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Equipment Hub: How much are you paying for time?

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 October 2020

Time. We say we never have enough of it, but the reality is: It is the only truly fair thing on earth.

No matter if you are fabulously wealthy or live in poverty, no matter what country you live in or what you do for a living, we all have the blessing and burden of 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. While time is the one thing we all have equal measures of, we also recognize the truth of the phrase “time is money.”

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Lessons on time can be some of life’s great lessons. Oftentimes, we search for ways to be more efficient, only to find our time is simply diverted to other tasks. When I was a teenager, our small dairy was doing well. We were purchasing equipment and upgrading our farming methods as rapidly as our spare cash would allow. We were in what Dr. William Etgen, professor of dairy science at Virginia Tech, called “the golden age of dairying.” Things were good.

One piece of the dairy that did not get upgraded was our feeding system. We had an upright silo that we fed from most of the year, and it had an unloader (thankfully) for most of its serviceable life, but from there, delivering the silage and grain blend to the cows was a manual task.

Silage came down the silo chute into the feed room, where we mixed in grain with a scoop and silage fork, loaded it on a wheelbarrow and rolled it down the trough to the cows. One thing you could count on was: By 6 a.m. every morning, you smelled like silage and had worked up a good sweat.

Needless to say, one of the things I looked forward to with great anticipation was the day we could automate the feeding. Looking back, I think at least part of Dad’s thinking was not to invest in a system until he knew for sure how and where we would be feeding in the future.

By the time I graduated from college and returned to the farm, we were planning a new covered feedlot expansion and moving away from the old trough in the freestall barn. Still, while that was underway, I continued the twice-daily chore of mixing and delivering TMR to the cows by hand.

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The day we converted over to using a mobile mixer wagon was a red-letter day, as you can imagine. The old wheelbarrow was relegated to other duties, and we had joined the push-button age. Surely there would be times of great leisure and reflection each day in the hour or so we saved as we were relieved from the limitations of the pitchfork and scoop.

What I soon learned was: The time I had saved from that task had been gobbled up by other tasks, not the least of which was maintaining all the new equipment we had installed. You see, while I think we may have replaced the wheelbarrow once in our early dairying career, and no doubt had to repair or air up the tire a few times, I never ever put a shot of grease on the scoop or silage fork.

By the time the Harvestores came on line in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the one thing I replaced and upgraded was my grease gun. (Let me also say that we got along fine with our big blue buddies. I know they were credited with the demise of many farms, but before we took that step, we invested a good bit of time – probably freed up from the silage fork – to investigate how dairies who were successful with their oxygen-limited storage were managing the pluses and minuses.)

I invested work with the crews erecting the silos, so I was familiar with all aspects of them, especially the unloaders. I did all the maintenance and repairs on those unloaders, to the point I could service one quickly and without much disruption to the day at all.

Looking back, though, as I automated the feeding systems we were using, the worst misjudgment I made was thinking I was saving time; rather, I was just reshaping how my day was spent. Instead of baling square bales of alfalfa, we were chopping it. Instead of being covered with sweat from forking silage by hand, I was covered with grease and old oil from wrestling the gun to find that grease zerk on the bottom of the mixer wagon gearbox.

While I cringe a bit from advising people how to manage their own time, I also recognize I am fast becoming one of the elder statesmen of agriculture. Over time, our experiences become wisdom to those who follow us, so I will close with this bit of wisdom.

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Automation is only as good as your ability to manage without it when it fails – because it will fail. It doesn’t mean you need to be discouraged from using new technologies; it only means you need to spend some time asking the “but what if” questions. “But what if” I can’t get parts on the weekend? “But what if” the power fails? “But what if” the auger flights need rebuilding?

The other piece of advice is universal: We are all subject to the truth of “the rule of 32.” Thirty-two is the sum of three important facts: There are only 24 hours in a day, there are only seven days in a week, and there is only one of you. How you spend those three numbers is entirely up to you – and no amount of money can afford you a 33 or even a 32.001, for that matter. Be safe and spend your time wisely.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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