The 24/7 Paradox

Michael Boehlje, the Purdue University ag economics professor who looks well past normal retirement age, lectured — and I mean lectured — at CropConnect in Winnipeg earlier this year. With high energy and a high voice, he rattled off 10 ways farmers can respond to an economic downturn. When giving examples of things done wrong, he’d shout “That’s stupid!” in a way that had people laughing and probably also squirming. After delivering a key point, he’d bend his long, thin body toward the audience and yell, “Write that down!”

Being an obedient student, I tried to keep pace. He was pretty intense about cost control. “Efficiency and productivity are critical,” he said, emphasizing the need for farmers to know their costs per unit sold so they can make better marketing decisions. In a tight market, “fully-loaded costs” may not get covered, he said, so be prepared to make sales when prices at least cover cash costs.

He recommended farmers use standard operating procedures (SOPs) — which Danny Klinefelter writes about in this Canola Digest issue — to ensure precise and timely execution of tasks. He told about airline pilots. Even the most professional and experienced pilots go through the same checklist before every take off, even if they’re taking off eight times a day. Whereas farmers, he said, often skip all that and “just do it the way I did it last year.”

What left me hanging was a point on logistics management: “Be ready to run machinery 24/7,”

he said. “You cannot make the investment in equipment today and not do that.”

This is a paradox. It seems to make sense from a machinery investment focus but is absurd from an overall agronomic perspective.

Harvester on a farm at night Combine driving through a fieldI would argue that the only piece of major farm machinery that could or should run 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Western Canada is a drill. If a farm has the manpower, a drill can work around the clock in the prime seeding window.

But the idea that a combine or tractor or sprayer should run 24/7 will only lead to bad management decisions. Ideally, the sprayer — though one of the most important pieces of machinery — should run as little as possible. It should operate only when thresholds, timing and risk assessment deem a spray worthwhile. Trying to get more use from a tractor outside the seeding season could mean unnecessary and potentially damaging tillage. And a combine really can’t run 24/7 in September in Western Canada. The crop gets too tough most nights and losses get too high — especially in canola.

Yes, farms could probably do lots to improve machinery logistics. Hire custom operators when owning a high-clearance sprayer doesn’t pencil out. Use SOP-driven maintenance to keep older gear working reliably. Schedule seed and fertilizer delivery so the drill-fill station is always stocked and ready.

Running equipment 24/7, while it seems a worthy goal at first glance, should not be on this list.

Canola Digest - September 2016