Opinion: Farmers should look to big data and little wins

The aggregation of marginal gains – or “doing 100 things 1% better” – is a philosophy I first became aware of during England Rugby’s brief flirtation with greatness under Sir Clive Woodward in the early noughties.

It has since enjoyed more sustained success with Sir Dave Brailsford, the former performance director of UK Cycling and now boss of the multiple Tour de France-winning Team Sky.

It is a simple concept that basically says rather than looking for a single, often non-existent “big win”, if you focus on doing everything just that little bit better than everyone else then the net effect will often surprise you.

Recently I was fortunate enough to present a paper at the excellent British Cattle Breeders Club annual conference in Telford. Titled “The Business of Breeding”, the conference was one of those life-affirming events that makes you realise, even during the current downturn, just how much there is to be proud of and optimistic about in this great industry of ours.

Among a crop of papers that included a fascinating insight into laser biopsies and embryo genotyping for cattle, technology being developed here in the UK and a view of the world through the eyes of “Generation Z”, the social-media savvy foot-soldiers of tomorrow’s industry, we were treated to some excellent examples of how individual farms had employed currently available knowledge and technology to deliver superior performance and profitability.

For me the highlight was the 2014 Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year, Billy O’Kane (Seven Steps to Profitable Beef, Livestock 29 January), a former poultry vet who has applied poultry industry thinking to beef production with great success.

Mr O’Kane started his presentation with the statement that the UK already has the highest beef price in Europe, so expecting that to improve anytime soon was unrealistic. In order to survive, beef production has to be sustainable  within the current pricing structure. He then proceeded to break down the major components of a successful suckler beef enterprise, demonstrating how attention to detail and an unrelenting focus on constantly improving the little things can have a big impact on the bottom line.

Billy O’Kane is the Dave Brailsford of the beef industry and someone whose pragmatic and focused approach is an ideal role model for ailing livestock and arable enterprises, the length and breadth of the country. 

What was also refreshingly apparent from many of the conference papers was another particular hobby horse of mine – the value of data.

We often, unknowingly, generate reams of the stuff every day in everything that we do, but frustratingly fail to capture and exploit a fraction of its potential value, as so often that value comes from joining up data strands from all links in the supply chain; something that requires better co-operation and communication than is perhaps the current norm for our industry.

Big data is a hot topic in pretty much every walk of life right now and its effective exploitation is rapidly becoming a source of potential competitive advantage that we simply cannot afford to overlook.

The ability to find the right combination of big data and little wins will undoubtedly be as key a differentiating factor for successful UK farming as it has been for British cycling and, with any luck, for English rugby one day too.

See also: We have neglected our soils for too long

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