We worked less and accomplished more – new approach maximizes our productivity

We learn a few more lessons every year we put in a crop. And, this year was no exception.

Seeding 41,500 acres in 21 days (28 days including rain delays) is a monumental effort that can only be accomplished with a great team and a meticulous plan.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, so problem-solving is a key skill we’ve built into our process. 

Overall, Plant 2024 was our smoothest and most efficient seeding season ever. Let’s dig into the numbers. 

Hebert Group team sitting around table for pre seeding talk

Pre-seeding meeting with the crew

Data – the devil is in the details

As recovering accountants, Evan and I geek out over the numbers. We were pleased to see that our equipment productivity continues trending upwards. Thanks to a robust data set that we pull from the John Deere Ops system, we can see that:

  • Overall, we were stretching 4 drills to 9500 – 10,500 acres each 
  • Acres per hour while seeding – 43.06
  • Acres per hour over total seeding window – 20.94 (prior year 19.17)
  • 1,776 average acres per day (1805 was the median)
  • Fill and maintenance times are improving as well – 25 – 35 minutes is the average

Labour and Human Resources

We operate 24 hours, with shifts running 6 am – 6 pm and nights shifts from 6 pm – 6 am

This year, all full-time hours were down and crew members could spend either breakfast or dinner with families, something I think is extremely important.

  • We had the right number of people this year – 25 in total, with a core seeding team of 18 that worked more than 100 hours 
  • Our team included 3 seasonal workers from New Zealand and a co-op student from SK Polytechnic
  • 16-hour days went down from 81 to just 17
  • 11.67 average hours per day over the seeding days (21 days). The median hours worked per day per employee was 13.26 (this removes some of the days where rain delays only stopped us for a couple of hours)

Seeding is all about Project Management 

Over the last few years, we’ve been changing our approach to seeding and breaking it down into Day and Night projects consisting of 4 crews each – seeding, spraying, logistics and rock pickers. We have two team leads per shift – an Operations and Logistics lead, which makes for better hand-offs and information exchange. 

Organizationally this worked really well as the teams had to trust one another and the lead had to step up and take responsibility for their crews. In the end, Jeff and I only had 4 direct reports (versus 18). 

Overall, there is virtually no difference in productivity between our Day and Night crew. You might think that working at night would slow things down, but that isn’t the case. It’s a real testament to our preparation and execution. 

Catching sunrise at the end of the night shift.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

There are a few things we do ahead of time to plan for the unexpected and help things go more smoothly.

A big one is our land preparation crew led by Louis. They head out in front of the drill lifting trees, burying rock piles or harrowing wet spots. Over the years we’ve learned how valuable this role is so we expanded to three people. We feel it’s making a huge difference allowing the drill operators to be more productive.

Mechanical issues are going to happen, that’s a given. We’ve assembled a Parts on Wheels trailer that can head out into the field with all the equipment and parts that might be needed. This allows for much less downtime as no one has to return to the shop for a repair. The crew did a great job of setting up the trailer so we can handle almost anything 24 hours a day. 

Check out this video of our trailer.

Key learnings from Plant 2024

  • Right people, right roles – this year we hit the sweet spot of having the right number of people (19). We intentionally crewed up to have enough operators on both the drills and sprayers, rather than having people do double duty. We also expanded the rock-picking crew as noted above. The Team Leads were chosen carefully and did a great job of communicating important information to Jeff and I. Overall, more people meant that everyone worked fewer hours, which is great for morale and safety.

 

  • Expansion doesn’t mean more work – I’ve said this before and people don’t believe me, but taking on more acres seems to make things go more smoothly. In the last year, we’ve gone from 30,000 to 41,500 acres. I think it forces us to be even more prepared and strategic with seeding. Our Project Management approach is working and allowing us to do more

 

  • Issues management – this year we kept a live  Trello list of problems and issues that popped up during seeding. Documenting these things as they’re happening, instead of relying on memory,  is going to help when we sit down for our post-seeding review 

Seeding in progress

  • Numbers don’t lie – Data is so important and if you’re not pulling numbers out of JD Ops or similar, you will have nothing to measure against. We’ve been doing this for the last 5 years and we can see trends, which is more helpful than comparing season to season. We can see long-term trends of our hours per acre trending down and productivity trending upwards. And, on the other hand, we’ve also had data show us that some things don’t work. For example, the first time we went to multiple drills we ran them in separate fields and locations. That turned out to be a horrible idea, both in terms of people and data collection. Needless to say, we no longer do that. 

 

  • Teach what you know and learn – as we build out our Farmer Coach programs, we need to try new things, document them, and see what works and what doesn’t so we can teach and advise our clients more effectively. 

 

  • Spending my time where it matters the most – I love farming and while I will never be completely hands-off when it comes to seeding and harvest, I am learning our crews are so well managed, that they don’t need me around. Not having me around forced them to trust and rely on each other more, and in most cases do a better job than I do. 

 

This year, I left the farm three times during seeding which is unheard of (and only had one 2 am call)! I could attend important business meetings in Calgary and Regina and watch more of my kids’ school and recreational activities. Even Theresa commented that I was around more and looked less tired. For me, that’s a huge win.