-ready directly after the season you use it."
4Continue to reduce tillage.
On the most efficient farms - where reduced tillage or no-till systems are in place - the operator essentially plants corn and beans at the same time. He can step off the tractor he's using to prepare corn ground and immediately plant beans.
"With no-till or reduced tillage, much of the labor bottleneck during spring planting has vanished," Doster says. "Harvesting now takes the most labor.
"When you look at expected yields from different systems and their costs, you have to include the 'time cost' of each tillage pass. I believe most farmers can reduce the number of people per acre. You don't have to reduce employees; you can grow the farm to fit them. Or you can do more jobs yourself. Reducing tillage allows you to accomplish that."
5Take advantage of sprayer technology.
While a reduction in tillage has made spring planting more efficient, it also has increased the need for timely, accurate chemical applications.
"There are a number of efficiencies created by taking ownership of the sprayer," Doster says. "First, if you use site-specific technologies, you can reduce the amount of applied chemicals.
"Also, for producers who really get involved, further reductions can be accomplished by monitoring temperature and soil type and other factors that directly affect chemical action. And if you do your own spraying, you can correct a mistake. That's very important in time management."
6Seek out whole-farm efficiencies.
Doster says four factors directly affect whole-farm efficiencies:
* crop mix and rotation,
* machinery size,
* tillage system and
* farm size.
The goal is to find the proper mix for peak efficiency.
"Those four factors are interdependent," Doster says. "If you change one, it affects the others.
"To assist farmers in finding the optimum combination, we've developed a very precise computer program that analyzes the most efficient way to use the primary resources - land, machinery and labor. The model is good for any farming system where yields are predictably affected by planting date or harvest date.
This computer program is a top draw for farmers who attend the workshop, Doster says. "They can work through any number of different scenarios. And if they are planning to expand, they can see how that added land will affect the operation as a whole." F
Spreadsheets Simplify Tasks
When Lotus 1-2-3 debuted, accountants everywhere rejoiced. With its virtually endless expanse of rows and columns, coupled with an automatic calculator, number crunchers had a tool for the ages.
But at the Penny Ranch in Burlington, CO, spreadsheets represent far more than mathematical aids. They eliminate returns at the parts counter, reduce equipment downtime, prevent seed and chemical mismatches, and even help maintain top value when it's time to trade in a piece of used equipment.
"Both at planting and at harvest, time is so valuable that you just have to try and eliminate repairs in the field," says Greg Penny, who is in charge of maintenance, machinery and fabrication for the three-brother partnership.
To avoid those time-robbing breakdowns, Penny tracks every maintenance operation for every piece of equipment. Routine procedures - like oil filter and fluid replacements - are scheduled. But the real value of tracking maintenance data is what he learns over time.
"There are pieces of equipment that we know require more man-hours to get field-ready, so we get on them early," he says. "And I know from tracking maintenance records that some equipment needs beefing up before it ever goes to work. I want my welder doing its job in the shop, not in the field where repairs bring everything to a halt. If you study the records and do your homework, you can avoid a lot of trouble.
"Take planter bearings. If any bearing needs replacement, all our planters get them. If you're running three planters on different bearing replacement sequences, you learn from that."
Penny also uses his maintenance list to avoid wasting valuable time when a new part is needed. His spreadsheet - which currently lists 80 pieces of equipment - includes model and serial numbers, as well as parts numbers for commonly replaced items like filters and bearings.
"When I go to town for parts, I always have this list with me," he says. "Then when they say, 'There's a serial number break on that piece of equipment. Is your number before it or after it,' I know. The time you waste carrying the wrong part back to the field will kill you."
Timely maintenance also makes money. "Part of the goal with this approach to maintenance is to hold machinery value," Penny says. "We just traded a 20-year-old silage cutter for the same price we paid for it. That's value."
On the crop side of the brothers' operation, Kevin Penny uses spreadsheets to plan every move he makes in a very complicated planting regimen. His sheets document every action ever taken in every field, from variety selection to chemical applications to planter speed and seeding rate.
"My No. 1 goal is to assure success," he says. "You've got to be able to track connections between chemicals and seeds, and reactions between chemicals and tankmix components. With proper planning and preparation, there's no guesswork. We know what to do on every field and when to do it. It's efficient, and every task gets taken care of in a timely manner." F
Cash In On High-Tech Tools
In the early 1990s, a group of farmers in Champaign County, IL, joined together to help bring advanced technologies into their lives. None were connected to the Internet. Precision farming technologies were just being introduced. And high-tech seeds and chemicals were emerging in laboratories, not fields.
