Take time out to ask the hard questions about the direction of your farming life

First Published Aug 15th 2020 Farming Independent:

Did you ever get into your car or jeep in a mad rush and realise a mile or two down the road that you are travelling in completely the wrong direction?

In the January to June period of the farming calendar many farmers plough through work in a similar state of mind. Every year I meet a few farmers who fall victim to the increased work pressure at this time. The combination of physical, financial and human pressure are difficult to manage at anytime but when a few pressure events all hit at the same time it can be ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’.

Take for example a dairy farmer in the middle of the calving season and a number of events occur together such as, a bad outbreak of calf scour, combined with being locked up with TB, this would add massively to the workload in an already busy period. Then to add further to the pressure a key farm employee decides to leave, most farmers react in the only way they know how, by putting in the extra hours themselves. Then, the straw that breaks the camel’s back moment could be when a spouse questions the recent increase in size of the dairy herd!! Boom, all hell breaks loose…… 

This is never a good time to make big decisions about the future direction of the farm business. The approach I take to help farmers in these situations is to first help resolve the immediate issues like the shortage of labour in the above example, then agree a specific date later in the year (after the end of June) to discuss the ‘direction of the farm business’. Interestingly, a high proportion of these planned strategy meetings never actually happen. The calves are weaned, the herd is TB free, the new employee is super and the farm family ‘dismiss the straw that broke the camel’s back moment’ earlier in the Spring as just a bad day at the office, all is rosy in the garden again.

This really, is just ‘brushing the issue under the carpet’, it is vital to discuss the learnings from such crises in the farm business, a lot can be learned to better deal with a repeat of such events in the future. 

The months of July and August are great months to ‘take stock of the farm business’ and review ‘what is it is all for?’. Most farming programmes are on autopilot at this time of year so take some time out, preferably away from the farm and ask yourself the following four questions;

  1. Am I happy working in my farm business?

This is the fundamental question to ask in every business. There is no point getting out of bed every day to a job you dislike, it will eat at your heart and soul and that of those around you. Most farmers love what they do, but some do not, and they are not facing up to that fact. The answer to this question is a simple yes or no.

  • Is the current farming programme right for my holding and for me?

If you are happy to farm as a career, the next question to ask; is your farming programme right for your holding and for you? Many farmers just continue the farming programme inherited from their parents, some blindly defending its merits without questioning, why they do it in the first place? Should I convert from beef to dairy, exit winter milk production, go part-time at tillage or enter into a partnership with another farmer? Ask the hard questions and get an outside independent opinion to outline your options before you make a change.

  • How good is the physical and financial performance of the farm business?

So, you have the perfect farming programme in place for you and your farm business, but how is the physical and financial performance of the business? Do you know the key performance indices that drive your business? It is true not everybody can run the 100metres under 10 seconds, but it is vitally important to know what is your time and whether or not you wish to improve on it? The performance of every business must have an established baseline of measured performance to facilitate informed decision making.         

  • What actions am I going to take to change my situation?

The ‘action cycle’ has three pillars: PLAN, IMPLEMENT, EVALUATE. Your plan should be written down with specific targets for implementation. Evaluating or monitoring progress along the way gives you the comfort that you are on track for implementing the changes you had planned to make in the first place. All successful businesses follow this process keep them at the top.

Whether your farm business is flying, coasting along or struggling, the months of July and August are great months put aside some time and to take stock. This country has many experienced consultants and advisors to help you in this process. Pick up the phone or send that email, you, your family and your business will be better for it.