The Basic of Farming Maintenance and Operations

Wondering how to improve your maintenance of your farming operation? Here are a few things you can do and a few resources to get you started.

Maintaining your farming operation takes much more than just remembering to service your equipment. General farm maintenance is a broad topic, and what you need to do to keep on schedule each season is highly farm-specific. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few tips and tools you can adopt to improve the efficiency of your operation and your relationship with your landlord along the way.

Let’s dig into what it takes to keep your farmland productive and meet your business objectives, year after year.

Keep the farmland property in excellent condition

As a farmland tenant, you are a steward of the land. One of your top priorities when it comes to how to maintain a farm maintenance is the soil’s health. To keep a balance of nutrients and high fertility, there are a few things you can do to make sure the soil remains balanced and nutrient-rich:

  • Crop rotation. In much of the upper midwest, it probably seems like second-nature to rotate your fields between corn and beans on an annual basis, but this is a tremendously important piece of reducing nitrogen applications and lowering the risk of pests known to flourish in a corn-on-corn system.
  • Cover crops. Of course, part of a healthy crop rotation is letting fields rest. Whether they need time to dry or a fallow season to restore nutrients, cover crops are an excellent way to maintain your fields’ health and root structure. In a corn and soybean rotation, the addition of cover crops reduces long term losses in organic matter that rotation can sometimes create.
  • Organic matter. Even when it comes to cover crops, aim to remove as little of the organic matter as possible. This allows the crop residue to nourish the soil—a simple system for organic matter capture.

As part of your soil health regime, you should regularly test your soil: every four years at a minimum. If your fields are in a soybean and corn rotation, it’s standard practice to test the soil’s health on a 2.5 acres grid every two cycles or so. This will help inform your fertilization and help you determine how much to apply to the parts of your fields that need the nutrients replaced most (and help you avoid over-application). At a minimum, 10-acre-grid soil samples should be conducted every four years.

When thinking about your farm, whether your rent or own your land, you should also consider the upkeep of:

  • Buffer zones
  • Fences
  • Access
  • Outbuildings

While these may require less upkeep than the soil itself, an issue with your buffer zones could impact the erosion on your farm along drainage ditches, creeks and rivers. Maintaining a buffer strip along these drainage ways, slows the runoff water and absorbs excess nutrients and chemicals that may have washed out of the field.

If your operation doesn’t involve livestock and you don’t lease any grazing rights on your property, removing fence lines can add efficenciency to your movement on the farm—not to mention that fences that are not maintained for their intended use become an eyesore.

Schedule an annual assessment of each of these features to make sure you’re not missing issues or overlooking areas that need your attention. If you are renting, your landlord will likely appreciate your help keeping an eye on the property.

Take superlative care of your farming equipment

When it comes to your farming operation, it’s best to be proactive about vehicle upkeep. To this end, it’s wise to maintain a seasonal checklist for vehicle maintenance.

If you have smart ag tools on hand, you may have to take your machinery into the dealer for farm maintenance, but between scheduled visits, it may help you to create a system to track any maintenance or checks you perform yourself onsite. This can be as simple as routinely logging oil changes and maintenance dates by machine on a Google Calendar. If you’re operating with a team of farm hands, this can also serve as a centralized way to communicate what projects and regular upkeep needs to happen.

However you choose to keep track of your equipment, keep an organized file of receipts and maintenance records rather than relying on your memory. When it comes to your business, having robust and accurate records won’t just help you reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what costs you didn’t expect—it will also help you share information if you decide to include new partners as you grow your business.

Beyond equipment maintenance—modernize

Keep your machines modern. If you don’t already, make a practice of trading in old machines for newer models on a five-year basis. Typically, within that window, your machines will still be under warranty, and you’ll find yourself well-positioned to trade them in. Of course, you should familiarize yourself with the warranties on your equipment to ensure that they cover this type of coverage.

To keep track of your machines and their age, you can use your equipment maintenance records as the basis for an accurate inventory of the machines you have on hand. While you may feel confident that you know the state of your equipment, your operation will be more efficient if you have a document to reference that confirms the state of each machine and any recent maintenance you’ve done.

If you’re not in the habit of replacing your equipment on a regular basis, begin to plan your purchases by considering your monthly cash flow and your cost per acre. When you think about your budget for the year, most farmers can count on spending roughly $100-$120 per acre for machinery, fuel and labor. If you’re currently far from that mark, it may be time to re-evaluate the machines you’re using.

