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Do Farmers Farm for Profit

We farmers are a strange lot. I went to a Discussion Group recently and left asking myself if farmers did really farm for profit. Having mulled it over for a while I realised that the profit situation was not the problem, it was the total decision making process that was stirring my inner concerns.

The Discussion Group was a successful one in that many topics were covered and the debate was full, lively and amusing. Everyone departed happily. But there is the rub. If two sides of an argument are put forward the group generally has about half and half in each camp.

Now take a broad assumption that most of the local dairy farms are similar, how can both camps depart happily knowing that they were in the best option category? For an example, one topic debated was the feeding of maize. Several farmers are now using it and claimed, on the day, that it is economic in their system.

They smugly and jovially pointed to the huge lift in production and the high pay out. Those that don’t use it claimed, equally vociferously, that for them it was not economic. The cost of the product, the feeding equipment and the labour involved rendered the exercise pointless. The consulting officer summarised the arguments and then delivered the pacifier. He pointed out that if used correctly, maize was very profitable. If used wrongly it was very costly.

We farmers are a strange lot. I went to a Discussion Group recently and left asking myself if farmers did really farm for profit. Having mulled it over for a while I realised that the profit situation was not the problem, it was the total decision making process that was stirring my inner concerns.

The Discussion Group was a successful one in that many topics were covered and the debate was full, lively and amusing. Everyone departed happily. But there is the rub. If two sides of an argument are put forward the group generally has about half and half in each camp. Now take a broad assumption that most of the local dairy farms are similar, how can both camps depart happily knowing that they were in the best option category?

For an example, one topic debated was the feeding of maize. Several farmers are now using it and claimed, on the day, that it is economic in their system. They smugly and jovially pointed to the huge lift in production and the high pay out. Those that don’t use it claimed, equally vociferously, that for them it was not economic. The cost of the product, the feeding equipment and the labour involved rendered the exercise pointless. The consulting officer summarised the arguments and then delivered the pacifier. He pointed out that if used correctly, maize was very profitable. If used wrongly it was very costly.

At that point everyone calmed down and was happy to move on. Nobody wanted to know about the correct use. The assumption by the maize users was they were all using the product correctly and therefore profitably. The non-users assumed that their circumstance would fall into the incorrect, and therefore non-profitable, category. Without realising it, the consulting officer had given each group the out clause they needed and made both feel a winner.

On reflection the same process was repeated with the arguments for drying cows off, under sowing pasture, drenching cows, and dry cow therapy. I guess as we head into another season and go through the cycle of farmer gatherings again, we will carry the same old debates through and use the same process for reassuring ourselves. The economics of run-off ownership, the use of contractors and the use of nitrogen are examples that will all get similar treatment.

I do not dissociate myself from the situation. I am very much part of it and draw my monthly assurance from the Discussion Group system. I can see that like most of my peers I farm within my comfort zones and that maximum profit is low on the list of reasons to precipitate change. I, like most farmers, would not admit that my newly acquired feed-out wagon, nor my under sowing, nor my dry cow therapy was a waste of money.

All is not lost. The snippets of argument remain in the back of the brain and are occasionally forced into the open by other circumstances. The maize example could again be used. In time of a feed shortage some maize could be stumbled upon and that could make a non-user become a regular user. Similarly if maize was not available one year a user may see that the losses of not having it were minor.

As farmers we tend to be forced into major changes rather than actively seeking out better alternatives. That conservatism gives an element of reliability, and assurance. It minimises doubt and risk and offers the comfort that we nearly all require. Consulting officers may despair at the thought of their information not being put to use immediately, but being able to send a large group of farmers home in a happy and assured frame of mind is something that others might think impossible.




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