Farm Progress

Cloud-based management opens new profit potential — provided you use systems correctly.

Larry Stalcup

July 11, 2017

9 Min Read
Brian Berns (left) and brother Keith of Bladen, Neb., hope to use cloud technology to troubleshoot crop problems via satellite imagery.

Are you lost in the cloud?

That’s a predicament for some farmers trying to navigate the ever-growing world of big data manipulation and storage. Fortunately, the skies are clearing, and less foggy access is now available to secure, easy-to-use cloud-based farm management systems.

The iCloud, cloud.microsoft, Yahoo cloud, cloud.google — these and a storm of other cloud-based storage services are nearly as common as iTunes and maybe even Amazon. Tack on $1 or two to your mobile phone bill and your stuff is backed up in one cloud or another. Precious pics of grandkids, the rare cruise vacation and the holidays? All now secure.

But what about other nitty-gritty data; that precise info of production practices for every field, your breakevens, even your marketing plans? Cloud storage of farm management data is becoming as important as the RTK autosteer tractor for some.

For farmers ready to engage in cloud-based systems, various companies, some with familiar names and others with new-age titles, are ready to help them get started.

Get your feet wet

Keith Berns is one grower still getting his feet wet with cloud management. He and brother Brian grow no-till corn and soybeans in southeastern Nebraska near Bladen. They also have a cover crop seed company.

“We like the concept and are still getting set up,” says Berns, who uses a Farmers Edge cloud management system. “The biggest thing I see using the cloud for is being able to analyze satellite imagery and do some ‘sky scouting’ to see trouble spots. We’re learning how to use application and yield maps stored in the cloud.”

The Bernses pay about $3 per acre for the cloud service. One problem they face is running older equipment that isn’t fully stacked with the latest technology.

“Our tractors are five to 15 years old,” Berns says. “We can’t interface data as much as we’d like. As we add new equipment, the cloud will become more useful.”

Still, they see a strong future with cloud use. “We plant a lot of test plots and hope to use the cloud to measure infrared photos,” Berns says. “That way, when we plant corn on those plots the next year, we can use satellite imagery instead of physically pulling tissue samples.”

Know what to ask for

Using the cloud is not just about how much the service costs; it’s about ease of operation and how it can handle your data, says Ryan Blasiak, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager.

He says growers should ask a precision ag dealer these questions:

After uploading my data, will it be possible to retrieve the original complete data set in the original format?

Do agreements address the ownership of my data after the data is transferred?

Will the system obtain my consent before providing other companies with access to the data?

Robert Morris, CEO of TerrAvion, a digital imagery cloud storage firm, says growers should ask around before selecting a system. “Talk to your agronomist or other partners in farming,” he says. “See what they are doing. Figure out which one you would commit to using fully.”

Kevin Krieg, business software segment manager for John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group, says it’s important for farmers to fully understand where they are today with their needs. “They should determine where they want to be and then find the best solution that will help them meet their needs today and into the future,” he says.

Not one-size-fits-all

Cloud-based management systems are not one-size-fits-all, so finding a solution that gives you options on how to get the most from your data is important. Another consideration is to determine who can provide an optimal level of support for the system you choose.

Madelyn Walters, Granular cloud service manager, says it’s important to understand that no program will do everything. “Farmers should have a focus on what part of their business or their farm they want to have digital records and make improvements,” she says.

“Once selected, the beauty and efficiency of cloud systems is being able to leverage everyone’s efforts on the farm. The software you choose needs to be powerful and customizable enough to accurately reflect and support your workflow, but it also needs to be easy enough for everyone to use — even the guy that was hesitant to part with his flip phone.”

Mike Borman, Conservis senior vice president of product and marketing, suggests growers first assess their business and determine the outcomes they want to achieve. “Second, view the purchase of the system as an investment, both in terms of time and money,” he says. “Develop an idea of what parts of their operation they would like to streamline or create efficiencies, so they can use the system to improve their margins. This is what will create a return on their investment.

“Third, the grower needs to evaluate their capability to implement a system effectively.”

Why enter the cloud?

Cloud-based systems are easier to use and can help improve ROI. “These new systems offer farmers the latest technology to help improve their overall production efficiency and ultimately, return on investment,” Blasiak says. “They provide the flexibility a lot of producers are demanding today.”

Cloud management gives farmers the ability to get a holistic picture of their operation without being constrained to an office. Also, cloud-based systems back up your data if a hard drive is lost, stolen or damaged.

Just two to three years ago, cloud-based farm management software providers were a fraction of what they are today. There has been a large investment within the agriculture sector and outside the industry to advance the technology available in precision agriculture today.

