Rayner Reckons

May 27

Data to Drive Innovation

Posted on Friday, May 27, 2016

Do you collect data on your farm?  What are you doing with it?  Have you ever stopped to think about what you are recording and why you’re actually doing it?

I’ve been thinking about farm data for a few days now.  I recently listened to a podcast featuring Alastair Campbell. If you don’t know that name, he was the former Director of Communications and Strategy for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  I’m happy to say the podcast was from the US University of Chicago called the Axe Files and I was listening to different approaches to leadership and communication. 

There was some really interesting ideas in these podcasts.  However the one that sticks in my mind was the conversation with Alastair Campbell.  He made a comment about collecting data. And why do it. 

His point was that in sports, data collection is essential and is used to drive innovation.  To make the athletes, the players or the team that much better and more successful in their pursuit of better performance.  Conversely his comment was that in his experience with politics, data isn’t used that way at all.  Instead of driving innovation, data was used to confirm a bias, and to preserve the status quo. 

I’ve found it really hard to stop thinking about this comment!  In some ways it makes so much sense.  Sport and any level is about getting better.  No matter if its just social cricket or professional soccer, sport is about improvement.  Think about it!  We practice, we train, we look for coaching. 

At the elite levels there are coaches of specialist skills.  I know my team, the Sydney Swans has kicking coaches as well as trainers and nutritionists and other specialists to monitor every part of the team with the goal of winning a premiership!

At the social level there is often someone coaching training, offering advice, recording the scores and monitoring the performances of the team.  All of that data collected in the search for continual improvement.  And often that search results in something innovative coming along that makes a difference.

So what’s happening in the farm business?  Are we doing the same thing? Is the data we collect being used to drive innovation and achieve improvement?  Or are we using it to conform our bias.

Think about you farming business as if it was your favorite sporting team.  I did this thinking about my firefighting championship team.  We have a team of 6 people.  I know them all very well.  I know who is fast, who is strong.  There is one member who can be relied on to do one job perfectly without fumbling!  I know where we prefer to compete and who does what.  In short we know the team well.  Secondly, we practice and we try to keep ourselves at the level where we are doing the right thing every time, until we don’t need to think about it too much, it just happens. 

I reckon your team might be the same.  You would know the strengths of all your team players.  You would know what they were good at, what they can do well.  If there was something that needed improving you would all talk about it and practice it until it improved.  You probably all have a chance to share advice.  And I guess you might have a coach who is watching everything.  The person who looks at the data and the things you are doing and gives you the guidance to improve after seeing all this objectively.

So now, I want you to think about your farm business.  Firstly if it was a team, can you confidently say you know all the strengths and weakness of your business?  Do you know how you stock, your pastures, your environment responds to different challenges.  If you had to be objective could you point to a specific area that needed improvement?

Next, how do you know this?  Are you observing the performance of your business objectively?  Remember its pretty hard to be objective about your performance while you are in the middle of the game!  If we quickly look at sport again, when you are playing you don’t always get the luxuary of stopping to see if you are doing the right thing to help your team win.  You tend to be focused on the game and need the input of the coach to help you get it right.

So in your business, if youre so focused on day to day operation, are you really as objective as you should be? Can you think of a coach or even some specialist coaches who can monitor you and your performance and work with you to refine your approach and decisions?

The other key part of this is what data are you collecting.  Now most farmers tell me they keep good records. I know some farmers keep amazing records.  I also know plenty who don’t keep anything!  Its true!  I’ve been to places to preg test, and the owners has had no idea about how many cows we will be testing let alone think about fertility rates!  Seriously!

So records or farm data. Some of it is comprehensive.  Some of it is lacking.   But what do we do with it after its collected?

Are you using it to measure your performance?  What are the trends?  What does the data show you, and are you looking at ways to tweak your business. Tweaking is about finding ways to be innovative and do better. 

The best example I can think of is a client I’ve worked with on the New England tablelands.  We identified an issue where the MSA scores of cattle sent off tended to fall during several winter months.  Now that was a costly issue we wanted t solve.  Now strangely enough the fall wasn’t so much as a direct result of the cold weather. 

When we looked at the MSA data, and compared it to the farm weather records, we couldn’t blame the snow and sleet.  In fact the MSA scores were a little better on average when the weather had been a bit bleak.  What we found was when the bleak weather came, my client offered some supplementary feeds and this resulted in less stress on the cattle and so the pH and the MSA scores were a bit better.

The more we looked across several records the more we could see that whe it was a dry winter, MSA scores were a bit lower, because the client wasn’t adding any extra feed to the paddock feed.  So energy was a bit lower at slaughter and MSA scores were lower as a result.

We ended up developing a late autumn – winter feeding program for this enterprise.  Yes it cost a little to feed the stock, but the increased MSA scores and payment on quality offset it.

That to me is tweaking and using data to be a bit more innovative!  We found a way to increase performance. 

I reckon that’s the difference.  When I think of so many places I go to that collect data.  When I preg test, they keep percentages.  But I don’t know many people who are showing me trends, or comparing preg testing results against seasonal conditions or heifer joining weights or any other comparisons that could be made. 

In some ways that data is just used to prove bias.  That might be to prove that joining time is ok.  Or that the heifers were heavy enough.  If results are bad well someone might change a few things, but often it’s just a result that on its own doesn’t mean much.

So can you use the data and not maintain your status quo.  What can you look for that will make your business perform better?

Second who is helping you be objective about what your recording and what you are doing?  If your social cricket, football, netball or hockey teams have a coach, then surely it makes sense that your business needs one as well.  Getting someone in to help you use your data t drive innovation might be the thing that really lifts your business and helps you achieve some of the goals you are aiming for.

Ultimately innovation doesn’t have to be some sparkly new piece of equipment or technology.  It might be a simple change in approach or attitude that is the innovation. If you don’t think about using your data to seek that innovation, well I reckon your wasting your opportunities.

Comments

Matt Forman commented on 27-May-2016 05:31 PM
Great post and couldn't agree more with your sentiments. Too often we look at data or information and fail to see what it's really saying because we don't consider it holistically. Your example of the MSA scores in winter is testimony to this.
Sam Duncan commented on 31-Oct-2016 05:30 PM
Hey Alastair,

Great post, I'm passionate about using data to make better decisions when to comes to Ag. I'm particularly interested in soil, and I'm wondering if you had any resources or suggestions for what farmers need in terms of better data capture and decision making in this area?

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