Tracking how farmers spend their time can be challenging

Haven’t we all asked the question, where does the time go? I had a meeting at a farm this week, arriving around 3:30 in the afternoon. As we were settling in for our discussion, one of the family members commented that it was already mid-afternoon and she hadn’t been able to get to any of the things she had wanted to get done that day. It definitely wasn’t because she had slacked off.

For many of you, time is your most precious asset. One can argue that in fact, time is a farmer’s only true, absolute constraint. You only have so much time. Logically then, I think, is where do farmers spend their time?

This was a topic of discussion in a peer group meeting I recently attended. Participating farms were discussing different challenges with the human resource part of their businesses. I suggested that, in general, farms could benefit from having a better understanding of how they use their own human resources and that, in theory, knowing that would have carry-over benefits to the performance of their hired employees. I further suggested that having a better understanding of their own human resource, and how efficiently and effectively they used that resource, includes knowing where they were spending their time.

One farmer in the group had started recording his time this year. He said that it was challenging. It was easy to forget to record time for a day … or two … and then not being able to remember what he had done those days. He also offered that he really didn’t know what he would learn from, or do with, the information he was capturing. He said that he was continuing on because, at the least, he would have the information to look at and hopefully, give him a better understanding of how he was using his most valuable asset.

A couple of other farmers in the group indicated that they had tried to track their time but had stopped, citing a couple of main challenges: knowing what to record in what detail, and in forgetting to record anything for periods of time.

Things to think about

1. How much detail is needed?

a. There’s a saying that perfection is the enemy of good enough. Some professional services firms will require that team members track time in six-minute increments. That’s tremendous detail. How much detail do you need? Or a better question — how much detail will you look at? My suggestion is to only track time to the level of detail that you would use in your analysis. Start simple. For example, maybe only track in half-day segments.

2. What if you forget a day or two?

a. For discussion purposes, let’s assume a farmer works 3,000 hours a year. At an average of 10 hours a day, that’s 300 days. If you could remember to record what you did six out of 10 days, you would have information on 1,800 hours. One thing is for sure. You will have 100 percent of nothing for all the days you don’t record time.

3. Where do you allocate the time?

a. My suggestion is to start by allocating the time into four main areas: operations, marketing, human resources and finance. When you remember at the end of the day to jot down what you did, record blocks of time to each of these areas. You can add more detail in the future if you want.

b. There’s the question about differentiating between labour and management. Again, try not to get bogged down in detail. Labour could be anything someone other than you could do. Management should be considered those things that require your specific attention. If this is still too difficult, try adopting a general percentage of all your time. For example, 35 percent of what you do is management and 65 percent is labour.

4. What will you learn from, and do with, the information?

a. This is hard to say. Here’s an example.

i. You determine that one of your priorities is to improve your gross margin efficiency. One factor that contributes to gross margin efficiency is marketing. Tracking time will tell you how much time you’re spending on marketing. Do you need to spend more? Or, are you spending a lot of time in this area and not getting the results you want? Maybe you need to adjust your approach, or take more courses to become more effective.

ii. The adage , if you can’t manage what you can’t measure, applies here.

5. Challenge your paradigms.

a. I fully understand that this management activity will not be used by all farms. Like a lot of new things, recording time will require some changes in how you do things. It will take discipline.

b. Avoid excuses in the areas listed above. As one of the farmers in the peer group suggested, you require that your employees mark down their time, so you should be able to record your own.

It’s just about time to call it a day. I need to record what I did today but … hmmm … what did I do anyway? I know that I sure was busy.

Terry Betker, P.Ag, is a farm management consultant based in Winnipeg. He can be reached at 204-782-8200 or

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