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6 ways to boost efficiency

Great athletes like pro basketball's LeBron James make their sport look easy. In reality, it's not easy. Natural talent and endless hours of practice make athletes like James a model of efficiency.

Great farmers are like that, as well. Naturally, they attract the interest of landlords and farm managers.

“I want someone who makes it look easy,” says Randy Hertz of Hertz Farm Management, Nevada, Iowa. “If you are well organized, things will go smoothly, even with catastrophic weather.”

Being a model of efficiency isn't easy, though. “You have to have good weed control, and the planting time has to be perfect. There are many decisions that have to be made to make for a productive and profitable operation,” says Hertz.

To survive, however, you have little choice. “The function of a competitive market is to drive an average producer to break-even levels,” says Danny Klinefelter, a Texas A&M Extension economist. “At breakeven, the middle of the pack will hang in, but the bottom will be forced to exit from the industry.”

Survivors may then say let the chips fall where they may. In reality, those in the middle then become the bottom and will fall by the wayside during the next shakeout if they don't move up, he says.

Here are six agronomic and management tips you can use to hone your farm's efficiency to survive and thrive.

1. Plan for the four d's

What would happen to your operation if one or more of these four D's occurred?

● Death

● Divorce

● Disability

● Departure from the farm

Or consider these other scenarios. What would happen if current creditors shut off your farm's financing? Could you survive if a key employee left? What if a key land contract fell through, diminishing your land base?

Planning now instead of in the heat of battle allows you to develop a rational plan to blunt the impact of such occurrences, notes Klinefelter.

2. Analyze your farm regularly

This one is easy to put off as a beginning- and end-of-the-year exercise. It's also natural to think of it as a chore.

Top farm managers whom Klinefelter has observed think differently. They think of it as an opportunity.

“They stay on top of their budgets over the whole year, monitoring what's going on,” says Klinefelter.

This way, problems can be detected and addressed. “Otherwise, you'll have blinders on and go in the same direction,” says Klinefelter.

3. Target time toward the top payoff

The top reason goals do not get accomplished is because many farmers spend too much time doing second things first,” says Klinefelter.

“Do things first that are the most important,” Klinefelter says. “If you don't have time to do the less important ones, delegate or outsource them. Don't spend your time doing $10-per-hour tasks. Put your time into where it has the highest payoff.”

4. Conduct autopsies

This isn't something out of the television show CSI. Autopsies are conducted on businesses, not on people. Still, the same principle applies.

When Klinefelter worked for the Farm Credit System, loan officers would conduct autopsies on problem loans they had made.

“The idea was to look at results of big things we had done during the year,” he says. “Could we have handled it better? Was there something we missed? Were there some corrections we could have made but we didn't?”

The same principles can apply to farms. Reviewing major decisions and considering other ways those decisions could have been made can improve future decision-making, Klinefelter says.

5. Consider all expansion angles

Conducive weather to corn production and hybrids that withstand northern conditions are a couple reasons why corn production is booming in south-central North Dakota. The region's farmers have responded by investing in machinery to produce corn.

Remember, though, that expansion requires considering all angles.

In the case of Bart Schott, Kulm, North Dakota, his biggest challenge was finding a way to handle all the additional grain. So he met with a South Dakota State University Extension agricultural engineer to revamp his grain-handling system for corn production.

“We sat down and analyzed my farm, and we found a way to keep trucks moving with my eight-row head combine,” Schott says. “We put in a new wet holding bin and installed a 13-inch unloading auger. We doubled dryer capacity from 500 bushels an hour to 1,000 bushels per hour, matching it with what we could combine efficiently.”

6. Think long term

It's easy to get caught up with day-to-day agronomics. Still, it's important to consider the positive long-term effects that boosting your soils organic matter can have on your farm. Soils with high organic matter help farmers better manage water and plant nutrients.

Conservation tillage is a good way to do it. Decaying root matter eventually helps boost organic matter. The same goes for manure applications. Both help feed soil microbes.

To build organic matter, you need to feed and care for those soil microbial system, says Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist for the USDA-ARS Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.

“We have tended to treat soil in a lot of agronomic systems as almost a sterile system,” says Hatfield. “We haven't valued the role that the soil microbial system plays.”

Another perk of conservation tillage is soil erosion reduction. Like building organic matter, this can have positive long-term effects.

“If you reduce erosion, you are saving that soil for future generations,” says Hatfield.

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