The Agricultural Efficiency Challenge: It Just Keeps Going

Ag EfficiencyIt has been a very busy week in southwestern Ontario soybean country.  In fact I think you can say ditto for the great North American soybean belt. My neighborhood is full of people racing to get those soybeans in.

I had my best soybean-planting day of my career today.  At the end of the day I had planted 160 acres.  I’m not bragging because there are lots of you out there with bigger planters and bigger fields to get a lot more done.  There are also a lot of people out there a lot smarter than me.  However, my new drill is working well and it makes me a lot more efficient.  I can remember as a teenager, there would be three of us working in the field, one planting, one working ground and myself spraying.  We’d work all day and if we were lucky we get 50 acres in.

I thought of that today as I set my personal record.  Just how more efficient can we get as a farming populace?  One of the limiting factors in the old days was my sprayer capacity.  As a teenager, I was put in charge of this sprayer, mostly because it was a new thing and I don’t think anybody wanted to tangle with it.  The Calsa sprayer only held enough water to mix chemicals up for 7 acres.  So every 7 acres I would pump water out of a ditch into this sprayer and do it again.  I used chain links for markers, as this was so much better than guessing.

Yesterday I sprayed 225 acres and I started at noon.  I use a light bar for guidance and I have a 750-gallon capacity in my tank.  There is nothing huge about this sprayer capacity as there are lots bigger in my area.  Needless to say, when you think back to the time when I was doing 7 acres per tank load, the efficiency is mind-boggling.

The drive for greater efficiency is almost the default mechanism within the agricultural psyche.  For instance I could go on and on about how I try to do things cheaper and faster.  Ditto for almost every other part of the agricultural economy.  Each piece of farm machinery that I review for Country Guide magazine is made to increase farm production or decrease cost. This has led to an agricultural economy where the lowest cost producer is the winner.  It has meant that margins continually get less and less as the vicious cycle continues.

The efficiency paradigm is what it is on the farm but when our commodities leave the farm it continues.  For instance almost every farmer has an opinion about grain prices and certainly I’m paid in some forums to give mine.  However, how much thought is given to how the increased efficiency of the grain trade impacts our pricing decisions on the farm?  Even more important, in the future as grain is traded more and more efficiently how should we as farmers prepare for that?

I suppose you could make the argument that the efficiency in the grain trade has more to do with procuring cheaper grain than passing those efficiency gains onto farmers.  For instance if you think about the transportation of grain in the Great Lakes region of Canada, shipping by vessel to some end users makes very good sense.  It’s much more efficient than moving it by truck or wagon.   However, the problem is sometimes it makes it more efficient to import American agricultural commodities, which essentially spoils Canadian cash prices.

One of the true signs of a less efficient era in Ontario has been the disappearance of local grain elevators.  While some of you in Eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec might argue that there never were very many small grain elevators, in southwestern Ontario there seemed to be one every 5 miles.  Slowly over a period of time since I dragged that 7 acres sprayer through the field these elevators have been demolished.  Many of them were demolished because they were no longer efficient but some were demolished to avoid selling them to potential competition.

One of the greatest challenges in 2010 for Canadian farmers is to remain efficient in a high dollar world.  Our loonie gained almost 2 cents today closing just under $.96 US.   Of course there are some people who believe it’s going to be above par for a very long time.  I don’t know about that as I’ve said many times in this column but what I do know it’s just another efficiency challenge.   The question is are you poised and ready?

Surely the answer to that question is blowing in the wind.  Keep in mind though as you as you finish up planting soybeans how much your farm has changed over the years.  You’ve met efficiency challenge after efficiency challenge.  I don’t think that’s going to change now.