Information management provides a real opportunity for dealers to add revenue while making farmers more efficient.

Data management has been called the next frontier in precision farming. While futurists predict farmers will see fully autonomous tractors and combines within a decade, it's the effective management of seed, yield, soil and other data that will demonstrate the real value of this technology.

The Apple iPad electronic tablet has revolutionized farm operations. Users have the tools they need to take their office with them to the field. Now, apps for the iPad are making data management easier and more practical than ever. The iCropTrak app allows users to access data without an Internet connection. Content, such as boundaries and images, are stored in a central database and synched when necessary.

It's been relatively easy for farmers and dealers to prove the value of using autoguidance systems or variable rate technology. As cropland values and input costs climb, managing the data precision agricultural systems record is quickly becoming one of the best ways to increase revenue for the farmer.

To make information pay dividends, farmers and dealers will need to become more adept at gathering, managing and utilizing data as it's collected by yield monitors or field images as they're captured by satellites.

"We have customers who have a ton of data about their farm operations, but the sheer volume of it can make it extremely difficult for them to use the information," says Dr. Jeff Barnes, manager of the Precision Services Department at Greenway Equipment, a 22-store John Deere dealership in Arkansas and Missouri. "They'll quickly get to the point of information overload unless they can get the data into a usable format they can put to work on their farm."

Clipboards are becoming as rare out in the field as the bullet pencils seed dealers once handed out by the thousands. As the clipboard disappears, personal devices such as electronic tablets and smartphones have made managing and using data on the farm more practical than ever. Android phones and iPad tablets have opened new opportunities for equipment dealers to provide even greater services to their customers.

"Back in the mid-90s, we were talking about beaming crop information from satellites down to the user out in the field," says Lanny Faleide, president of Agri ImaGIS Technologies of Fargo, N.D. "But the biggest limitation at the time was that every user would need to buy a special device to receive the data. Now, just about every farmer has a device. They have a mobile phone."

Agri ImaGIS markets satellite imagery via a web-based geo-spatial information system through which farmers can analyze their fields. "The future's bright for data interconnecting with everything on the farm. We're talking with equipment manufacturers to allow us to beam this data directly to a tractor's virtual terminal so farmers can more easily use the data for prescription maps and other applications," says Faleide.

With the advent of the iPad tablet, Faleide envisions his service working for farmers in this way: Carried to a soybean field by a crop inspector, the iPad tracks his or her position in the field. When a problem area is discovered, the tablet is used to take a photo and mark its exact location. The photo and position data will then be sent via Agri ImaGIS's portal to the equipment dealership's agronomist, and who can determine the problem and make a judgment call within the hour. The solution would be returned as a variable rate map for a fungicide prescription and beamed directly to the farmer's sprayer while he or she is getting it ready to head out to the field.

Faleide charges less than $1 an acre for access to satellite field imagery and other features. "What's keeping some growers from signing on isn't the economics, but the fact that a lot of farmers have been trained to not to make their own decisions. They depend on consultants and dealerships to tell them what should be done on their farms."

This dependence opens the door for farm equipment dealers to help manage data. "Dealers can sell our products to their customers," says Faleide, "but for them to get involved and use it themselves, they will have to change their mindset. For many farm equipment dealers, selling a data solution option is not that far off from what they're already doing. Many of them sell a service package for keeping machinery running. There is a real, direct correlation here that could get dealers more involved in getting the equipment to work right. When dealers get interested in providing this service, it will be a real win for everyone. Information is a powerful way for the dealers to expand their business."

Data Works for Farmers

Greenway is helping its customers put their data to work. "We actually take data management off the farmer's desk so they're only getting the information that's relevant to making their decisions," says Barnes.

Barnes, who has a Ph.D in agronomy, is building a department at Greenway that is already accomplishing what farmers, as well as precision farming consultants and providers, say should be happening at farm equipment dealerships throughout North America. By better managing data, farmers can do more with their farm equipment and increase revenue without adding acres.

If data management is the next frontier for a dealer's support of precision farming, electronic tablets will make providing that service easier. Field audits can be performed with iPads. The tablet tracks the user on a farm map while they complete inspection forms electronically, synchronizing the data in a central database.

Barnes has been busy hiring the right people for the department. "In defense of other dealers," he says, "a program like this isn't something you can simply switch on and suddenly be in business. It takes finding people with more specialized training and experience to work for you as a team than what it takes to move the iron.

At Greenway, the precision farming specialists work with growers and compare notes with the equipment salesman about which farms they need to be talking with. "It's a partnership right now," says Barnes, "but over time all of our salesmen will be selling service, and there will be a another set of folks helping to ensure we're accomplishing the goals the grower had when subscribing to the program."

For farmers to get the most out of their equipment, dealers need to bridge the relationship between selling iron and understanding things like yield data and satellite imagery. "Iron dealers are beginning to hire precision agriculture technicians, but in many cases they're on staff to handle training or solve problems with the gadgets themselves. The next step for dealers is to get more involved in interpreting the data," says Faleide. And it's not going to get any easier. "There's going to be an explosion of information in the next five years."

