5 Reasons to Build a Farm Database

Time is precious. Scott Townshend loves data, but what he's learnt over the years is that there’s absolutely no point in collecting data if it’s not the right information and if it isn’t put to good use. He's found that building an easily-accessible database of key information can be incredibly valuable for progressing the farm business, so here’s 5 reasons why Scott thinks that getting your critical operational data into a cloud database is essential. 

1. Know where to spend time

There’s always something to think about on the farm, and any moving parts in the system could need attention at any time. Having your information structured in a way that you can easily access and view it helps to pick up any areas that need attention quickly. Potentially deviating from a spring rotation planner or falling behind on nitrogen applications? Is milk production being compromised by feeding levels? Are penicillin mob numbers are getting too high? A farm information database means having an objective way to know where you need to focus your energy.

For multi-farm businesses, or rural professionals who cover multiple farms, the value of knowing what aspects of the farming operation need attention gets magnified by knowing which particular farm or farms require the most support.

2. Make timely decisions

Knowing where things warrant attention is one thing, but being able to make decisions early is where the real benefit of having an organised farm database lies. In my experience, there are three things a structured database needs to have so action can be taken early enough to have an impact:

Accuracy: Data used to make decisions needs to be solid, and it’s really important to cross-check data points against one another to truth it and confirm its accuracy. Suitable tools and technology platforms can help to maximise accuracy by minimising input errors.

Up to date: Information doesn’t need to be up to the minute to be able to make an informed decision, but it does need to be recent and relevant. 

Context: Overlaying target/budget information or comparing the same data points with other farms can help to give quick decisions context. One of the best ways to know if a decision needs to be made quickly is if you’re aware that things are starting to deviate from the farm plan.

Once information is timely, accurate and truthed with some context, early decisions can be made with confidence.

3. Measure continuous improvement

Having clear, medium-term and long-term goals for the farm business is essential and the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Measuring aspirational productivity levels, financial targets or environmental goals means you’re able to know where the farm has come from, where it’s at and where it’s heading. 

In order to stay on track, I break goals down into blocks of time or even into more granular lead indicators that build up each of my goals. Those regular milestones can then easily be overlaid with actual performance to get a quick idea of whether I’m tracking ahead of or behind my intended goal. Having that farm data readily available in a structured database makes it a painless task.

4. Get more eyes across your business

Today’s farmers need to be excellent soil and pasture managers, have excellent animal husbandry skills, be responsible employers, great custodians of the land, apply solid financial disciplines and, of course, still have a set of bloody practical on-farm skills.

Given that diverse range of required skills, someone can very rarely be a top 10% operator in all facets. That’s why farmers have been great at bringing external capability and expertise in-house for generations. Farm consultants and discussion groups are part of New Zealand’s farming fabric.

Having data in a well-structured database means that people can cut the data according to their needs. A farm manager might want to review pasture allocation; an operations manager or farm consultant might want a view of how feeding levels vary across the business; an administrator or accountant might want to dial up a list of purchases for a particular feed during the season; or a CEO might want to analyse feed eaten stats. It’s all about structuring the data properly so that any number of insights can be drawn from the same information.

More eyes across your farm data can also help with improving performance. Someone might have a specific skill set to analyse an aspect of the farm system, or someone with a fresh lens might spot outliers. Having a database of farm info means comparing notes with discussion groups or providing details to external parties, not cobbling a whole lot of data together when it’s needed.

5. Prove a positive track record

There’s a lot of tangible value in recording farm data and much of the benefit comes from discovering the negative and niggly things. These things may, with early detection and immediate attention, need to be rectified quickly. There’s also a lot of value in building a record of positive farm performance over time to demonstrate excellence. 

More than just total farm milk production, it’s about knowing the potential of the farm across a range of metrics and using this as the benchmark for future seasons. Picking a rock solid farm reporting mechanism that structures data well, and sticking with it, helps you to see progress from day one. 

External parties might also be keen to view a positive track record. For example:

Banking: Having a record of productivity and operational excellence might be helpful in demonstrating to banks that you’re a client worth backing, or demonstrating the farm is in that top 10% of operators when it comes to margin discussions.

Compliance: Having compliance systems and processes in place can help to prevent unwanted situations from occurring or to mitigate their impact, and being able to demonstrate a positive track record of compliance through a bank of data points just helps to show that you’re doing it right.

Farm sale: Having a record of operational performance available means prospective owners can be provided with everything they need to know in one go (and you can even include historical data as part of the farm sale).

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