As part of this countywide effort, an agribusiness task force - along with groups representing health care, libraries, small business, government and education - met to determine how they could transfer the Information Age to their farms. They called their blueprint a "cyberfarm," and it was literally a product of their collective imaginations.
They envisioned mobile computers with home docking stations, wireless communication technologies and digital cameras. They foresaw interactive home pages on the Internet and online business transactions. They wanted real-time price quotes, online marketing opportunities and the ability to research topics of interest from their offices.
Today, John Reifsteck, who was a member of that agribusiness task force, says the timing couldn't have been better.
"When we began there were few opportunities in those areas," he says, "but just look what's happened. This morning I used the Internet to check the markets, I examined current loan deficiency payment bids and went to three different Web sites for news. I bank online, and check credit card and mutual fund balances on the Web.
"Even two years ago this wasn't possible. Now I can do research online and use email to communicate my needs to a variety of sources. In that short time, this technology has gone from time-consuming and confusing to routine. It's not even exciting anymore," he says.
That's not to say it wasn't exciting - and time-consuming - in the beginning. As Reifsteck can attest, building your own Web page is no easy task. But the point, he says, is that adopting technology may cost time at first. But over the long run you save time and dramatically increase efficiency and knowledge.
Take field mapping. Reifsteck began mapping varieties, soil fertility levels and yields six years ago. In the beginning, that steep learning curve yielded only base information - without conclusions. But today that time and toil are producing results.
"There is no question that information is paying off," he says. "With multiple years of data, for example, you can easily pinpoint a drainage problem - it just jumps out at you because you can see what happens from year to year.
"On-farm variety evaluation is another valuable tool. You don't have to have replicated studies like a researcher would conduct. Over time you learn what works and what doesn't. It's a powerful tool when dealing with the seed people. They'll say, 'This is what we think would be best for you,' and you can say,
'That has not been my experience.' And the same thing applies to nitrogen and insecticides. I run strip trials using different rates that I'll evaluate during the winter months."
Reifsteck also is involved with university and company research that is conducted on his farm. The payoff is twofold: The research team pays for many of the production costs, and he gets valuable advance data on new technologies and techniques with little effort.
"It's not time-consuming," he says. "It's just a matter of keeping some records. And I get a lot out of it. If the technology pans out, I've already got experience with it. It saves time by shortening the learning curve."
Because of the time Reifsteck has spent mapping and analyzing data, he can now more quickly determine when new technologies are a fit on his farm. Herbicide-tolerant and specialty crops are good examples.
"Obviously, herbicide-tolerant crops are time-savers, and you can take that time saved and apply it to cover more acres," Reifsteck says. "But the point I make is that we should use the technology where there is a reason to use it, knowing that we can farm without it. If you have areas of heavy weed pressure, the technology fits. In other areas, where you may not have that pressure, it's more economical not to use it.
"Specialty crops are another of the new technologies you have to spend time to analyze. And that was difficult both last year and the year before because you needed to purchase the seed before you knew what the contracts offered. You have to wait until you see the contract before you can analyze the cost of seed and management. Protect yourself by retaining the option to cancel a purchase contract."
aside from new technology, Reifsteck says there are two other areas where time management has had a major impact on his operation. One is the adoption of no-till practices and the other is dealing with paperwork in the office.
Reifsteck no-tills all his beans and about one-third of his corn. "The first advantage of no-till is that I don't need a large tillage tractor or expensive tillage tools. The second advantage is time. When I think back on how I used to farm, the time reduction from all the tillage and cultivation must be at least a factor of eight."
Office work - like all those tillage passes - is another pet peeve. Like everyone else, he hates the paperwork required to farm today. So he makes lists of priorities and sticks with them. And when he opens mail, he does it over the wastebasket. Bills, reading material, paper that needs immediate attention and paper that can wait are separated into four piles. With everything sorted, he sets priorities and makes new lists. Reviewing the past 10 years helps Reifsteck keep everything in perspective.
"When I look back, I have to say what's happened has been shocking," he says. "And now I know that we can't plan for the next 10 years. It's just too great a distance.
"What we can do, though, is plan to be flexible. We must stay open to change because that is what's coming. We have to stay educated and continually ask ourselves, 'What if?' " F
Join Forces For Peak Efficiency
There are many ways to boost efficiency in incremental stages. But when Cottonwood, MN, farmers Don, Rick and Ben Bot combined their operations, they broke the mold. By pooling equipment, converting to no-till and building a multi-task deep banding anhydrous injector, they revolutionized their labor requirements.
