DANIEL LOOKER 10/01/2012 @ 11:30am Business Editor

Imagine driving a grain truck down a steep grade into the Ohio River Valley without a speedometer. If the brakes and transmission work, you can do it, of course. But that missing gauge could mean a speeding ticket.

Today's farms and ranches are like that truck, humming along with mechanical and biological efficiency. But their financial records are missing easily read graphics that could help avoid losses.

Barry Dunn, dean of the college of agriculture and biological sciences at South Dakota State University, wants to change that.

Dunn, an expert in ranching systems, has worked with some of the nation's largest ranches to develop dashboards that sum up key performance indicators.

“In this world of information overload – whether you're a dean of a college or a manager of a livestock operation – you have lots of information,” Dunn says. Unless you're an accountant, finding useful patterns in line after line of data can be hard. Dashboards are computer programs that do calculations in the background to distill data into graphs.

“The goal is to get this data very succinct and on one page,” Dunn says.

Using dashboards

Dashboards typically show line graphs, bar graphs, or pie graphs. Key performance indicators aren't just financial. Dunn has worked with ranches that highlight cow pregnancy rates, calf weaning weights and rates, and inventory over time, such as the number of mature cows on January 1. Financials might include cost of each calf produced, total annual cost per cow, and net income per cow. For grain producers, dashboards may show bushels per acre, test weights, cost per acre, cost per bushel, and profitability per acre, Dunn says.

Dunn's interest isn't just theoretical. He ran a grain and livestock farm near Brookings before taking his previous job at Texas A&M University, where he developed a master's degree program in ranch management. His students have helped top ranches (including the King Ranch) look into using dashboards.

Large companies already use dashboards. Some farmers are using online dashboards hosted by other ag businesses. Key Cooperative in Iowa uses the AgroMetrix program to convert margins to bushels. A brokerage firm, Commodity and Ingredient Hedging, allows clients to track margins on grain or livestock hedged. For your own records, if you Google “dashboards,” Dunn says, “there are hundreds and hundreds of programs you can download.”

So far, most of agriculture isn't sitting in front of dashboards. The 475,000-acre Padlock Ranch based in northern Wyoming is a place where they make sense. Its many enterprises include a 10,000-head annual calf crop, hay and corn silage from 5,000 irrigated acres, and ranch vacations for hunting, fishing, and would-be cowhands. None of the 65 heirs and descendants of the ranch founders is involved in management.

All that gives ranch CEO Wayne Fahsholtz incentives to try dashboards. But when he searched for ones tailored to his operation, he says, “There was not anything that just jumped at us.”

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