As benchmarking becomes more widely profiled in farming businesses, Hannah Park finds out how one Midlothian mixed farmer plans to benefit from AHDB’s Farmbench service now covering all sectors.
Benchmarking can improve profitability and efficiency, alongside a wealth of wider business benefits.
AHDB has now extended its platform for producers to break down costs and identify where the strengths and weaknesses are within their business, having recently added dairy to its Farmbench service.
Third generation mixed farmer Jill Bathgate runs an arable, dairy and sheep enterprise in Midlothian, and began using Farmbench for the arable and sheep sectors last year.
She now plans to add dairy figures to these, and is confident having figures at whole farm level will provide more realistic figures to make management decisions for the business as a whole.
She said: “Our ethos is being as self-sufficient as possible. We need every enterprise on-farm to work for itself and for them to complement one another.
“I am excited about being able to benchmark the whole farm using one piece of software. I have previously found it difficult to see how management decisions could benefit the whole farm using standalone figures for each and the addition of dairy will mean I can take a more joined-up approach.
“The beauty of Farmbench is its ability to pinpoint what is working and what is not and where I should focus my resources to make the whole business work better.
“Anything making a loss cannot stay here and, in that situation, we will always make a change to a system.”
Jill set aside a day initially to set up the software and input all the necessary data, but said the information gained as a result of the process far outweighs the efforts of putting it in to start with.
She said: “The first year is the most challenging, as it can be time-consuming to find all the figures the software is asking for, but it gets easier.
“During set-up and getting used to the programme, AHDB was supportive and I never had any problems getting in touch on the phone when I had an issue, so it was quickly resolved.
“I have set my spreadsheets and accounts up now, so I can easily pull data out for Farmbench, as I know what information it needs. I don’t need to spend time trying to find it all separately.”
Data can be entered into Farmbench at any time to fit best around each farm business and, for Jill, this is at the end of the year, which coincides with planning and decision-making for the year ahead.
She said: “I use Farmbench figures in discussions with my accountant and bank manager, as they give a good overview of where the business is at and whether we have achieved the goals we set out for that year. I can also use the figures to highlight what we want to achieve in the following year.”
Since she began using Farmbench, Jill said analysing her costs of production figures has given her confidence in the systems she is running on-farm.
This is despite concerns she had before using the service that the farm did not stack up against competitors, but it has since showed her otherwise. When Jill initially started benchmarking, the first figure to really stand out was her fertiliser costs, which seemed far too high.
She has since invested in a slurry store (for which got a small grant as she is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone) and so now makes far better use of her slurry/farmyard manure and has been able to cut her input costs considerably, while still maintaining the same yields.
Looking at her benchmarking figures, Jill could see that oilseed rape was not performing and she decided to drop it from the rotation and grow beans instead. The beans work well as a break crop, and she is able to feed them to her dairy herd, allowing her to be more self-sufficient and less subject to market volatility.
She said: “I had always thought this farm could do better in its arable and dairy enterprises.
“Farmbench has proved that the mixed enterprises work and some of the arable results we have had were very pleasing, especially against some of the ‘all arable’ farms. I think the livestock mix has actually worked in our favour.”
Using Farmbench with the support of AHDB, Jill says she found attending local discussion groups a useful platform to discuss figures with other farmers.
Looking ahead to AHDB’s ambition for Farmbench, AHDB Dairy chairman Gwyn Jones explained that AHDB is working with a network of consultants to consolidate aggregated data available.
This will feed into AHDB’s work sector-wide in helping it become a centralised database for farmers across the country and increase the representation of data on its system for producers to benchmark against.
“By working with dairy consultants and other advisers dairy farmers use, I am confident we will be able to get a good handle on what is happening in the industry. With dairy now integrated into Farmbench, our aim is to appeal to those who may never have benchmarked before and those who are familiar with it.
“Farmers have a choice in terms of the extent of data they want to input, which can be appealing for those new to the process who may not want to input or look at all of the variables to start with.
“There will also be an international benchmarking model for the dairy side, so the hope is British farmers will be able to compare themselves to dairies overseas in places such as America, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, which I think will be really interesting. I think it is important to find out where our best farmers are internationally.
“With current uncertainties in the industry, it is even more important for businesses have a good handle on where they are and not make assumptions or become complacent.
“Benchmarking can highlight areas which may not be performing as well as they can be by analysing figures from similar setups and understanding why and how they are achieving what they are.”