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Farm Data: A Little Can go a Long Way to Making Good Decisions


We all know that the explosion of big data retention and analysis is affecting our daily lives, but can your farm data help you with your business? YUP. As the brilliant Doc. Brown stated in the documentary Back to the Future, “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

There are many reasons to keep good notes and record data on your business. Daily notes, even if they are just one word or an explantory description, can provide you with information to help you prepare for the following year and gauge how things may play out. If you decide to do slightly more work and collect even more data, you may gain a significant advantage by using this information in your decision-making process.

So what are some of the ways that taking data can impact your bottom line?

You’ll have a better idea of what you have for pasture resources so you can make better decisions.
First, there is the general advantage of knowing how things generally play out on your unique property  Each of us manipulates a completely different micro climate and type of land. This means that my grass may start growing sooner on the low ground, or that certain fields may flood each year around the same time, and this basic data allows me to make estimates about grow-back rates for each separate area. When the summer slump hits 2 weeks early because of an intense drought, a quick review of my notes from previous years will tell me that no matter how hard I wish or pray, this grass will not grow and I am going to have to sell some stock to ensure a profit in this dry year. This year I realized that I have the date of the green up recorded for the last five years so I was not surprised when it finally occurred after the drudgery of winter.

You’ll be able to judge the value of machinery to decide if it’s worth the expense.
Working from this strategy there is also value in keeping a record of each piece of machinery, its usage, repair costs, and fuel expenditure. This may seem like a lot of work but it doesn’t have to be. Just keep a small notebook or sheet of paper in the glove box of each machine. Whenever you use it record the number of hours spent, what you did, any fuel you put in the tank and the type and cost of any repair you make. I estimate that this will take about a total 10 minutes per vehicle or tool to record this data per year.

So, let’s say you spend a total of two hours in a season recording this data for all your equipment. That two hours is going to be very valuable when you sit down to reassess your machinery needs at the end of the season. A lot of us have used equipment that is more prone to breakdowns and extra TLC. After analysis of the data ,you may find that you have spent considerably more time working on one finicky truck or tractor over another. To save time, money, and frustration you would do better to get rid of that machine and either purchase another one or push the savings from getting rid of that vehicle and apply it to your other machine.

Enterprise analysis is another vital part of a diversified business. If you are able to estimate the time, money, and depreciation of each of your tools as they apply to each enterprise, then you can make very accurate estimates of that piece’s value and ability to generate profit. Often I see farms retaining ownership of a machine that is only used for a very short amount of time for one very specific task. This machine requires repairs and maintenance, it takes up space in your barn, and the money that is locked up in the ownership may be better used for a different purpose.  Instead of owning the equipment could you rent or borrow it for that short time when you use it?  Could you accomplish the task a different way? Could you farm the work out to another person so you don’t have to store or maintain the machine for the entire year? You may be surprised how much money you can save when you don’t have to actually own the equipment to get things done.

A little record keeping might keep you from Iron Disease too, an affliction Chip Hines described in this article.

Once You Start You May Find Other Data Helpful Too

I consider data collection and analysis to be mature business skills. Once the shock and the surprises are ironed out of production, I find that many successful folks begin to analyze other areas of their business that did not warrant the same thoroughness in their early years. For example, after having mastered the art of sweet corn fertilization, some farmers are using modern mapping applications to plan their delivery routes in order to save time and fuel. The continued evolution of data and analysis can only improve your business and your efficiency.

As a side note, and unrelated to the business of recording, when looking back through my notes I can feel that day and what was happening from the words on the page. Sometimes it is a detailed description of what I did wrong and sometimes it is one four letter word that meant I was too tired or frustrated to elaborate on at the time. That time, and those feelings, especially if it was the first time that I was doing something, still get my heart beating. It is important to relive those good times and especially the bad times, if only to know that you are going to make it through to the other side.

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Jason Bryan Detzel
Jason Bryan Detzel
Jason is social worker turned farmer and owner of Diamond Hills Farm, a pasture based cow/ calf operation in Hudson, New York. When he is not grazing, watering, or calving he is the Livestock Educator for the Ulster County Cooperative Extension Office. He gets up early, tries to stay up late, and enjoys looking at his collection of unread book. He is currently hard at work trying to slow the rotation of earth in order to increase the length of the days and is the most happy at that time of year when you can smell the soil but not the cold.


  1. Great article Jason. I really like your example of when green up happened after a droughty winter. It gives a person calming perspective when you have information from years past. When it comes to weather, it seems our memory is quite short. With a little bit of record keeping you can look back and realize what is happening now is not that far off from what happened a few years ago.

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