How Fit Is A Farm? It Depends On How You Measure It

How do you measure whether a farm is successful? Today’s answer to that question is likely to be very different from yesterday’s conventional wisdom. In the past, yield—and yield alone—was considered the single mile marker for success. For decades, yield has been glamorized from the coffee shops to the yield contests that turn ordinary farmers into superheroes.

Raising 300-bu. corn might fulfill one of your perpetual New Year’s resolutions and also prove that your farm is in good shape. The new reality is that having a farm that’s just agronomically fit isn’t good enough. Now, you are going to have to pull off the farm fitness trifecta of being agronomically, environmentally and economically fit.

Undoubtedly, the term “fitness” has risen in popularity in recent years and has become engrained as part of today’s societal norms. Just as it is with personal health, the same motivation should hold true when evaluating the health of a farming operation. To get better, you have to have goals—new mile markers. You’ve got to have a way to measure or benchmark those goals. The only way to do this across the board, not just for agronomy, is through data. 

Are Your Measuring Tools Outdated?

If we are still making agronomic decisions on a whole-field basis, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot. That historic 40-acre cow pasture, 20-acre hay field and 20-acre continuous corn field now has become known as the “north 80,” and it has a dynamic mix of agronomic personalities.

Since the early 1990s, thanks to Al Myers at Ag Leader Technology, the combine yield monitor coupled with GPS technology have broken down the physical and mental field boundaries so that we could manage soil in a targeted and consistent fashion. The growth of precision technologies gives us confidence that input dollars are hitting bull’s-eyes instead of being scattered in shotgun fashion across a field.

Exponentially detailed data at the field level will be required to fuel the next leaps forward, including IoT and artificial intelligence. In the seasons ahead, a farm’s agronomic fitness will be driven by how data-rich the farm is.

Like Credit Scores, Your Farm’s Environmental Scores will Matter

President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change on  his presidency’s first day. Climate, carbon and sustainability matter more than ever. 

External market, societal and political forces focused on the environment are poised to transform agricultural production practices more than we have seen in our lifetimes. The question: Will there be more of a carrot or a stick approach at the producer level to advance these lofty goals? 

Regardless, new measuring tools will exist to rate farms and fields. Data will be paramount. By data, I mean complete digital field activity records, not back-of-a-napkin notes or some end-of-season, fill-in-the-blank survey.

Bottom Line—The Bottom Line Must Come First

We’ve all heard: “We must double food production by 2050.” By then, this planet will supposedly have 9.8 billion mouths to feed. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing this because there are going to be a lot of hungry souls if agriculture is not first economically healthy at the farmer level. 

So if farmers are to remain chained to the agricultural treadmill, the first order of business on the farm from this day forward will be to understand profitability at a level of granularity few have ever seen and even fewer have actually practiced. That means putting the tools, technology and sweat equity in place to vet every acre, every seed, every input and every management move. Investment in technologies at the farm level to measure efficiency and ROI must be made priority No. 1. Ford Motor Company knows down to the lug nut what it costs to produce an F-150 pickup. You need to be able to do the same for each bushel of corn produced on each individual acre. 

Bottom line reality check—will a farm have the level of data necessary even to enter the race? 


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