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Improves efficiency: ScoutLink gives hand to consultants

What's one of the biggest problems consultants face as they go about their daily tasks of checking crops for insects and other pests?

Many consultants would say it's taking all the numbers they and their scouts gather and turning them into meaningful information for their customers, says Merritt Holman of Arkansas Crop Technologies in Lonoke, Ark.

“Consulting becomes more complicated every year,” says Holman, who joined Arkansas Crop Technologies after working as a research agronomist with Louisiana State University. “We have more tools, but we need better ways of handling all the information that we collect in the field.”

Holman and 10 other consultants from across the Cotton Belt are testing a new data-logging system designed to help reduce that burden. Called ScoutLink, the system promises to help consultants handle numbers and translate the information for their growers more efficiently.

“Time is the most precious commodity we have,” said Holman, speaking at a Bayer Corp. Cotton and Rice Media Field Day at the Memphis, Tenn. Agricenter. Bayer sponsors the ScoutLink program.

“We have always had problems translating information quickly and accurately to our farmers. But this new system can help us help them make better decisions in the field and, thus, more money whenever economic conditions improve.”

Holman said ScoutLink, which features a handheld computer device called the Handspring Visor, promises to provide quick, clear communications with growers, record-keeping for management efficiency and consultant liability and more precise recommendations because it can be adapted to include a GPS module.

“With the Visor you can enter the data as you collect it in the field and download it on to a desktop or laptop computer,” he said. “It gives you an ongoing database that you can keep for years. This can be important because you can go back and see exactly what you did in a specific field if an issue arises.”

The consultants' Visor units, which are loaded with software provided by Bayer, allow them to pick and choose the pests they want to track and how they want to track them.

“Every consultant is different, and the Bayer software allows each consultant to adapt the system to his method of collecting information,” says Holman. “Then, the system allows them to prepare reports for their growers in the format they prefer.”

Growers can also add new pests or new concerns to the menu, he notes. Once the scout enters the grower and the field, the GPS module remembers where the field is located for future scouting visits.

“If you have worked with teenagers, you know that it helps to have a reference,” says Holman. “The GPS can also help you identify one part of a field that needs to be treated when the remainder doesn't.”

The Visor system enables each scout to record pest thresholds along with the crop conditions and the scout's comments; the time the scout was in the field and the latitude and longitude of the field. “This can help improve accountability on both sides,” he says. “If the grower questions how often you've checked his fields you can give him a printout with the precise times and locations.”

Because scouts of differing experience levels will use it, Holman says the system has to be simple, foolproof and fairly rugged to withstand the conditions that can occur in cotton fields.

At the end of the day, each scout can “beam” his information to a central Visor using an infrared signal. The central Visor then downloads the information to a desktop or laptop computer. The numbers are stored in MicroSoft Access database, which automatically updates the information for each field.

“It will also produce customized or standardized reports which can be hand delivered, faxed or e-mailed to the producer,” Holman notes.

He says the Handspring Visor was selected, in part, because it can be purchased for $150 to $200 per unit compared to $600 to $700 for other units. The higher price includes the GPS module, which is accurate to within 10 feet.

The only weaknesses the consultants have noticed so far are that the GPS module seems to “eat” batteries and the Handspring Visor is not waterproof. “You have to take precautions to make sure you don't get it wet,” he said. It also requires recent versions of other software on the desktop or laptop computer to work properly.

Bayer is already working on the next version of the ScoutLink program. Among the features that may be incorporated are allowing consultants to customize the handheld menus by crop; a special feature that enables the Visor to “sense” what trap it is near when checking a field.

Other consultants who have been testing ScoutLink are: Al Averitt, Lumber Bridge, N.C.; Roger Carter, Clayton, La.; Clay Fletcher, Palestine, Ark.; Virgil King, Lexington, Miss.; Bill McLawhorn, Cove City, N.C.; Olan Moore, Lubbock, Texas; Michael Sartor, Clinton, Miss.; Webb Wallace, Harlingen, Texas; Nelson Powell, Clinton, N.C.; and Stan Winslow, Camden, N.C.


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