Morris has this take: “What is more practical, having your own email server or using Gmail? On-site software is more expensive, less functional, harder to upgrade and harder to connect to other things. Cloud software plays well with others, is cheaper, usually requires no experts to set up and always gives you the latest, most up-to-date version. The same reason Gmail is better than rolling your own email server, cloud farm management is better than on-premises.”

The technology is rapidly evolving. “Every week some incremental change gets pushed to most cloud systems,” Morris says. “This means they get really easy to use. Additionally, more data collectors like TerrAvion aerial imagery or weather or connect-farm equipment are plugging in and talking with the management and decision support systems.”

Barriers disappearing

Borman agrees that barriers around the cloud are disappearing. “Cloud-based technology was just starting to appear in agriculture [two to three years ago] and growers had concerns around the security of their data,” he says. “Today, business has moved into the cloud, and it has become more accepted. Using a cloud-based system to unify complex operations enables growers to use the data they already have to make better decisions. It also eliminates using time-consuming spreadsheets and mounds of paperwork that become quickly out of date.”

With cloud-based systems, farmers can plan their work, manage the communication and track the execution of the work in real time using phones or tablets, even retrieving data directly from machines. Systems help farmers understand and manage the vast amounts of data that are available to them.

“With their information stored in the cloud, farmers can easily share it and easily collaborate with others on various projects or when making decisions,” says Krieg. “This level of collaboration allows farmers to extract more value from their information and return more value to their operation.”

What does it cost?

Costs for cloud management services will vary. At Granular, they are $2 to $3 per acre per year in most cases. Although ease of operation is helping more farmers enter the cloud, there is still a learning curve with any new system and process.

“We’ve found those farms on the leading edge a few years ago are now able to do more complex analysis on their data today,” Walters says.

One of the biggest advantages of modern, cloud-based software is the ability to use multiple programs that “talk to each other.” Data generated from one system is automatically passed to the other. All tools function based on the same information without having to re-enter it manually. It also gives the on-the-go farmer the opportunity to access farm data anywhere.

Farm transitions can be made easier with cloud data. Cloud software facilitates knowledge transfer from the dad, who is ready to retire, to the son about to take over. Multiple people on the farm have access to the same information in a format that is easily understood.

Closer than you think

Many farmers are closer to the cloud than they think. Precision systems offered by their later-model equipment are likely a direct link. Others are easy to locate online or through farm or commodity groups. As cloud experts say, just find a program that fits your farm.

Case IH uses two-way file transfer with its telematics program, AFS Connect, Blasiak says. Producers log in to the AFS Connect account and then link their cloud-based farm management system to this account.

Once the link is established, data will automatically be sent to the cloud-based farm management system. When the producer makes any agronomic decisions or adjustments, that information can be sent back as prescriptions to the machines.

Farmers running Deere systems can use the JDLink Connect, which links precision programs. Deere’s application program interface enables data to be shared between software systems.

“Farmers can connect these systems together so they can easily switch between the systems without needing to load or re-enter data,” Krieg says. “Farmers can stay connected with their equipment even when they’re not in the cab by using precision ag monitors connected to the cloud-based system.”

Walters says farm management software is the system of record for operational, financial and agronomic data, and should integrate with other software systems on the farm.

“Granular’s FMS is solely designed to help farms analyze profitability to make the tougher decisions when margins are low,” she says. “FMS can’t make these difficult decisions for you, but with help from our support group, it will give you the data you need … to act with greater confidence.”

With low commodity prices, the ability to understand the true cost of production and breakeven points by crop type to the field level is critical to the profitable marketing of crops, says Borman. “Our entire platform was designed to be able to convert plans into work orders that can be dynamically tracked and managed in the field, so progress against plans can be viewed in real time. This is especially valuable as growing conditions change and the actual cost of production begins to deviate from plan.”

Getting on the web

About the only holdback in using a cloud-based system is connecting to the internet. This can make cloud-based in-field data analytics troublesome, says Louisa Burwood-Taylor, communications specialist for AgFunder, a marketplace for promising ag tech startups.

She adds that some drone companies and other sensors are doing basic processing on board using radiowave-type communication.

With continued improvement in cloud-based farm management, growers like the Bernses in Nebraska are pondering ways to expand their communication and production capabilities.

“Along with our own seed production, we also contract with other farmers to grow our seed,” Keith Berns says. “It would be nice to have imagery from those fields as well. We see good potential there.”

Stalcup writes from Amarillo, Texas.

 

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