Lean thinking saves Monitor Farm money

Thursday, 19 October 2023

Jason Pole looks at how Lean management principles were applied at Diss Monitor Farm to make small changes that add up.

As the old saying goes: “If you look after the pennies, the pounds look after themselves.” With the continued squeeze on farm profitability, the pennies matter more than ever. It is one reason why several Monitor Farms have embraced Lean management principles.

What does ‘Lean’ mean?

Lean management stems from a Japanese philosophy called Kaizen, where the mantra is continued improvement and making relatively small changes that add up. The approach focuses on minimising waste and maximising product value (in any business).

Unsurprisingly, the philosophy chimes with monitor farmers, who have a strong focus on business improvement. In fact, several signed up for an AHDB-funded Lean consultation in the past year.

These consultations build upon experiences in other sectors, especially horticulture and pork, where many businesses have already learned from Lean.

This is important. Lean has a long history (used since the early 20th century) with numerous examples of success. However, agriculture is unique, with many producers, numerous systems, a complex operating environment and no universal blueprint – knowing the approach worked in other sectors was encouraging.

Ling and Lean

Richard Ling’s farm (Rookery Farm) has been the Diss Monitor Farm since 2019. The final meeting took place in the summer.

He put the 1,000 ha arable farm through a Lean review in autumn 2022.

The arable enterprise (the farm also has a beef finishing unit) includes wheat and oilseed rape, as well as winter feed barley and spring malting barley. He farms on a range of soils, from sandy to heavy clay loams.

Lean provides an opportunity to step back and look at routines and processes in detail. The first step is to map every element and identify the ‘waste’ on the farm. Lean defines waste as anything that fails to add value: this includes wasted time, untapped skills and excessive transportation. To make sure nothing is missed, Lean encourages as many staff as possible to get involved.

There are numerous processes on any arable farm, so Richard focused on the part of his business where he felt there was potentially a lot of waste – drilling.

Drilling costs

Failing to get the crop drilled to plan can easily cost Richard’s business tens of thousands of pounds. For example, only getting 75% of the arable crops drilled was estimated to cost around £42,000 per annum.

To make drilling more efficient, every aspect of the process was put under the spotlight – from planning the rotation, to storing seed and getting it to the farm’s three drills (a cultivator-disc drill and two tined direct drills).

The waste walk mapped sixteen key process steps and identified plenty of scope for improvement. Actions were identified and assigned to the best member of the team. Making sure that everything was ready for drilling in tight windows was deemed essential.

One of the first actions was to make it easier to prepare the drills. How-to videos were produced to make sure all necessary steps were carried out by the night before drilling, such as calibration and fuelling.

With multiple crops, varieties and seed sources (purchased and farm saved), the need for military precision of seed movement was identified. Numerous improvements have been put in place, including making sure seed bags are arranged in clear drilling order.

The aim is to keep the drill drilling.

Lessons were also learned for other similar farm operations, such as spray and fertiliser applications.

Richard said:

“Naturally, there is tendency to look for big improvements. However, Lean makes you think small. It is the 1% gains here and there that often make the biggest difference.”

Simple measures matter

Although business-specific, Lean reviews on one farm can easily inspire changes on another. It is just about making processes as efficient as possible. And simple changes matter.

For example, Lean reviews often find that resources are not where they need to be. One of several Lean case studies on our website highlights how shadow boards saved a pig farmer over £1,000 per year.

Staff were often on the hunt for the right spanner for the job. In response to a Lean review, the farmer installed shadow boards alongside each piece of equipment to highlight missing tools.

A complete tool board ensures that staff do not waste time getting to the real task, such as maintaining equipment.

Lean is about reducing hassle in the job, not adding to it.

Lean resources

Visit our dedicated web pages to help you learn to Lean

Arable Focus

This article also features in the winter 2023 edition of Arable Focus (pp26–27).

Download the edition from the Arable Focus page