Forecasting More Than Just The Weather

20140104_131641 (1)Winter on the farm conjures up nostalgic images of horse and carriages, old red barns,
and farmers toiling away outside, looking after their animals. While this may still be a reality for some farms, particularly those with livestock, many farms no longer have cattle, pigs or horses around. Many of them, like my own, raise crops during the growing season. So what do we do during the winter? One of the most important – and most difficult – jobs we work at during the colder months is forecasting.

I don’t think I’m generalizing too much to bet that most of you read “forecasting” and immediately think “weather.” While that certainly is a component of our crop year planning, it is a smaller factor than you may think. Why? Simply put: there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.

While we certainly pay close attention to long-range forecasts that attempt to give us an estimate of what our growing season will entail, these are only marginally reliable, and we really can’t plan for them. Not yet, anyway. Since the weather is out of our hands, we focus our energy on things we do have some control over.

  1. Selling Crops: While it’s rather debatable that predicting the markets is any easier than predicting the weather, we try our best regardless. Trying to sell your entire crop at the top of the market for a given year is about like picking a Superbowl winner after watching the first game of the season; you might get lucky once, we all know somebody who’s done it a couple of times, but most of us are pathetically, hopelessly wrong. So, we sell a little bit at a time, hoping to catch rallies and avoid dips. Over time, this disciplined approach does tend to prove to be successful. Although it does mean you may not always catch that extreme market peak with any more than 20% of your crop – but that’s better than nothing.
  2. Cash Flow: This moves in lockstep with point #1. We try and forecast our cash flow needs months ahead of time and plan our sales accordingly. While this is really simple arithmetic, there are always surprises that disrupt your plans.
  3. Crop Performance: Growing crops is a bit like planting your garden, only infinitely more complex (assuming you’re not making a living off your garden, that is). Crops are incredibly difficult to predict, and even harder to control. At the end of October,
    our weather station recorded our soil moisture level. We know how much we have to start with, but how much snow will we get? So far, not much! How much rain will we get? Well, the average crop available rainfall from April through August in Weyburn, Saskatchewan is 9.3 inches. So, if we go by that, and assuming the crop needs inches of rain to grow a bushel of grain, we should be able to predict our yields, right? The answer is a wishy-washy maybe; because that “average” takes years like 2015 with 4.4 inches of rain and averages that against a year like 2011 with 20 inches of rain. What exactly is normal? Nevertheless, it does give us a starting point- and that’s better than nothing.Nikon J1 June 004
  4. Equipment Upkeep: What’s going to break in 2016? Is it going to be the old, worn out-looking tires on the tractor, or is it going to be some random bearing on the combine? While it is difficult to predict what parts are going to fail, it’s not impossible. When you’re about to take your car on a big trip to the mountains in the middle of winter and you can’t seem to get any traction on ice, you would probably take a close look at your tires. Will they make the trip? Probably. But what if they don’t? The consequences could be severe. That’s how we look at our machinery when we think about the busy year ahead.

The reason I call winter the planning season is because it’s the one season we have when
we can take a moment and look hard at the year that was. What failed? What does that tell us for next year? Every hour of missed seeding, spraying or harvesting time costs us Case Quadtracdearly. We cannot afford preventable breakdowns. But, at the same time, we can’t go and fix absolutely everything that could possibly fail. The engine on one of our combines could fly apart this year, and that would be a critical failure. But that doesn’t mean we should go and tear the engine down to prevent a massively low-odds scenario.

The same goes for planning our marketing. Tomorrow, a catastrophic event could happen somewhere in the world that could hammer our crop prices. That doesn’t mean we should sell out the whole thing. Everything we do is based on probabilities.

Creating a usable forecast for the growing season requires a great deal of research, too. Every year, new products, services and ideas come to light, and it is critical that we open our minds to any option to make our farms more successful. You always have to be ready to realize your current way of doing things may be wrong – and that somebody somewhere is probably doing something better than you. Friends, neighbours, and of course the Internet are extremely valuable resources to develop new ideas.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (Robert Burns) certainly applies to farming, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in planning and forecasting. In fact, I believe it drives that point home even harder. If we haven’t figured out what plan B is, what will we do when plan A fails? As dependent on the weather as we are, I prefer to have a plan F.

