Collaboration in practice
I’m sure everyone is fed up with the word ‘change’ at the moment, with many speculating about the changes which will result from Brexit. I know I am, and I’m sure the only change that any farmers are interested in at the moment involves the weather.
However, whether we like it or not, change is a constant process where each and every business is either moving forward or backward in relation to their peers. Those that think their business remains the same are only kidding themselves.
Collaboration is one significant tool in the farmers’ armoury, to ensure that theirs is one of the businesses moving forward.
Collaboration is a purposeful relationship in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to achieve shared or overlapping objectives. Because of its voluntary nature, the success of a collaboration depends on the participants’ ability to build and maintain these relationships. Collaboration is very similar to, but more closely aligned than cooperation and most collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social rather than hierarchal.
It is relatively straightforward to see where pooling resources would benefit the individual farmers involved. However agreeing and implementing an arrangement which will meet the physical and financial needs of the individual businesses, while nurturing the relationships within the collaboration, can be hugely difficult and involve a massive change in mind set from all those involved.
Collaboration can be two neighbouring farmers sharing a piece of equipment which could be anything from a muck spreader to a combine. The benefits are simple and easy to quantify – savings in capital expenditure from having to buy only one machine and/or being able to justify a more modern and younger machine, reducing the risk of breakdown and poor efficiency.
The next level of collaboration could be defined as two or more businesses working together at a strategic or farm policy level where they share resources in a manner beneficial to both parties. The Scottish Monitor Farm Programme is trying out this arrangement in two different areas.
Two farms are co-hosting the Lothians Monitor Farm – Prestonhall is all arable and Saughland is all grass. They already share labour and equipment at busy times, but this year Prestonhall is establishing cover crops which will be eaten off by Saughland lambs over the winter – adding fertility for one and providing additional, clean grazing for the other. Again the plusses and minuses for each party are relatively straightforward to quantify and account for.
Perhaps more challenging to measure, but potentially giving the greatest benefit is the collaboration between the Lochaber (Strone) and Angus (Inverarity) Monitor Farms. Strone Farm produces strong, hardy lambs under the shadow of Ben Nevis but have to haul in a lot of their inputs while their lambs have to be sold as stores or face a long trip to the abattoir. Inverarity is in the fertile vale of Strathmore with home grown feed and forage in abundance and the choice of three abattoirs within an hour’s drive from the farm. Combining the two resources, it’s easy to see the benefits of shipping freshly weaned, lightweight lambs to where the food and eventual end point is rather than hauling everything the other way and heavy lambs back. However it goes much further and the sharing of performance data between the breeding and finishing phases will allow improved selection of breeding stock to take place, resulting in not only cost savings, but improvements in production efficiency.
It all seems straightforward and obvious, so why isn’t everyone working collaboratively? To me it’s all about mind-set and farmers’ inherent desire to be independent, as well as the challenges of a relationship that needs to be mentored and nurtured for collaboration to be effective.
Farmers are excellent technical managers, but managing people, and particularly managing change has never been their strong point. But then, there has never really been a need for farmers to be skilled in these areas before. However, change is absolutely coming and farmers are going to need to come to terms with new skill sets required to keep their businesses viable and profitable. What better way to start than sharing the process with another like-minded farmer?