After the recent spell of more settled weather, it’s probably safe to say that harvest is more or less complete, with even the larger potato growers well through. Farmers are of the mind that it has been a long drawn out harvest, yet I don’t think it’s a particularly late finish – I suspect the capacity of today’s combines allows a large area to be cleared in a short time, but waiting for crops to mature interspersed with wet days has likely increased the perception of an extended harvest.
So, has it been good, bad or indifferent? Depends who you speak to because there are growers in each of the categories – harvest has been very variable across the country, depending on location, soil type and sowing date. The media, along with some organisations would have us believe that it’s been a poor harvest in Scotland – and if you look at total tonnages, then that’s correct. However, the area grown is also down – spring barley was the lowest area since 2007, which is no surprise, given the margins achieved over the last few years, so it was almost inevitable that production would be down.
But, if you look at the yields in the provisional harvest results, which is a measure of the farmer’s technical ability, then a different picture emerges. While spring barley yields compared to the five-year average are back by 5%, wheat yields are actually up by 5%, winter barley is on par and oat yields are up by 13%. For all cereals, 2016 yields are almost exactly on the 5 year average (which includes two record-breaking years).
So well done to Scottish growers for maintaining their average yield in what was a challenging growing season.
Back to variability – it is important that we try to identify the reasons for the huge variation in performance this year. With margins where they are, there is no room for complacency. If we know some of the reasons, and share them around then there may be a way to avoid some of the lows and increase some of the highs next time around. I suspect that a lot of the reasons will revolve around weather conditions at key growth stages – particularly moisture, but not all of them.
I’m looking forward to some healthy debate in the upcoming Arable Business Group meetings – not just around the figures, which will surely be challenging this year, but around trying to tie down why it was so variable, and how to avoid or capitalise on these reasons in the future.
The above process – looking for differences and the reasons behind it – is Benchmarking. Up until now we have only been able to benchmark individual enterprises, or by using account analysis for a whole farm approach. None of these is entirely satisfactory as the former doesn’t take account of the whole business and the latter is often 18 months out of date before it can be done.
AHDB are soon going to launch Farmbench – a whole-farm benchmarking tool designed specifically as a management tool for farmers and farm managers. This tool allows managers to assess which enterprise is contributing what to their business, as well as good physical KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) as to how each enterprise is performing. In a group situation, you can do the same thing with other producers.
I wish it had been available when I was managing farm businesses – it would have revolutionised my job, where multiple enterprises were involved. I would urge everyone to have a look at what is an excellent management tool – just wish we could have it now!