A Dealership's Resident Expert

Bridging the gap between the iron and the software is where independent precision farming consultants and resellers have built their businesses. While they often work one-on-one with growers, many have partnered with farm equipment dealers to act as the company's resident expert to not only sell components, but also help farmers get the most from their investment.

"A yield monitor is an expensive toy if you don't put it to work," says Paul Bruns of Precision Consulting Services in Canby, Minn. "If you can't use the data to do a better job picking hybrid varieties or seeing where variable rate fertilizing can help, there's not much point in having it.

"There has to be a conversation between the dealer and farmer that goes something like this, 'OK, you've got this stuff, let's put it to use on your farm. Let's do a better job of variable seeding and fertilizing and using your yield data so we can watch it pay for itself.'"

The challenge for dealers, Bruns says, is in stepping out of the environment in which they have traditionally made money. Iron is a tangible asset. With data management, dealers will play an advisory role, which in their eyes hasn't been a significant source of revenue. Historically, this support work has often been done free of charge, as part of the dealer's responsibility when selling leading-edge technology.

"Will this help you build a better relationship with your customers? Absolutely. There is a huge opportunity for dealers to build their business bigger and better," says Bruns, "but their mindset has to change first."

If this is the path farm equipment dealers must take to support their high-tech customers, Greenway Equipment is well on its way. This year it has 10 precision farming specialists out in the field working with growers on data management practices. The dealership is providing the hardware as well as data support - and selling both.

"There is a business reason for having a precision farming department," says Barnes, "and we're charging for the service. But another aspect to this program is the more successful our customers are, the more successful this dealership will be, too."

Greenway's customers can pick from a number of different services to create a support package for which they're billed by the acre. "Each customer has different goals for what they're trying to accomplish with data management, and we must take the time to understand how each farm operation is different."

Sifting Through 10,000 Pages

iCropTrak software, illustrated above, was a 2012 Top 10 New Product Award winner at World Ag Expo. "This award validates the many hours of effort and leading edge work our Tucson-based engineering team are doing, in conjunction with the open door offered by key customers," says Rob Wood, CropTrak founder.

As Greenway was developing its precision farming business, it determined one of the things growers didn't want to do was "Sift through 10,000 pages of field maps. They were already swimming in data. They wanted to know what the maps told them about their fields and what they needed to work on. We're now sifting through the data to get to the relevant points farmers can use to make a decision. That's the information we present to them. We don't write prescriptions. We give them the tools to take that step."

Greenway works with CropTrak, a mobile and cloud-based software development firm in Tucson, Ariz., to customize and deploy its iCropTrak iPad app for its customers. iCropTrack is a data management system that allows growers to collect and analyze information in the field and tractor, merge it with imagery, and share it with different managers on the farm.

"We're interested in anything that helps our growers be more progressive and utilize their new technology to fullest extent," says Barnes. "Some of our larger growers have been more progressive and want to have a better angle of what's happening throughout their operation."

With iCropTrak available at its dealership, Greenway Equipment is even closer to becoming a regional data hub for its customers. No longer do farmers and dealers have to be IT experts to make better decisions based on the data they've compiled.

"We're adapting the iCropTrak system for each one of our customers," says Barnes. "It will be launched in March, but we're already getting a lot of interest in it. This is something a lot of customers will use to get a better snapshot of what has or is happening on their farm."

Good Data In, Good Results Out

Faleide recalled a field presentation where he watched as a farmer planted with a variable rate seeder. Unfortunately, the map controlling the planter was created using poor-quality data. "The map was a piece of junk. The information was bad. Why would you spend $20,000 putting that system in your machine and then spend zero for data? It was so coarse there's really no point in having a variable rate of anything."

Oftentimes, the farmers who are running the equipment don't understand the complexities of the information that needs to be incorporated to make the technology work.

"Farmers can get soil maps free from the government and put them into a precision farming system," says Faleide. "But they were never built to do precision ag - many of them are so crude you would never want to variable rate a field with them."

In some cases, the equipment itself has never been properly calibrated, putting the data collected into question. "One of my growers was the poster child for the need to calibrate," says Bruns. "He had monitors for a number of years, but his data collection was sloppy. One year the combine might be calibrated, the next it wasn't."

As Bruns worked with the farmer, the grower saw if he did a better job of calibrating his equipment and collecting data there were all kinds of farm data management benefits he could enjoy. "They became better operators. Now they're religious about collecting good data. Garbage in is garbage out when it comes to data collection and how you use it."

It's all about working closely with growers to get them moving down the right path. Bruns likes to think of the farm equipment dealer of the future like the drug store of today. "Farmers will go to equipment dealers to get a prescription from the resident agronomist (crop doctor) showing this is what their soil and crops need. They'll help bridge that gap between machine and data to where any farmer can understand it. At the same time, the dealership will be able to provide equipment that's up to the agronomic standards required to keep the crops healthy."

Dealer Takeaways

  • Tablets and smartphones are the clipboards of today and have made data consumption more practical than ever.
  • Farmers want to know what the data and maps tell them about their fields and what they need to work on. This is a service dealers can provide.
  • Equipment dealers can help farmers read their field maps, but prescription writing is best left to the farmer or trained agronomists.