Love them or loathe them, computers are here to stay.

But given the failings of the government computer system, blamed for delaying thousands of single farm payments, farmers could be forgiven for wishing they had never been invented.

After all, if the government can spend £37m on a computer system and still get it wrong, there seems little chance of success for the average farm business when it comes to buying a desktop PC to do the farm accounts.

“Computers are meant to make your life easier,” says Rachel Purdon, senior administrator with the Pentalk Network, which has supplied over 900 computers free to farmers across Cumbria since it was set up five years ago.

“You can survive without a computer, but it is increasingly difficult,” she adds.

Not having one is like walking rather than using a car.

You will still end up at your destination, but it will take much longer to get there.

Foot-and-mouth

The Pentalk Network was established to keep farmers up to speed with the latest developments as foot-and-mouth raged across the country in 2001.

Using the internet was often the quickest way of learning about the latest outbreak.

Today, with the threat of bird flu, Ms Purdon believes computers remain just as important.

“It is not just about running the farm business, it is to do with communication should anything like foot-and-mouth happen again.

“We have a Vet Call forum on our website, so farmers can ask questions about animal health online without having to go to the expense of calling out the vet or making a phone call.

It’s all about saving time and money.”

Other farmers agree. A mouse is just as vital as the 200 cows on the dairy farm run by Rachael Thomas’s family at Cwrtnewydd, Carmarthenshire.

“Farmers must have IT skills nowadays because computers are becoming more important,” she says.

Mrs Thomas recently attended computer evening classes so she could improve the farm management.

Held at a local primary school, the course was part of a Managing Farms with IT project offering free computer training to Welsh farmers.

During her course, she learned about word processing, spreadsheets and how databases can be used to keep the farm records and accounts up to date and easily accessible.

Benchmarking

After one-to-one lessons, Mrs Thomas also uses an online benchmarking program which allows her to see how the family business is performing in comparison with other dairy units across the industry.

She believes the program will come into its own after the installation of a new computerised dairy parlour on the 144ha (356- acre) farm, which has a herd of 200 milking cows and is set for further expansion during 2006.

“Computerising our farm records has saved so much time and paperwork and it helps to keep on top of things.

The MilkBench program will also be useful to identify the farm’s strengths and weaknesses as we expand the business.”

It is one thing having a computer, but not all farmers put them to such good use. And while most farms are willing to embrace new technology, it seems many are lagging behind and resisting the advance of what others see as inevitable progress.

Some 95% of pig farmers have at least one computer, according to a recent study by Farmex, a firm specialising in hi-tech temperature systems for agriculture.

But the same survey found that only 80% of those farmers used herd-recording software.

The findings suggest that it is indeed possible to survive without a computer.

But producers that manage to go without are sometimes failing to maximise the profitability of their enterprises, in the pig sector at least.

Failure to use such powerful yet easy-to-use computer-based recording systems is costing producers thousands of pounds a year, says Ed Sutcliffe, technical director at the pig-breeding company ACMC.

Producers with computers are able to tweak different aspects of herd performance and analyse their effects on profitability.

Farmers can then identify and improve the performance indicators that have the most direct economic benefit.

In one experiment, for example, improving backfat thickness resulted in 8% more pigs reaching top grade, worth an average of £0.33 a pig.

But the computer showed that improving growth rate by 10g a day would be worth £1.08 a pig.

“Without a computer you have little chance,” says Mr Sutcliffe.

“With proper software key performance indicators can be used to great advantage.

Paper records, however good, are hard to analyse.

But with today’s software there is no excuse.”

Survival

Although farmers may have been able to survive without a computer in the past, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get away without one, says Neil Unitt, managing director of Farmers Weekly’s sister company Farmplan Computers.

“There are many examples of where farmers will lose out by not having a computer, including significant financial incentives for filling in VAT returns and PAYE online,” he says.

With the advent of the single farm payment, Mr Unitt believes farmers should have complete management costings and information to hand so they can consider farm profitability at a time when subsidies are no longer dependent on production.

“They can also save themselves time and reduce errors by filing in updates on cattle movements and births online using British Cattle Movement Service Cattle Tracing System Web Services.”

But computers also serve a more human purpose, says Ms Purdon.

“You don’t get the same amount of farmers going to auctions or meeting up in the same way as they used to.

Having a computer and communicating online can help bridge that gap.”