With as much data as is collected on dairy farms today, the old saying “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” may be getting less traction, but it remains just as true. Perhaps a third step should even be implied between the two: you can’t manage what you don’t measure and then benchmark.
Benchmarks provide a point of comparison for the data collected, and without them, the raw data might not be very useful if you don’t know what it is reflecting. Many producers probably have access to and utilize local or regional benchmarks to track their progress on areas like milk production, feed costs, or labor expenses. National data in these areas and many more can also be valuable. But perhaps the most useful comparison should be to your own operation.
When you compare your data to that for your area or the country, you’re always going to end up higher or lower. Instead, comparing information to your farm over time provides perspective on the trend you’re taking, shared Jason Karszes during the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit. Look at what happened last week, last year, and the last three years, for example, in comparison to what is happening now. This long-term approach can also help you see the big picture of average performance rather than just one or a few good or bad years.
The Cornell University dairy farm management extension associate also said that self-comparison should include your farm goals. “Look at ‘What was I trying to do?’” he explained, and then you can determine success by knowing if you hit that target.
Later during the conference, producer Dale Hemminger described that comparing their costs against their own previous data every year has proven to be more valuable than using generic standards. “I struggled to see where we could fit in with those benchmarks,” said the businessman who milks 1,500 cows and oversees more than 3,000 acres of dairy forages and vegetable crops with his son, Clayton, and team of managers.
To generate benchmarks, Karszes emphasized that they must be calculated the same way over time. That way, they are useful to monitor daily activities and make decisions in each of the enterprises on your farm.
Start by asking the questions of what you want to measure and what information is needed to understand that area. Once you have your data, evaluate where it is in relation to your benchmarks and consider how the task you measured is being done. Then, ask what you may need to look at further to fill in any gaps of information or make the best decision.
Benchmarks can be prepared internally or with the help of multiple types of consultants, Karzses shared. Calculating them consistently and with regular standards can help you determine if your business is competitive and analyze it’s strong and weak points strategically.