Farm Progress

Growing frustration has farmers searching for easier ways to benefit from data

Larry Stalcup

May 3, 2018

5 Min Read
“I’m mostly bewildered with farm management software,” says Kansas farmer Michael Slack, with wife Janice. “We’ve hired young guys who are good at farming, as well as handling the IT.”Photo: Larry Stalcup

Understanding and then using mega data churned out by high-tech farm management software is overwhelming for Michael Slack.

So much so, he’s gamely turned to younger, more computer-savvy employees to help make sense of it. And by handpicking information that will best benefit his Kansas crop rotation, he’s able to improve his efficiency despite wading through reams of data.

Slack, 57, is not alone in his frustrations. Some 75% of U.S. growers capture precision ag data, but more than half are doing little, if anything, with the information, according to a survey of more than 800 U.S. and 700 Canadian farmers by Stratus Ag Research, Puslinch, Ontario.

More telling: Whether they’re using free or purchased software, only 22% of growers are very satisfied with the software they use, and only 40% are somewhat satisfied.

The study, conducted in late 2016 and updated in recent months, also found that only 40% of all growers are satisfied with their current methods for analyzing and interpreting their agronomic data.

Slack is among those who had a hard time finding a program he liked.

He and his wife, Janice, grow mostly soybeans and wheat, but also corn and cotton near Oxford, Kan. “I’m mostly bewildered with farm management software,” he says. “We’ve struggled with all of the data and programs. We’ve hired young guys who are good at farming, as well as handling the IT.”

After sampling several farm management software platforms, they selected a system offered by their equipment manufacturer, John Deere — the MyOperations app that runs through the JDLink system.

“We make most of our decisions after much discussion,” Slack says. “I’m the oldest, but when it comes to technology, these younger guys have an edge. I have learned to listen to our team.”

Old-school management

Dale Artho is one who is leery of high-tech farm management for his operation. The former board member for the U.S. Grains Council still uses old-school management at his Wildorado, Texas, farm. Concerns over privacy turned him away from a cloud-based system.

“I looked at using the Granular system and the Monsanto system,” says Artho, who farms wheat, corn, sorghum and cotton, and runs cattle. “But I didn’t do it, partially because of privacy issues. I stayed with running my own spreadsheets and using my memory to build my budgets. Information is of value, and others want as much information as possible. If they want it, I prefer they pay me for it.”

Krista MacLean, Stratus project manager, notes that the increased use of many precision ag technologies has created a huge volume of data, and “we wanted to understand what farmers were doing with it.”

The survey showed that farmers in the Midwest are adopting and using field data management software more than their peers in other U.S. regions. In addition, farmers using this type of software generally run large farms, are young and are investing for long-term profitability.

While 80% of U.S. farmers have equipment that captures data, only 40% are taking that further by analyzing it with field data management software. Slack, his wife and their employees, are making efforts to obtain and use data from their system.

“We’re still learning how to best use the data,” Slack says. “We hope to use it to compile all our yield data, make decisions for fertilizer and chemical application, and to enhance our record keeping. We want to use the system and its data so Janice, the office manager, can get it updated daily on different operations that are occurring.”

Streamlining ahead

Slack wants to streamline the process of getting information from the field to the office. “If we spend hours inputting useless data, then it will be a bust,” he contends. “But I think this will work for us and will certainly pay for itself if it does. That would be huge and, hopefully, will make us more profitable. Time will tell.”

Farmers need data to feed their software, says Robert Morris, president of TerrAvion, a cloud-based imagery company. “Farmers want software that makes their operation more efficient,” he says. “Our business is to provide data which integrates seamlessly with best-in-class agronomic software like John Deere Ops Center, Climate, SST and Agrian.

“A good return on investment is achieved when software users can see the whole field and what’s happening inside it during the season while there is still time to take action. It’s easy for most farms to bring a few percentage points to the bottom line by fixing moisture management, getting on top of pests early, doing better with plant growth regulation, or even optimizing harvest to avoid penalties or drying costs.”

Slack says his program is provided at no extra cost by his John Deere dealer. The Stratus survey numbers note that many growers are reluctant to pay for farm software.

“More growers use free software than those who pay for software access — a fact solutions providers or equipment manufacturers may want to consider,” MacLean says.

Ultimately, when it comes to software experiences, farmers are on the fence, MacLean says. “Very few software brands receive high performance ratings, and most farmers told Stratus researchers that they know very little about the differences in software brands.”

Learn what works for you

Despite frustration that can come from farm management software, these high-tech tools can help improve production efficiency. Growers should explore which system may work for them.

Ask your neighbors what software they use. Ask local crop consultants what systems they prefer. Check with your equipment reps. Review farm software websites. And certainly, turn to local Extension farm management specialists for their recommendations.

Once you have your system of choice in place, lean on your software rep to get trained in using it to the maximum.

There’s too much money at stake to push these management tools away.

Stalcup writes from Amarillo, Texas

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