EXPERT EYE: Ten traits of high performance farmers

Julie Rickman,

JER Consulting

Performing at a top level is all about optimising outcomes, not maximising them – and that’s where the most profitability lies, Julie Rickman says.

For Rickman, a consultant who worked alongside the Ministry for Primary Industries team on research into high-performing farms for the MPI Farm Systems Change project, a number of factors stood out across the farmer group, despite the huge diversity of the operations and their farm systems.

Commitment to continual learning.

Julie Rickman

“Each of those dairy farmers without exception was committed to continual learning, to keep trying to find new ways to improve the way they farmed and better-understand the factors that impacted on their performance,” she says.

“They are always constantly looking around themselves and taking concepts from others, adapting them to their particular circumstances and then continually looking to lift the bar in terms of their performance. They don’t see themselves as top performers rather as on a continuum to an ever-more-sustainable farming model.

Willingness to change and adapt

“Each farmer will have a different level of tolerance to risk, and therefore understanding where that level of risk tolerance sits is important.”

In the life of business, Rickman says it is common for a younger farmer to have a higher-risk appetite, and the older farmers less so, as they are mindful of having less time to make up for any losses. Even within those bands, different people also have varying risk tolerance. Although the risk tolerance may generally attach to financial risks, there are also other risks such as access to feed, cost of feed and so on, all of which have to be considered as ultimately these impact upon financial risk.

Access to a cluster of key advisors

Top performers have key advisers who are involved in the planning and monitoring of their farming business. Those advisers are used to seek varying perspective, which brings to the decision-making a greater diversity of thought. While the farmers use those perspectives in their decision-making, they still make their own decisions.

Forward looking

High-performance farmers look forward – they don’t look back. Rickman says it’s like the ‘fail quick’ methodology – if a strategy is working well they build on it, if it isn’t working, they know they won’t do that again and move on or they adapt quickly and find a way of making it work. The key advisers are a really important sounding-board through this process, providing guidance and support.

Dedication to the dairy sector

“All those farmers demonstrated a very keen need to develop the next generation of dairy farmers. They had a long-term outlook to training people within their businesses and were fantastic at developing and growing the capability of those working with them.

“A number of these farmers have fantastic capability in terms of developing people and creating effective farm teams.”

They had a similar commitment to looking after their animals and their environment and Rickman says it’s a whole commitment to sustainable farming and making a positive commitment to their farming community.

“I think it’s because they are good at working with their people and explaining why things need to be done. These farmers want to grow the capability of the next generation, building on their own base by developing people who are better at caring for animals, monitoring pastures and capturing production and understanding that it is possible to integrate environmental management within the wider farm system.

Attention to detail

Great attention to detail by top-performing farmers overrides all other attributes, Rickman says.

They have the ability to do what they need to do exactly when they do it. It is about focusing on the critical success factors that make or break a good result and doing it every season. It requires planning, consistency and grit.

“Getting the key things done right at the right time is the thing that sets them apart.”

Use of tools and access to timely information

with new technologies has enabled farmers to validate their level of intuitive farming.

“Back in the day when I was milking cows I learnt everything from my father and I didn’t know if I had chosen the right paddocks until I saw the docket on the vat from the tanker driver the following day. Now there is so much technology available to farmers which can be used to assist their decision-making.

Using a platemeter to measure the grass so you know the covers, being able to measure the temperature of the milk in the vat, soil moisture probes so you know you are putting on the right amount of water through the irrigation system, heat detection systems to know when the cows are cycling, DNA testing for calves – all these are part of the increasing plethora of tools to help farmers improve their performance. The tools compliment the skills and experience of farmers in being aware and responsive to what is happening on the farm, Rickman says.

Networks and collaboration

Top performers are farmers who like to network, chat and collaborate – they relish the opportunity to have conversations with other farmers, learning and sharing, and taking little things back to their own operation to trial and see how they go.

Monitoring and making connections

Rickman says top farmers understand what needs to be done in different scenarios and they are always monitoring their surroundings and making decisions to respond to the conditions. The changing weather patterns, particularly the wet weather in the past 12 months has tested the capability of even the best farmers.

“We all know that during wet and cold weather cows need more feed to keep warm and keep producing, however really good farmers are also thinking of the hot summer weather and how cows need shelter from the heat and extra water to maintain both cow health and production.”

Focus on the areas impacting profitability

Farmers can’t control the weather or the payout, Rickman says, but if they measure, monitor and optimise performance from the things they can control – feed costs, pasture management, animal performance and farm team capability – that’s how they can achieve sustainable profitability. Again the attention to detail provides an opportunity to build a “war chest” during the good times so there is cash or access to cash if it is needed in the not-so-good times.

“These farmers recognise the dairy sector is changing; alongside other farmers they are leading the way and see a clear opportunity for wider change,” Rickman says.