Going into the sciences, I discovered the value of writing things down – general advice being, “the more notes the better.” But, admittedly, this takes discipline and may be impractical. In my work I encounter many farmers whose main record keeping tool is their memory. I’m always impressed by the level of detail a farmer can pull out of their head – how many bales they took off a field last year compared to this, or what the weather was like ten years ago. This level of attention to detail is what makes a good farmer.
I’m not trying to replace this first-hand knowledge, but I am trying to help farmers in their decision-making process.
Making decisions by the seat of one’s pants might work if you are clever or lucky, but it is not a reliable way to make decisions. When a farmer needs to make critical decisions it can be helpful to have easily accessible written records to analyze. How much time or effort you spend getting accurate and precise numbers should depend on the type of decision you are making. But, there is probably some measuring and record keeping all farmers can use to improve their operation. Likewise, when making financial decisions, the ability to have accurate accounting greatly improves the likelihood of making financial decisions based on a correct assessment of risks versus rewards.
Nutrient Management Planning
We spend a fair amount of time, in the winter months particularly, helping farmers develop and maintain Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs). Farmers should know by now that plans are required on most operations. Even the smaller farms need to take soil and manure tests, and record the basics. The value of NMPs evolves over time as farmers become more adept at the process and discover what is useful to their operation. One challenge that often arises is that many farmers just aren’t interested or skilled in working on a computer. Through UVM Extension’s class, many are surprised at how they improve in this area, while knowing we are here to continue guiding them through the process. The challenge, and the reward, of nutrient management planning, is that it is an annual process. This means farmers have the opportunity on a yearly basis to reflect on their operation and improve their plan.
Tracking On-Farm Operations
We have one farmer who innovated a grazing calendar to keep track of all his practices on the farm like planting, fertilizing and harvesting, and then enters that data into the computer. Another farmer would dutifully fill out his online records every night after each operation, but that became too onerous this year with the hectic weather conditions. Another farmer keeps his records in a regular notebook, but finds our help useful for his organic certification. Strategies evolve with reality, and it takes times to figure out what works individually for each farm. It certainly requires follow-through, but the rewards can be worth it when it comes time to make major management decisions.
A good tool for graziers are the grazing charts share with On Pasture readers every year. If you haven’t already downloaded yours, there’s no time like the present. Click!
Growing up on a farm, my stepfather’s main record keeping tool was, and still is, a small notepad kept in the pocket of his shirt. Only he could read it or understand it, but it was easy to access for real-time note taking. For years, we would have debates about the merits, or lack thereof, of computer-based records. He was always diligent about soil tests, but recently took a class to write an actual NMP. I notice these days that I find him on the computer more than I used to, as he finds time to research antique tractor parts and watch videos of skidders. As it turns out, computers aren’t as useless or as scary as he might have thought, and hopefully that applies to record keeping as well.
This article was originally published in the Champlain Valley Crops, Soils and Pasture Team Winter 2018 Newsletter. Find more about the Team’s work here. If you’re in Vermont, click here for more information about Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices and Nutrient Management Plan requirements. Or Contact Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org.