We have just finished the winter season of farm shows. The latest and brightest creations were on display. It brings back memories to my first days in the industry in the late ’80s. I remember a common theme of “adapting to change.” Speakers at conferences often preached, “If you do not adapt to change, you will not survive.”
As I look back at my clients who have done very well, I cannot contribute their success to adapting to change. So I am challenging this theory.
The first change that was introduced in my career was zero-till practices. During a time of lower moisture levels, this was a welcome change. The seed-placement technology was advanced. The fertilizer placement was revolutionary. Those first companies of Seed Hawk and Conserva Pak showed us seeding methods we had never dreamed of. Soil conservation became the newest trend and a switch to no till guaranteed success. Yet many farmers who purchased that equipment in the ’90s ended up failing. Many farmers who stayed with conventional seeders succeeded. Why was it that some farmers who adapted to the changes still failed?
The reason is that they did not have the fundamentals right. If you go back to a horse-drawn drill, there are fundamentals of crop production that must be perfected before moving on to alternate practices. The seed needs to make contact with the soil and have an appropriate amount of pressure applied to it. The soil has to have a balance of nutrients available to the seed. These nutrients include the macro elements of nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and sulphur as well as a host of micronutrients. The soil must have the appropriate acidic qualities as well. The field must be free of weeds both at the time of emergence and through the growing season. The seeds grown must have germination and vigour. If you have not mastered all of these elements of crop production, new technology will not help you. As much as we would like to say that grain production has advanced, it remains the same as when our forefathers seeded with horses.
The changes in technology can be credited with a few successes on their own. We can state that the advent of zero till has conserved moisture which will grow more grain. Today’s seeders have more accurate seed metering. Seed placement and packing is more accurate as well. But the technology only goes as far as the basic fundamentals.
Spraying is another area of great advancement. We have gone from a 45-gallon drum attached to the hitch of a tractor running 2-4D out some booms to self-propelled sprayers that can cover 160 acres in an hour with pinpoint accuracy. My experience tells me that the technology is not responsible for the clean fields. Those very first sprayers and today’s machines have the very same fundamentals. Producers need to get an active ingredient from the chemical distributed upon the plants across the fields in an even manner. That distribution includes the correct coverage on the plant. If this knowledge is not mastered, the technology will not help.
The advancement in chemicals can be attributed to the success of producers. We now have a range of products we can use to control weeds. Unlike 30 years ago, we also have fungicides to control disease. But if you did not understand the concept of how 2-4D and Hoe-Grass worked, you will not be helped by the new technology.
The livestock industry has not been immune to the world of change. We have gone from calving in a barn in January to unsupervised calving in June. We have transitioned from feeding small square bales in the hayloft to not feeding bales at all and having the cows eat standing corn all winter long. Starting the tractor has now become a swear word in cattle farming. The trend is to figure out how to feed cows all winter long without a tractor being employed each day.
All of the new feeding techniques will not be useful if there is not a basic understanding of nutrition. What a cow needs for food during the different stages of life has not changed. Understanding the fundamentals of nutrition during maintenance, breeding first-second-third trimester, lactation and post weaning is the key component to a successful cow/calf operation.
As I talk with different farmers, it is interesting to get their take on adapting to change. It is most interesting to examine successful producers to find common elements that attributed to their success. One common attribute is a solid understanding of the fundamentals. Successful producers are only interested in change if they feel it will improve the fundamentals. For example, a new air drill that applies seed and fertilizer more accurate is appealing. A new air drill that is bigger and requires less filling time is not as important. Another example is a new sprayer nozzle that has better plant coverage; this is appealing, whereas a drone that sprays the field by itself is not that appealing.
Successful producers are always looking to improve. That does not always mean new technology. Sometimes improving the farm is going back to the basics and ensuring you have mastered them. I see grain farms that produce more grain and profit than their neighbour with the same technology. I see ranches that have better catch rates and weaning weights than their neighbours with similar genetics. How does that happen? If two farms use the same technology but one achieves more productivity, it cannot be the technology that is responsible. The only answer is an attention to detail on the fundamentals.
A wise friend of mine once told me, “If you hear footsteps, don’t look for dinosaurs.” When something is not working quite right, make sure all the little things are being done right first before making huge changes. Before you mortgage the farm to buy the latest and greatest technology, make sure the basics are perfected.