Record keeping is a farmer's equivalent of washing dishes after Thanksgiving dinner. It's tedious, boring and mind-numbing. But it's gotta be done.
Driving tractors, running harvest equipment, checking on sick cattle and working with one eye on the crop row and the other on a gathering dust storm stirs up a bit of enthusiasm. Meticulously logging facts and figures onto a spreadsheet does not.
But hours spent crunching numbers may mean as much to the farm's bottom line as the hours in a tractor seat.
Glenn Schur, a Plainview, Texas, cotton, grain sorghum, wheat, seed millet and cattle farmer, makes a good case for farmers to keep and use better records. New technology makes the chore a bit easier and puts information in a format where Schur can use it to make management decisions.
He says the five or six hours a week he spends entering data is a good investment. He's using a computer program, EasiSuite from MapShots, to keep tabs on essential data and to help him manage his farm.
“I spend about five hours a week on bookkeeping,” Schur said during a presentation at the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference recently in Houston. “During planting season, I get up early and take care of the books while it's quiet. It's best to keep up with it instead of trying to catch up.”
He says accurate records are necessary, especially with recent expense increases and price fluctuations. “Good records show me where I've been, point out current trends and guide me into the future.”
He says most farmers keep records. “Some keep them on the dash boards of their trucks. But with laptop computers, Blackberry's and Palm Pilots, the process is easier. I can log in data from the field.”
He said digital cameras and USB ports also make record keeping more mobile. “ I can take photos of what I see from the harvester to use with the computer program. EasiSuite allows me to integrate programs.”
Schur says EasiSuite is a data collection system that helps him plan cropping systems. “It helps me keep track of costs and I can analyze trends and things like irrigation efficiency.”
He says growers can make mapping as “simple or as complex as they want. And I can bring other data into the EasiSuite program.”
Schur has good records back to 2001 and updates data regularly. “The more we use it the easier it is to incorporate things into the program,” he says. “EasiSuite does a good job of incorporating data.”
He can analyze systems, such as conservation tillage vs. conventional tillage. “I color code the crop mix and get an overview of the operation. I collect information on specific fields and keep records as close to field-level as possible.”
Schur says the system helps adjust crop enterprise expenses. “I can analyze data and justify expenses. It helps me make better decisions and it's easier to plan for a new crop year.”
He typically plants half his acreage in cotton and rotates with wheat, millet, grain sorghum and wheat.
Jeanne Reeves, director of Agricultural Research for Cotton Incorporated, says she got interested in improving software for cotton farmers several years ago. Most crop management software programs came out of the Midwest and were not adaptable to cotton.
“Our goal was to develop something cotton-specific,” she says. “We needed to account for bales and modules instead of bushels and pounds. We wanted a one-stop shop for cotton farmers.”
“Several years ago I contacted Glenn about being a guinea pig for record keeping.”
Reeves has worked with Red Wing Software Inc. (redwingsoftware.com) to develop a program for cotton records management. Currently, Red Wing offers an accounting software program, Perception, which they will update to a new one named Center Point.
She says the system can be used by cotton gins to schedule module pickup. Schur says that feature is not available in his area yet. “But as more people request services we'll see more acceptance from gins.”
“The hardest part of any record keeping system is setting it up,” says Gary Bullen, an agricultural economist and farm management specialist at North Carolina State University.
He's also worked with EasiSuite. “The big investment in a new system is not the cost of the system, but the time it takes,” Bullen says.
He says only a small percentage of cotton farmers across the Cotton Belt know production costs. He hopes new software will encourage more producers to keep better records and use figures to improve management.
Bullen says accurate records help growers measure performance, control expenses, determine profit margins, monitor inventory, and pull together figures for insurance and tax purposes.
Farmers who use regional averages for costs may be surprised to see how much individual farm expenses vary. Bullen recommends producers make record keeping an integral part of the farm management program and that one individual be responsible for entering data.
“A farmer will lose a lot of data if he doesn't enter the information himself,” he says. “Also, set a schedule to enter data and develop easy-to-use input forms. Make the chore as easy as possible. Make it a habit.”
Bullen says managing the details of a farm helps a producer control information.