Winter is a busy time on the farm, and there is no shortage of work to be done, from hauling grain to moving snow to purchasing inputs (read more about what farmers do during the winter here). But it is also the ideal time to plan out the season ahead. We never know what nature will throw at us, but preparing for multiple scenarios allows us the flexibility we need to succeed.

Thinking About The Future

It’s that time of the year again. As the year winds to a close, farmers of all ages and geographies look back on the year that was – and what 2016 and beyond will bring. In agriculture, everything changes so fast that merely keeping up is no small feat.

For me, the year that was 2015 changed everything. It was the year my son was born.

This past year truly will go down as one of our farm’s great successes of the decade. An above average crop coupled with excellent prices has delivered us one of the best years we have seen in some time. Unprecedented lentil prices continue to amaze farmers and grain traders alike, with difficult conditions in India and a burgeoning global market for pulses creating incredible demand for what we grow. 2016 will be another big year for lentils on the prairies – and, coincidentally, is the International Year of Pulses.

But what about beyond that? Recently, I attended the GrowCanada conference in Calgary (thanks again to CropLife Canada for that!), where I saw a group of fantastic speakers talking about the future. One that stood out for me was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire: Canadian Forces veteran, senator, author and humanitarian. He spoke about many fascinating things, but one thread that sticks with me was his goal-oriented mindset. While everyone else talks about their 5-year plan, he is the one thinking about the 6th year and beyond.

As farmers and business people, it’s in our DNA to plan for the future. Every year is a gamble. But too rarely do we step back and look at the big picture. We face a world of change in agriculture. A revolution in how we do our every day business is already underway.

For instance, 2016 will be my first year owning a drone. What do I plan to do with it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. Like our new weather station, it is probably a data-collection device without a way to process the data. But that day will come. Right now, we are collecting massive amounts of data from every crop year. It truly is amazing how much information we pull from our fields. Drones will allow us to collect even more. We will learn details about our fields that we have never really seen before.

As the popularity of drones rises, their potential uses grow. Today, you can buy a drone that sprays your crop for you. Of course, to replace our high-clearance sprayer would require dozens and dozens of them, if not hundreds, but you get the idea where our industry is going. Our days driving machinery out in the field are probably numbered. As futurist Jim Carrol said at the conference, “You will probably overestimate the change in the next two years, and underestimate the change in the next ten.”

Data is driving changes in more than just field operations. Data-managing platforms, such as Agri-Data and Farm At Hand, are some of farmers’ most-used tools today. Everything we do we can track and measure. No more missed spray applications, no more lost bins, and near-perfect cost of production numbers – if the program is properly utilized, of course.

As we drive into the future, I wonder what it will look like for my son, Asher. I believe he will see more change in his life than even my grandparents saw in theirs – and that’s saying a lot. Will he be a farmer? Who knows? His life is his own, and he will make that choice many years from now.

If he does choose to farm, what will it be like? Will he ever run equipment out in the field? By then, it may all be autonomous. He may use something like Google Glass to look at his crop and instantly know what nutrient deficiencies it may be experiencing, what stresses it faces, or whether spraying a fungicide is necessary. Someday, he might even edit his crop’s DNA to adapt it to certain fields. His entire method of managing his crops may be completely foreign to me.

However, that won’t make it wrong. If my grandfather could see how we farm today, while he might find it confusing, he would discover that the underlying principles are much the same. Just like him, I’m trying to grow healthy food for a hungry world, hopefully improving the quality of the land it’s grown on at the same time. And I’m sure I will see the same principles in place when and if my son decides to farm.

I don’t know how many people told me that having children changes everything. In fact, I kinda got tired of hearing it! But the day we brought Asher home, I realized that line is such an understatement. My whole world changed that day. But there is something so amazing about bringing a child into this world, and the light and innocence he radiates. Something about looking at him makes me realize that the future of this planet, and our own sometimes troubled human race, is so very bright. Our most basic need is food, and I am proud to grow it. The coming decades will be amazing.