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Tech Tuesday

Tech Conversations Reveal New Ideas

Farmers at recent Farm Futures Summit talk about how they're employing technology in their operations.

Start talking technology in a room full of farmers and the conversation can get pretty interesting. During my presentation at the Farm Futures Management Summit last week farmers discussed a range of tech issues from RTK tower networks to the durability of computers in a farm environment. One common theme: Farmers are working to bring more tech into their operations as communications and precision needs demand.

Precision Ag Discussion. The group of farmers on hand for the event are using precision ag tools in their operations. But the range of differential correction levels was interesting too. From the producer who sees wide-area augmentation system (or WAAS) correction as enough for his operation to the producer who went to RTK and found new efficiencies in his anhydrous applications - we had the full range.

The key is that each was matching the level of technology to the farming system they used. There were questions about different types of differential correction available. Many use Omnistar correction too - which can provide 4-inch or tighter accuracy. Interestingly, while not everyone in the room has auto steering today, you could tell most were looking at the technology as a productivity tool.

For readers who are considering it, one farmer's comment - which I hear frequently - sums up the value of auto steering: "I can start planting at 5 in the morning and go until 2 the next morning if I have to and I'm not all worn out." Fatigue has its own cost and more growers are figuring out that payback.

Data on the Farm. Piles of data and information collection are a growing concern for many producers. You want to maximize the tools you have but often that means finding new ways to gather data and get it into your "main" computer. The smart phone - pick the brand that works best with your local cellular provider - may offer that opportunity as new applications come on stream that allow data entry from the field.

An interesting question that came up is the worry about how best to manage the data and store it. Computers are changing and you want your data available more easily. One concept - cloud computing - came up. This is a fledgling approach to information and application management. Essentially, the data you have and perhaps even the software you use is not actually on any single computer. Instead, you use the application over the Web and the data is stored in a secure location off site where it is protected and backed up.

The cloud computing approach offers interesting potential for data access too. You could be in your tractor in the spring and need some accounting information. You could simply open the Web tool from your phone to look at the information stored in the "virtual hard drive" for your operation. It's a concept we'll explore more fully in a future column.

Buying a Smart Phone. A growing number of folks in the room were using smart phones - essentially any phone that does more than make calls and receive text messages. The key question? What kind to get?

When looking at smart phones you have to back away from the phone itself and look at the cellular provider that offers the best coverage for your farm area. Right now all the cell phone firms out there offer their own lineup of smart phones. While AT&T is the only one offering the iPhone; Verizon offers the new Motorola Droid which is a strong competitor to the iPhone. However, buying a phone based in its features on a network with weak service in your area is a frustrating situation waiting to happen.

Blackberry, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, Palm and others all make high-tech smart phones and offer them through a wide range of cellular providers. You may not be able to get exactly the phone you want, but picking the strongest carrier and the best smart phone they offer may be the right combination for your farm.

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