Soybean South

 - PRECISION AG -

Precision Ag -
The Next Generation

Precision ag software has evolved into products that are more useful and include
record-keeping capabilities, finally giving the farmerthe tools he needs
to know what to do next.

By Keith Rucker

 
What changes we have seen in the past 15 years of the Precision Ag Revolution! The first time I used GPS in the field to collect data was around 1994: we hooked up a clumsy GPS receiver, with an accuracy level that would make a $75 hand-held receiver from Wal-Mart look like surveying equipment, to an even bigger and “clunkier” laptop running DOS software. A mile of cables were in the cab, all patched together with a hodgepodge of connectors from Radio Shack. Nothing was designed to run in a field environment, and while the rigging worked, we often spent twice as much time troubleshooting as we did in getting the job done.

Incredible progress has taken place. We now have a wide selection of electronics engineered from day one to work on the farm, and these tools have very user-friendly interfaces. To match this new generation of field electronics, we have greatly improved software products to handle data created in the field. Good precision ag software was once too expensive and too difficult for most farmers to adopt. As a result, the majority of farmers depended on paid consultants or the area co-op to process data for them. What the farmer usually received as a result of the collected data was a book of pretty maps that often left him feeling overwhelmed with data and not sure what to do next.

New software answers, ‘What now?’
As with electronics, precision ag software has evolved into products that are useful to the average farmer. In addition to the traditional GIS (Geographical Information System) interface that displays maps and data, the latest generations of this software have incorporated farm record-keeping capabilities, giving the farmer the tools he needs to finally know what to do next.

Two of the most popular and powerful precision ag software choices with record-keeping capabilities are the Farm Trac/Farm Site combo from Farm Works (www.farmworks.com) and the EASi Suite package from MapShots (www.mapshots.com). Both of these products have taken the traditional GIS package and added farm record-keeping capabilities. The result is software that not only gives you those pretty maps but puts the power behind them to keep farm records and ultimately assist in the decision-making.

Why do we need farm record-keeping software? Almost all growers are required to keep detailed records like never before, from accurate pesticide application records to developing and recording nutrient management plans, and from product traceability records for Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs) to being able to generate reports for the Conservation Security Program (CSP). Keeping accurate records is a reality on today’s farm.

Decision-making power
How does this electronic record keeping work? Relatively easily! Most farmers keep at least some kind of records, commonly in a notebook, where they jot down information such as when fields were planted, what and when products were applied to a field and any other information they think they might need later on.

Electronic record keeping does basically the same thing – you are just saving records to an electronic database with a farmer-friendly user-interface. By having the information in a database, farmers are finding that their data has incredible power that will help them make decisions like never before.

Records can be logged in many ways. At the simplest level, somebody can take the traditional notebook logs from the field and hand-enter the data into the computer in the office. While this method works and is probably the most common method of data collection, it does pose problems. Very often, the person writing the data down in the field may not provide all of the information needed for good electronic record keeping, leaving gaps in your database.

Logging records electronically in the field is more beneficial. Both Farm Works and MapShots offer options for software that can be loaded on a hand-held computer or even some of the new “Smart Phones” that can be used to log field operations as they happen.

The advantage of keeping records electronically is that it reduces the chances for errors, and the computer will prompt you to get all of the information that you need.

Complete and accurate records
Periodically, you simply “sync” the data on the hand-held device with the computer in the office, and the records are entered into the database. Multiple hand-held devices can be used on large operations to collect data in the field.

The ultimate way of collecting farm records is for the process to be automated by the equipment in the field. In the past few years, more manufacturers of field electronics created “smart” log files of what was happening in the field. In addition to logging the traditional GPS points (indicating where the tractor went in the field), this next generation of electronics is also collecting information such as what products are being applied, at what rate, who is making the application – all on top of where the applications are taking place.

With these kinds of log files, all that needs to be done to get the farm records into the database is simply read the logs into the farm record-keeping software. As long as the manufacturer of the hardware works with the software companies to make a compatible format, the data is read in the computer, and the information is stored with hardly the touch of a button. As wireless networks and network-enabled devices evolve, the syncing of data from the field to the farm office will ultimately become seamless.

Simplified reporting
Records kept in a farm record-keeping software package have many advantages over the traditional hand-written notebook. With good record keeping, analyzing your farm and making plans is as simple as hitting a few buttons on the computer.

For example, if you have a pesticide audit, print a simple report of all of your pesticide applications, what materials were used and at what rates. These reports can be created on a single field, multiple fields, or even the entire farming operation.

Any farmer who has ever applied for the Conservation Security Program knows how much data has to be put together. Some of the latest farm recordkeeping software packages actually allow you to print a few specialized reports from your data, and assuming that you have done the job of keeping good records, presto, the bulk of your work is simply printed out to be handed in.

Plan long before planting
These software packages even have planning modes that allow you to “farm” your entire operation on the computer before the first seed is ever planted. Many farmers are discovering that they can save a considerable amount of money if they can pre-order their planned crop protectants and fertilizers at the beginning of the season.

With the planning tools in today’s record-keeping software, you can enter your expected inputs for different cropping scenarios and get detailed lists of what products you expect to use for the upcoming growing season.

And finally, the software does an excellent job of tracking your operating expenses and determining profit and loss over a single field, a group of fields, by crop or over your entire operation. Assuming you do your job in keeping good records, the uses of these kinds of software are nearly limitless.

With the technology changes occurring on the farm in the last 15 years, it is time that software is finally coming to maturity. If you are not using record-keeping software on your farm currently, now is the time to give it a serious look.

Keith S. Rucker is an Extension agent with the University of Georgia Extension service. Keith can be contacted at ksrucker@uga.edu.

This research is supported by the State of Georgia, the Georgia Research Alliance, both State and Federal Experiment Station appropriations, the Georgia Peanut Commission, the American Peanut Council and the Peanut Foundation, the National Peanut Board through the Southeastern Peanut Research Initiative, the Georgia Cotton Commission, the Cotton Foundation and Cotton Incorporated, Georgia Agricultural Innovation Center, Georgia Department of Economic Development, One Georgia, Flint River Soil & Water Commission, USDA-NRCS , The Nature Conservatory, USDA-ARS, USDACSREES, United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.


Precision Ag: Then and Now

Then:
• Large, heavy, clumsy equipment patched together with miles of cable.
• Expensive software that was too difficult to be useful.
• Data maps that were colorful, but left you saying, “What do I do with this?”
• Hand-written notes, often incomplete and sometimes downright illegible.

Now:
• Electronics and software made for the farm and farmers.
• Complete and accurate notes made in the field by the operator or the equipment.
• Reports that can be used to plan and make decisions.
• Records for pesticide applications, CSP, etc., at the touch of a button.