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Automated systems simplify farm data, recordkeeping

Agriculture is on the cusp of technology that can make really complex recordkeeping simple, says Ted Macy. “It's a very exciting time” in terms of hardware and software that will automate generation, storage, and analyzing much of the data related to crop production, he said at the ninth annual National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference at Robinsonville, Miss.

“Precision agriculture technology has become a given, an integral part of everyday farming operations.”

Macy, who's president of MapShots, Inc., Cummings, Ga., says many of the hardware/software incompatibilities that have limited the use of such technology are now being resolved as the industry becomes more standardized.

By using computerized technology to track usage of resources in crop production — land, products applied, machines, people, fertilizer, grain bins, warehousing, ginning, etc. — a producer can document and analyze everything that occurs during the crop cycle.

“We've been doing yield monitoring for almost 15 years,” Macy said, “but it's only within the last year that there has been a single piece of software able to read data from any manufacturer.

“One of the simplest forms of automated records is generated by sensors on harvesting equipment: grain flow, moisture, distance, width, etc. But now we have systems with the capability of monitoring and recording variable product applications from a planter.”

Spatially aware sensors can monitor the seeding rate on every planter hopper and calculate plant populations for each row, along with amounts of fertilizer applied.”

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on product containers, receivers on planters, and flow meters can all communicate via wireless “Bluetooth” devices, Macy said, and can capture data on everything that's taking place with a planter or other machinery and record it for analysis.

All this is done automatically, Macy noted, eliminating the need for operator training. “The data can be captured without the operator even knowing which button to push.”

As improvements continue to be made in hardware and software, he said, the entire process will become even more user friendly.

“The most exciting thing we see in the industry, given the movement to auto-steer guidance systems, is the ability to automate the spray boom to avoid overlapping on rows.” This will not only cut chemical use, but will reduce crop damage and enhance environmental stewardship.

“Sensors on the spray boom can make a decision to turn the spray on or off, based on field maps generated as the equipment passes through the field. The system can detect which areas have already been sprayed and turn the nozzles off.”

Data generated can also be valuable in producing records for the Environmental Protection Agency, Macy said.

Equipment is now available, he noted, to automate data exchange between growers and cotton gins for monitoring the status of cotton harvest, without manual data entry.

Documentation is “much more complex” than for grain harvesting, he noted, and can capture data related to specific fields and allow modules from different fields to be combined while keeping separate records for each. The system tracks modules produced, picked up, ginned, classed, etc.

“It can automatically identify a module in the field, notify the gin that the module is available, notify the grower when the gin picks up the module, and provide notification to the grower when the module has been ginned and classed. And there's potential for all this to be done wirelessly.”

By linking to a global positioning system (GPS), it can map every module's location in the field and even generate directions to the truck driver for picking up the module. And it can generate status reports without any keyboard entries.

Alabama producer Larkin Martin, who grows cotton, corn, and soybeans, is using MapShot's EASi Suite crop recordkeeping, mapping, and precision agriculture program to automate many data generation and analysis functions of her 6,000-acre farm, Macy said.

Mrs. Martin was unable to attend the conference, but Macy said she has been using the system for five years, during which time it has evolved from a grain-oriented recordkeeping program to a sophisticated, flexible software package for grain, cotton, and chemical/fertilizer applications.

“She can walk into her office each morning and immediately generate a status report of her entire cotton harvesting operation.”

The system, Macy said, can organize information related to various farming operations, coordinate it, and make it readily available for decision-making, variable rate application prescription writing, and other uses “never before possible.”

It provides her the ability to reconcile business records and agronomic records, to do share rent calculations and reports, to use data to create management zones, to use yield maps to manage soil fertility, and to create soil test sampling and liming zones.

While currently much of the information is manually entered into the system by farm staff, he said Mrs. Martin wants to move to additional automation as quickly as possible.

Even though farmers may not have a use for all the data that can now be generated by automated technology, Macy said, it is advisable to begin capturing it so it will be available as future needs develop.

And, he said, even though data generation and recordkeeping are becoming easier, “human knowledge is still a very valuable component in interpreting that information and using it for management advantage.”

e-mail: hbrandon@prismb2b

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