Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Mike Brady: The banks and accountants are the real digital dinosaurs in our farming sector

Mike Brady
Mike Brady
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

Today's farmers have a vast amount of information at their fingertips to assist them in the running of their farm businesses. Are farmers using this information well or are they just showing off their latest electronic gadget and quoting useless statistics?

When I commenced my career as a dairy consultant over 30 years ago, it took a minimum of two years from the first farm visit to get to know a farm business. Today, one can know a farm business before you even meet the farmer or visit the farm. In fact, with access to the information available today, you can often know more about the farm business than the farmer himself.

Many farmers do not even realise how much information is floating around online about their businesses.

This information revolution has hugely influenced the way farmers and their suppliers manage their businesses, but the sheer volume of data has left many struggling to understand what is important and what is not.

So where is all this information coming from?

For example, I recently visited a traditional dairy farm run by an elderly bachelor farmer. He milks 100 cows and keeps 25 heifers as replacements. He uses the local artificial insemination technician to AI all cows and heifers (no bull on the farm) and the herd is registered full pedigree.

The only recording the farmer carries out himself is the registration of births, deaths and movement of livestock - all done manually with pen and paper. This farmer did not own a computer nor a smartphone, but did have an old Nokia mobile phone and he could send and receive texts.

To most outsiders this farmer is a digital dinosaur. However, on his instruction I had to commence an analysis of his farm business.

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Firstly, I got him to sign up to his milk processor online service. Immediately, I had access to all his milk data, volume of milk sold, butter fat percentage, protein percentage, SCC and TBC for the last six years at my fingertips. This also gave me access to all his trading data and, as he purchased almost everything from his milk purchaser, I had the feed and fertiliser usage data I required.

Next, I got him to sign up to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) online herd plus service. Now I had access to a vast amount of information on breeding indices and the ancestry of the dairy herd. I had all the fertility performance data (automatically uploaded from the AI technicians hand-held device), calving reports, more milk data from milk recording reports and all his livestock numbers for the last six years. I now had all the information I could possibly need to assess the dairy herd performance.

To gather land and mapping data, I obtained the codes for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) online service from his local advisor. Then I knew exactly how much land he farmed and all his EU payments.

The Teagasc Nutrient Management Planning system informed me of his fertiliser usage and the fertility status of the land. I had more than enough data from the above sources to analyse the key performance indices on the technical side of the farm business.

Messages

The amazing fact is that the farmer himself had never seen any of this data before.

This is the power of modern technology and the real success story is that the data was collected with little or no effort from the farmer himself.

Too many farmers get bogged down in data collection whereas they should be focusing on the report and what messages it is highlighting about the business.

This is where experienced consultants/advisors come into their own.

They can use the technology to quickly choose the important data/reports and ignore the often fashionable but irrelevant data/reports to deliver the message or advice which is relevant to that farm business at that time.

On most livestock farms there is more than enough data to provide cutting edge advice on technical/physical information.

In fact, the information is so up to date that it is almost real-time data.

In contrast, financial information is much more difficult to obtain in a digital format for farm businesses. In the above example, I had to ring the farmer's accountant, he then sent me reams of paper in the post - and this was just for the last three years' financial accounts.

And after all that, the most recent of the data was over 18 months old.

Financial data is very compatible with digital technology, but the technology platforms in our banks and accountancy firms are behind the curve in providing the sort of real-time financial data, which is available in other countries.

What is required is very simple; when a farmer is paid for his produce or pays a supplier on his online banking facility, that transaction should shoot all the way to the farm accounts. A payment made for livestock feed online today should be added to the feed already paid for in the calendar year to date. The farmer or consultant can then compare this to the business plan or last year financial accounts. One click of a button on a smartphone or PC should provide this information for farms and other businesses.

For a first world country, where almost all the global IT companies have their European headquarters, it is embarrassing we cannot provide this financial service for businesses.

We live in the information age of big data, automation and artificial intelligence. Those who embrace it and use it effectively and efficiently will survive and prosper, those who don't will become extinct - just like the dinosaurs.

Mike Brady is managing director at Brady Group agricultural consultants and land agents, email: mike@bradygroup.ie.

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