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4 reasons your recordkeeping is worthless

Erica Louder for Progressive Forage Published on 01 January 2018

Recordkeeping – the term conjures up hours of office work and data entry. It’s the nemesis of many a productive farmer, a nightmare of paperwork and frustrating computer programs.

Sometimes, it really is that bad, but good records pay dividends. We have all heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” It was coined in the computer software industry, but it definitely applies when we talk about farm records. Bad records or no records will not produce good results.

Record keeping

Strictly speaking, there are two kind of farm records – financial records and production records. By threat of the law (and the tax benefit) we know the importance of financial records. But what about your production records? Do you have a system? Does it work? And no, your brain is not an acceptable answer. Let’s talk about why your record-keeping system may be “worthless.”

1. You are not writing anything down

If that sentence describes your record-keeping process, no need to read further: This is your problem. The brain is marvelous in its capacity, but unless you have a remarkable photographic memory, you won’t remember everything. Addressing the need to record your farm data, business coach Jean Murray, says, “First you must capture the information. If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.

As you start your business (farm), get in the habit of capturing everything; soon it will be automatic.” This is the first and easiest step in recordkeeping. Write the details down, and don’t be afraid of writing too much. You can always sort out what is important later.

How often are we culpable of this very problem? A couple weeks ago, my husband and I were helping my father-in-law preg check his cows. When paper could not be located, it was suggested to just chalk mark the open cows and write the months bred on their side. Now, I have no problem with this as a secondary source of records. But it should not be the primary source.

One good rainstorm, and your records are gone. In a pinch, use a napkin to write down weights or the back of a receipt to record field yields. Better yet, have a notebook assigned to the tasks with dates and details. But for goodness’ sake – write it down.

2. You are not writing the right things down

You made it to the next step: You are writing your things down, but your records still seem worthless. Maybe you are not writing the right things down. On our farm, this is generally the problem. Last year, we grew silage corn for the first time. Excited about our yields, we recorded the weights and truck numbers to verify against the purchaser’s records. While this data was not worthless, it was the only record we kept for the silage.

This year the lack of records was not an issue – until we began having big problems with our pivots. Having a record of when the pivots were serviced and what repairs were made to which towers may have not saved the headache, but it may have isolated the problem. Now, we still don’t know why one year our pivots worked perfectly and the next was riddled with problems.

North Carolina State Extension agent James Hartsfield says, “Farm managers need a complete and accurate farm records system in order to make informed management decisions that will help maintain or improve farm business profitability.” Take the time to think about what information you should be recording and the problems you are having. The right information will enable you to really analyze your operation, but more on that later.

3. You are not consistent with your records

OK, you are keeping records, and you are trying to record all pertinent information, but your records are still worthless. Are you consistent with your records? Before the advent of modern weather prediction tools, farmers used weather journals to predict weather patterns. In order for their journals to really be effective, they need to record weather conditions every day.

If they could amass years of weather reports at their farm, they could identify trends to help with timing when it came to planting and harvesting. In order to have this valuable tool, it took consistency.

Nebraska rancher Jill Miller told me her family’s rather humorous problem with record-keeping consistency. She says, “My father takes it upon himself to change out the eartags on our beef cattle every third year or so – and doesn’t necessarily replace the tag with the same number.

I don’t think it’s intentional, but it has become a vicious cycle because tags are always being changed, cows end up with the same number, so tags continue to be changed, so we don’t have the same number.” She goes on to say, “It’s become a family joke but a bit of a problem in the recordkeeping. To try to bring some consistency, we include the bangs clip number and sometimes even a description of the cow on the records.”

Lack of consistency on your farm could be as bad as Jill’s problem when you aren’t comparing apples to apples, or it could just be a matter of recording the data on a consistent schedule.

If your data is incomplete, you won’t be able to really analyze your records or, like Hartsfield advises, “Be a farm manager who can use records to determine what the efficiencies and the inefficiencies are, measure progress of the business and plan for the future.” This brings us to our last reason why your recordkeeping may be worthless.

4. You are not analyzing your records

If you have made it this far with a positive score card, your farm likely has good records, but you may be missing a foundational step in your process. You need to analyze that data. What do the records mean? And how can that data impact your operation?

Maybe you don’t need to physically keep records because your farm is equipped with GPS and data collection sensors. That makes the records analysis step even more important. No matter how lengthy and far-reaching your data is, it may still be worthless if you are not analyzing the information.

By definition, this involves critical thinking. Look at the records, identify outliers and consider problems. Think about how you can create greater consistency or how you can reach goals. For example, you want to increase tonnage on your hay field from 4 tons to 5 tons per acre.

If you have recorded the details of the process – planting, fertilizer, irrigating, etc., you could implement improvements to those processes to meet that goal. Author of Fearless Farm Finances, Chris Blanchard says in his book, “Farmers need to keep good records so they can predict the future by truly understanding past results. Our memories tend to trick us into thinking things were better or worse, earlier or later, depending on the lens we view events through; good recordkeeping helps to smooth out the variations our memory imposes, facilitating rational decision-making.”

There you have it: four reasons why your recordkeeping may be worthless and a little advice to take them from worthless to priceless.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho. Email Erica Louder

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