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Farming knowledge is power

August 2019

Jenny Mathews, Pula Imvula contributor. Send an email to jenjonmat@gmail.com

The harvest has ended…but our work is not yet done! Every project has a cycle and the same holds for our on-farm seasonal activities. When you set out at the start of the season to plant a field of grain for food and/or profit, you actually embarked on a new project.

The project management process for the 2018/2019 season is not complete until every last activity can be ticked off as done, and a post-harvest monitoring and evaluation has been conducted. In fact, no farmer should begin a new season without doing a thorough evaluation of the last project. It is one thing to make a plan; but quite another thing to put it into operation and make sure it works. Control over your farming enterprise is essential and post-harvest assessment and measurement helps you to check if progress is being made or if you need to make adjustments. 

This ‘control’ is managed through key processes such as practical maintenance of your tools and resources, record keeping of every aspect of the enterprise and analysis and correction where necessary to ensure the sustainability of the business. 

Grain marketing and storage

The work does not end on the day the last of the maize has been harvested, in many ways that is when the business side of the project begins. A farmer must assess the yield and make decisions about the marketing and storage of the harvest. Do you know that one of the most serious yield losses are incurred in developing countries due to post-harvest losses? 

Although maize can be stored for a considerable period in an unprocessed form without deteriorating, it must be kept safe from rodents and pests and it must be protected from moisture. Mould occurs if the grain was not dry enough at harvesting or if it is exposed to high humidity or moisture due to poor storage management. Fungal infection will cause rot and the development of aflatoxins which are poisonous to livestock and can even cause serious health issues for humans. The risks of home storage need to be measured against the costs of storing the maize at a silo where the grain is kept safe for you. 

Field management
Visit your fields. Are you going to have livestock grazing on the material left on the land or are you going to use that material to build up the health status of your soil? If you are not going to utilise the maize stover there is a risk that wind will blow the valuable organic material away, so you should consider disking it in, so it is not wasted. Also assess the soil health using the strategies you have learned including moisture levels, soil sampling and weed bank assessment. Decide what the next processes on the field will be and how best you will manage the field.

Maintenance – safe storage of tools
Take time to store or service all the equipment you have used during the harvesting process. The tractors will need to be serviced and cleaned. Your harvesting equipment needs to be cleaned, greased and stored carefully until you next need them. It is ideal to already embark on a post-harvest maintenance programme since the problems you experienced will still be fresh in your mind and you can attend to the weak areas. Keep a record of your maintenance programme so you always know exactly when last your vehicles and implements were serviced. 

Analysis – lessons learned
Because farming is tied to the movement of the seasons, project management is challenging. It is quite normal for a farmer to still be tying up the ends of one season while he is already initiating the activities of the next season. 

The crop has not yet been sold off and he is worrying about financing next season’s inputs, preparing the fields and ordering inputs for the next cycle. It is very easy to be swept along into new season activities and then neglect the CRITICAL process of ANALYSIS AND ASSESSMENT after each cycle. This is asking for trouble and could lead a farmer into a debt trap.

Records are kept for three main reasons: 

  1. To measure performance. 
  2. To guide future decisions.
  3. To provide accurate data. Records should reveal the strengths of your business and help identify weaknesses which need correction. 

Good farm records should have: 

  • A purpose;
  • be easy to keep; and 
  • be up-to-date. 

The true measure of the value of any business leader and management is performance!

  • Financial records – this is the information you need to provide to your bookkeepers. The information will give you an idea of your whole farm profitability over a specific period.
  • A cash analysis book – where you keep track of all your receipts and expenses.
  • A list of debtors and creditors – this will quickly remind you who owes you money – and who you owe money to.
  • Valuations – we need to know the value of every asset on our books. This includes land, vehicles, tractors and implements, livestock and unsold crops.
  • Enterprise outputs – this is a record of the financial output of each crop or livestock enterprise for every cycle on its own. This information helps the farmer to determine profitability of each separate farming activity and then decide if it is worth going ahead with it.
  • Enterprise costs – know exactly what it costs to plant a hectare of maize or to raise a cycle of broilers by keeping track of the amount of money spent on that project during the cycle.
  • Labour costs – it is difficult to be exact, but one needs to assess labour management, performance and cost and then ask questions about efficient use of time. Are your workers overworked, underworked and are they fairly compensated for their work?
  • Machinery costs – keep a record book for each machine that you own. Know its current value (remember to calculate annual depreciation). Record what you spend on repairs and analyse fuel consumption if relevant. This can alert you to excessive spend and problems that need attention.
  • Record of livestock – keep accurate monthly records of all your livestock, note births and purchases, log all mortalities and record sales. Breeding records will help you to track the performance of your cows, so you know which your top performers are, and which should be culled.
  • Crop yields – know what your crops returned in yields/ha. This is the bottom line for determining profitability per crop.
  • Field records and rotation records – keep a logbook of crops planted in each field so you have a history. Note down the processes e.g. plough, disk, ripped, spray and fertilisation programmes followed every time. Record dates of planting and yields returned.

If you equip yourself with detailed information about your farming activities, you are empowered to make the wisest decisions going forward. Do yourself a favour and take a project management approach to your farming operations – no matter how large or small they might be. It has been said knowledge is more valuable than money – knowledge can never be taken away from you – knowledge is power!

Publication: August 2019

Section: Pula/Imvula