Strong farming maintenance operations have strong business plans

The first step to maintaining an agriculture business plan is to have a business plan. If you’re running a farming operation, it’s likely you already have a budget and an outline of what you hope to achieve in this season and the one after that, but you shouldn’t stop there. Think about how you can improve through:

Grants and loans. Map out the application deadlines and list out the information you’ll need to gather for any grants or loans you plan to apply for in the year ahead. If you’re not sure how to make the most of the grants available (perhaps especially through governmental organizations), this is a great reason to research continuing education opportunities. The internet is full of webinars and farmer forums that can help you create the right grant application to help you meet your business goals.

Insurance. If, in the inspection of your business plan, you become concerned that you’re overpaying (or insufficiently covered) for property or crop insurance, reach out to your insurance agent. Most of these folks are paid by the number of policies they sell and not by the level of coverage, which means they’re not out to upsell you. If you don’t trust your agent, find a new one.

Taxes. It’s tempting to leave it at that, but if you have any concerns about how to maximize your return or questions about how to depreciate your equipment, make sure you have an accountant who can assist you in navigating this complicated facet of agriculture business management.

There are a few other things you can do to improve how you’re running your farming operation:

  1. Data collection. If you’re renting farmland, make it as easy as possible for you and your landlord to get a quick overview of how things are going on the farm, whether that’s through a platform like Tillable or a spreadsheet that you store in a shared cloud. Keep your data organized, well labeled, and be sure to communicate with your landlord when you plant your crops, when they’re harvested, and what your yields look like.
  2. Spruce up your backup plans. When you created your business plan for the year, you probably didn’t go back through your emergency funds, review your procedural documents and the contact information for anyone who’d need to step in if you were to be hit by a bus (you never know). It may sound fatalistic, but it’s smart to step back and ask what would happen if you were unable to farm tomorrow. In reviewing your backup plans, you may find room to adjust your regular assumptions, whether that’s about how your budget works or how you communicate with your farmhands.
  3. Have a personal financial plan. A good business plan is backed up by a strong personal financial plan. Your personal financial map should consider your non-farm needs, including: finances, insurance needs, retirement funds, college funds and personal savings. This should also include a succession plan.
  4. Farmland owners: update your succession plan. You test your soil and track your yields because you care about the land and its future. If you own the fields you farm, it follows that you should have a succession plan in the event that you’re unable to continue to farm the land. The question of farmland inheritance should have an answer (and documentation to back it up) before anyone finds themselves asking that question out of necessity.

Stay current on best practices through continuing education

Continuing education is key to staying sharp and learning what tools are available to you. You can find these through your local Farm Bureau, nearby university Ag extension, or the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

But if you’re not sure where to start, step back and consider your business plan. Are there any areas where you’re not quite sure you’ve got things moving as smoothly as you’d like? Have you encountered any problems in the past year you weren’t confident you solved in the most cost-efficient way? These great questions for Google (or your search engine of choice).

While the county USDA office and your neighbors may have solutions for you, one of the best places to look for advice today is the internet. There are a plethora of farmer forums out there, along with countless farmer blogs and podcasts where agricultural leaders and educators are sharing their knowledge free of charge.

For example, if you’re looking for USDA grants for new farmers, you’re not alone. Webinars, podcasts, and CEU opportunities are available to you today online, many free of charge. Interested in improving the sustainable practices on your land? All it takes is a quick search to begin to access the variety of techniques and principles farmers apply to their operations today.

Farmers have more information and educational opportunities available to them than ever before. While we can’t recommend one resource or another, all you have to do today is type out your question and use your best judgement to review the answers the internet offers up. Just remember that you’re the expert on the land you farm and you get to choose where you’d like to focus your energy.

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Always look to the future of your farming operation

Maintaining a farming operation takes organization and a multi-pronged approach that looks past the field today and into the next season. We’ve written a lot about the power of data, but it’s of little use unless it’s easily accessible to you. In addition to including data reporting requirements in any farmland lease you sign, consider adding meaningful data points to your farm business plan to hold yourself accountable to your goals for best practices.

Whether you share your yields with your landlord through Tillable or you maintain a spreadsheet on your computer where you track operational costs and milestones each season, paying attention and actively looking for information to help you improve your operation is a good idea. There’s always room for growth, and you may just find that connecting with other farmers online to learn about their challenges and solutions provides you with a deeper sense of connection to the land you work.

Most importantly, better data will help you be a better steward of your farmland, which is the critical resource that powers your futures as a businessperson, as a farmer and as a community member.

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