Benchmarking - the process of measuring your business against another of similar size in the same industry to determine where you could do better. At least that's how I define it, I'm sure many business books have much more technical definitions. Yet it's a practice I find is increasingly common in agriculture, and one I've written about before.
Before you say "My farm is nothing like any other" keep in mind that somewhere there are farms that have similar characteristics, your size balance sheet, farm your number of acres and may offer better returns in areas where you've struggled.
Years ago I did a story with a farmer who used farm business farm management records to measure his operation against others. He found that his cow-calf business consistently underperformed those in his state that were of similar size. Yet he saw he could consistently outpace others in soybean production and profit for his area. The decision he made? He got out of the cow-calf business and turned those acres over to no-till soybeans and boosted his returns.
Big data - as a lot of us call it - is making benchmarking easier. The Field-to-Market program, for example, has free tools you can use to determine how your farm compares to others on a number of conservation and environmental issues. It's a way to identify tactics for your operation to improve performance in the future.
One company - FarmLink - has been gathering real-yield data for more than five years through MachineryLink - the combine leasing/sharing service started 15 years ago. With more than 200 combines in the field each year gathering yield information, aggregating that information for study has value. By aggregating data, the farmer-private information is stripped away, but the general farm size, yield, crop and other useful information is pulled together for analysis.
"It's only when you aggregate data and pull together a million data points, do you find the opportunity to offer the grower insight," says Dan Alcazar, vice president, sales and marketing, FarmLink.
They call the service True-Harvest and it starts more than 6 million acres of what the company calls "highly accurate" yield data that's been mapped by its own fleet of combines. Alcazar explains that farmers who use MachineryLink equipment agree to have their yield information aggregated into the system. In addition, the company has come up with a process that allows them to be assured the combine data is accurate with precise calibration.
"The machines are maintained from farm to farm and we've developed data analysis tools that help us be assured the information we get is accurate," Alcazar says. The first year, the company rejected a significant percentage of the data. Today, FarmLink uses 95% of the data collected for the modeling.
In addition to that yield information, the FarmLink team has pulled together other variables and information to analyze yield potential for a field from soil data to weather information. This is high-level number crunching at its finest, but what's the result?
The folks at FarmLink have built a benchmarking tool that can show you the actual yield potential for a field versus what you got. Sounds a little like science fiction, but massive amounts of historical weather and soil data is publicly available and has been worked into useful tools by more than one company. What TrueHarvest brings to the table is the independent ground-truthing offered by those 200-plus combines harvesting approximately 1.5 million acres a year.
"Actually the average number of farms one of our combines is used on is 4 per season," Alcazar says. "That means it's like getting data from 800 combines." And the information can be parsed down to areas as small as 150-square feet, which is called a micro-field.
With the system, Alcazar says you can measure different field areas to determine key areas where you may be leaving money on the table. Perhaps it's by harvest date, or by hybrid type. Consider it a high-tech score card for your farm; and everyone wants a winner. The key is you can get this objective information as a subscriber.
Cost to subscribe to the service is the price of one bushel of corn per acre, per year. At that price FarmLink is actually sharing risk with the customer - the subscription price is set by the market. You can learn more by visiting mytrueharvest.com. In a cost-conscious year like 2015, the more you know about your fields and practices that make you money the better.