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Cyber technology can boost efficiency and logistics, but is it worth it?

February 26, 2016

5 Min Read

Grant Noland implemented a new tool on his family’s Blue Mound, Ill., operation just before the 2015 harvest: a cloud-based farm management system from a company called Granular.

“We had concerns introducing the program at our busiest time of year, but felt we couldn’t afford to not collect the tremendous amount of information being generated at harvest,” he says.

Beyond the yield and product-applied summaries, Noland hoped to capture the time and labor costs associated with different fields, and improve inventory tracking as grain went from field to bin.

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“The ability to consolidate to an online platform appealed to us,” he adds. “Now, to-do lists, work orders and crop plans can be viewed or modified anytime and anywhere. With no guarantee any of us are here tomorrow, the program serves as a form of mission control for those managing the business.”

That’s an apt metaphor, as farm management becomes more complex with ever larger farm operations. Farms now stretch across counties, state lines or even countries, with multiple enterprises and larger labor forces. There’s a galaxy full of data out there, and more farmers have turned to cloud-based farm management systems to store and analyze production, logistics and financial information.

A dozen or more companies provide cloud-based farm management services. Farm Futures examines some of these services, including views on what a cloud-based platform should contain and what they have to offer.

Conservis

Cloud data storage continues to open new worlds for farmers, says Pat Christie, CEO at Conservis, adding that “having real-time farm data at their fingertips anytime, anywhere is enabled by having their data in the cloud.”

Christie, the company founder, says knowing that data is available, accurate and easy to access helps reinforce decision-making for a wide range of applications, including logistics, resource management, inventory and grain management.

He advises growers should examine how well a cloud-based management system lets them record activities without changing the way they do business. “It should not slow down their production process,” he says. “At Conservis, we work with our customers hand in hand to make sure our system is working just the way they want and is giving them the information they need.

 “It should be part of a comprehensive service and support that can effectively help them as they move from manual to automated recordkeeping. It should help locate and utilize information that is relevant to their everyday issues and be used as an operation-wide tool, not just a point solution.”

Conservis offers a business management platform that records and manages data from planning through settlement. The system:

--enables operators to convert old spreadsheet-type data management practices to a more streamlined planning tool

--tracks harvest activities from the field through settlement in the system’s harvest application

--indicates where operators can improve, reduce slippage and drive efficiency

“Data is integrated throughout the production process,” Christie says. “Plans become work orders, which become field application tickets, which automatically decrease inventory. Ultimately, data feeds into cost-of-production reporting.”

Conservis enables farmers to share their data with key stakeholders, including crop insurance agents, lenders, landowners, crop-share owners and other parties.

However, Conservis considers data security a critical part of its platform. “The reality with any Internet service is there will be varying degrees of data safety,” Christie says. “From the beginning, Conservis has been built with security in mind by using Amazon Web Services and an Oracle database.”

As with other farm services and products, costs for cloud-based farm management will vary. “They should expect to pay somewhere around 1 to 2 cents per bushel with a sliding scale for larger operations,” Christie says.

He encourages farmers to consider cloud-based management a major farm investment. “It’s an investment and a journey with a technology partner,” he says. “Just as farmers do with all other valuable resources and expenses, they need to work with trusted partners with a proven track record on delivering real value. With any software service, it’s important that it has withstood the test of time so that there are no surprises.”

Connected Farm

With today’s large and complex farms, a management system is needed “that covers all of your needs and not just part of your needs,” says Mike Martinez, marketing director for Trimble’s Agriculture Division. “It should allow you to easily share data with advisers, employees and others who help make informed decisions.”

Connected Farm lets growers view field task data, and commodity market and rainfall data; manage a fleet or irrigation pivots; and collaborate with their advisers. “With wireless data management, growers can easily share data between the field and office without having to manually collect USB sticks from each field,” Martinez says.

Connected Farm offers these services:

--Profit-and-loss data helps focus resources on areas that are the most profitable and evaluates the cause of low-performing fields.

--RainWave provides rainfall totals to assist in irrigation and other field applications.

--Irrigate-IQ lets growers monitor irrigation remotely and apply optimal amounts of water, fertigation or effluent through variable-rate irrigation.

--Calibrated PurePixel maps let operators compare crop health from one time period to the next.

“The system provides access to real-time fleet positions, engine hours and current work status, such as idling, moving, speeding and traveling to help reduce fuel usage and improve operator performance,” Martinez says. “Use of each vehicle can be monitored to help understand which assets are productive during a 24-hour period. Real-time fuel usage, battery voltage, oil pressure and other valuable engine diagnostics are available.”

He says crop consultants can monitor inputs and crop progress. “The Soil Information System solution provides in-depth 3-D soil data to make more informed decisions about crop production goals.”

Connected Farm data can be downloaded to Farm Works Software for greater analysis and reporting, including printing crop insurance reports and submitting data to supported crop insurers.

Martinez says Connected Farm is constantly updated with new features. “When looking at cloud-based data management, look at what they do today, but also think about what potential the solution has for the future,” he says.

An entry level cloud-based software bundle — Connected Farm Free — is free. “If a grower wants to add more advanced precision farming capabilities to Connected Farm Free, they can subscribe to our Connected Farm Standard bundle, available as a 12-month subscription, priced as low as $3,500 for up to 2,000 acres,” Martinez says.

Next: A closer look at FarmLogs, Cropzilla and Granular.

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