When considering their joint equipment needs, they focused on the most efficient way to cover their combined 1,500 acres of corn and soybean ground. They sold their four-row and eight-row planters, along with 15' and 24' drills, and replaced them with a single 16-row planter and two 15' drills matched together with a tandem hitch.
Then, instead of retaining their five small combines, they replaced them all with a single Deere 9600 fitted with an eight-row corn head and 30' bean head.
"It was a huge change," Don Bot says. "Once we pooled equipment and labor, we had the ability to run 24 hours a day at planting if we had to. We couldn't do that when we worked separately. And now at harvest - instead of having everyone in a combine - one of us runs the combine while another hauls the grain. That leaves the third partner open to be a relief man or do other things. We not only updated our technology, we gained capacity and also reduced everyone's level of stress."
The brothers' switch to no-till had an even greater impact on labor requirements. Before the change, their equipment list included moldboard plows, chisel plows, soil savers and field cultivators. And there were multiple passes across each field in both spring and fall.
But with pure no-till bean production they make a single pass through corn stubble with the drill, then follow up with total-post weed control. That's it.
"It was a significant change that held a lot of risk and apprehension," Bot says, "but we produce comparable soybean crops with a fraction of the labor.
"We tried pure no-till on corn, but after two years we had only limited success. Now we've modified the pure no-till corn into strip tillage. We make a single pass in the fall to apply anhydrous and dry fertilizer, and that trip also clears the strips. At planting, we run a conventional planter equipped with row cleaners in those same strips."
Because of the switch to no-till, the Bots greatly reduced their horsepower needs. Every field operation is now accomplished with only two tractors - a 275-hp Versatile 875 and a 150-hp Versatile 145. And those tractors are 20 and 30 years old.
"When you make the switch to no-till, power is not a necessity," Bot says. "We eliminated a number of tractors from day-to-day use and reduced capital requirements and labor."
After nearly 10 years of no-till, he says the greatest increases in efficiency now come from new technologies. They plant herbicide-resistant soybeans, and have experimented with herbicide-resistant corn hybrids.
"Ten years ago we made a lot of passes for weed control," he says. "We used pre-emerge, postemerge - just about everything. But with the herbicide-resistant beans, it's a total-post program. The only priority is planting those beans during the right window of opportunity. Weed control comes later. That technology gives us a tremendous advantage over the weather.
"A total-post program on corn, though, is more difficult. Depending on when we get moisture, grasses and broadleaves continue to emerge over time, and it's tough to get at them when the corn gets taller. So we're considering a fall application of chemicals - with winter rain and snow to activate the products - or perhaps a very early spring application. Ideally, we want to plant, scout and then spray. That's ideal time management."
Another example of time-saving technology is the Bots' deep banding machine used for fall fertilizer applications. The machine can put down five different products simultaneously, each at variable rates. It applies anhydrous ammonia and a nitrogen stabilizer, and there are separate boxes for phosphate, potash and zinc.
"The deep banding machine does so much at once that it's a time saver, for sure," Bot says. "We still have a lot to learn about variable-rate technology, but we've been using it since 1993 and it's very efficient." Along with existing time-saving technologies, they also are employing some new mapping technologies that are real time eaters. But Bot hopes his extensive mapping efforts lead to real payoffs.
He began mapping soil fertility levels even when in high school, and now uses computer mapping programs to track everything from soil type to pH to crop yields. Currently, the brothers are building a laser-generated topographic map they hope will solve drainage problems.
"We began by driving field boundaries with a GPS unit connected to a laptop computer," Bot says. "Then we followed that with a laser survey. Last fall we installed extensive pattern tiling based on topography. Long term, the goal is to create an important base map that we can use for years."
One way they'll apply that information is by conducting split-planter comparisons. By planting eight rows each of two varieties side-by-side, then harvesting them in sequence using a yield monitor, they can stack valuable maps.
"When you stack the yield maps onto the topographic maps, you get an instant comparison between the two varieties," he explains. "For example, we'll be able to see how the varieties performed on hilltops, revealing which one was more drought-tolerant. In the long run, I think these maps will turn out to be time savers because we can accomplish more than one analysis simultaneously.
"As production agriculture gets more and more intense, time management gets more critical. I'm not talking about being 'busy,' I'm talking about knowing the value of the tasks you're doing.
"No one can do it all," Bot admits. "So you have to choose areas of study and select the ones that you think will pay off."