Managing precision farming data for profit
By John Dietz
When Keith Stephens is not farming, he is likely to be working at his desk with digital files from his own farm. He likes number-crunching for profit, but also admits it is not for everyone. With a neighbour, Stephens does precision farming and data logging on about 3000 acres on the east side of Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, near the town of Balcarres. Their main crops are canola, durum wheat, lentils and peas.
By John Dietz
When Keith Stephens is not farming, he is likely to be working at his desk with digital files from his own farm. He likes number-crunching for profit, but also admits it is not for everyone.
With a neighbour, Stephens does precision farming and data logging on about 3000 acres on the east side of Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, near the town of Balcarres. Their main crops are canola, durum wheat, lentils and peas.
Managing the data from precision farming takes a lot of time, he says. It is a little different than just following the lightbar or watching the autosteer. It is inside, at-the-desk, and growing more important every year. Do it well, he advises and it will pay off in the long run. “Few farmers and crop advisers are taking advantage of the recording or logging possibilities of all the GPS equipment,” Stephens says. “I believe that the logging option will give me some of the biggest dividends for my dollars invested. If I can figure out how to measure the performance of some new technology, I can see first-hand how it works on my farm and if it makes me any money.”
Stephens graduated to data logging in 2005. Before then, he had only collected yield data and steered with the guidance of a lightbar. That year, he purchased an AgLeader PF3000 monitor for his older MF860 combine. For the first time, he had both mapping and logging data. Then, next spring, he discovered he could transfer the AgLeader hardware to his tractor and log all of his seeding data.
Today’s hardware for precision farming in his yard includes the original PF3000 and the AgLeader PF Advantage monitor. Two Trimble EZ Steer systems, replacing an Outback system, give him auto-steering for seeding, spraying and swathing.
The combine he purchased in 2009 did not come with GPS recording equipment, so he added the GreenStar 2600 John Deere monitor and StarFire 1 receiver as well as the AutoTrac Universal (ATU) steering kit. This steering “platform” operates with more than 450 different pieces of equipment, including the combine.
In 2005, along with the monitor, he purchased the AgLeader SMS Basic software package for field management. SMS Basic is his primary software today, though he is now familiar with other software formats.
For growers not already committed to one software product for field records, he suggests considering SMS Basic along with two competitors, FarmWorks and Mapshots. A good online place to learn about the options, in his experience, is the “Precision Talk” forum on www.newagtalk.com.
Be careful about that first choice, he advises. Putting in the time to get comfortable with a software package can take a lot of commitment. The software is complex. “The biggest cost for any of these programs is not the dollar value, but your time for the learning curve,” Stephens says. “Try to get the best piece of software for your purposes. If you end up with something that isn’t satisfactory, you’ve got to learn another one from the ground up. Quite often, they don’t transfer files that easily.”
After hundreds of hours at his desk since 2005, the farm manager says he is still learning new things on SMS Basic. There is a professional upgrade, but he concedes he is not ready for it. SMS Basic provides file processing from most precision ag displays, sorts data by geography, generates crop plans, creates, manages and exports guidance lines, enables the manager to print maps or reports, write simple prescriptions, import images and search for data.
It does not provide three-dimensional plotting or terrain viewing, multi-year averaging, comparison analysis and other functions usually limited to farm consultants.
Getting the data
A key feature of the better software packages, Stephens says, is telephone support. There is no neighbour or local dealer to turn to when he has a problem with managing his farm data. For about $130 a year, he has as much phone time as he needs with tech support, as well as all the updates. “They’ve been very good,” he says. “I don’t have any complaints. They answer the questions. The people are quite knowledgeable. They will take the time to walk through whatever you need to do. It may take a few minutes to get on, or they may phone back if it’s a busy season, but that hasn’t been a major issue.”
Another key feature, at least for Stephens, is ability in the primary software package to import and work with data files from virtually any machinery maker. “That’s a nice thing about SMS Basic,” he says. “It can take data files from virtually any of the hardware: John Deere, Trimble and Ag Leader, and put them into the system.”
If the software is new, Stephens suggests to make certain it is actually working by taking the data card to a desktop computer after a day or two, and loading it into the new software. The card probably has enough memory to hold a whole season of farm data, but that will not help if data is not is being recorded. Stephens had first-hand experience with that in 2010.
He set up a friend’s tractor with the new John Deere ATU, explained how to log the data, and helped him get it working. “The first time it rained, I grabbed his card to download and see what he’d got. We were about half-done seeding, and there was nothing on it. By the end of seeding, we had recorded one and a half fields. The point is, it’s important to check that you’re doing things right, and that the information you think you’re recording is actually getting recorded,” he says.
Using the data
Each grower works out his own uses for the data he has logged. Stephens identifies a few of his uses. Focusing on one field, he overlays the maps for seeding, spraying and harvest yields. Looking at the details of what he did and what happened is like mining for information. He regularly does his own field trials, and the feedback can be an eye-opener.
At another level, he can combine information from several seasons to pick out changes that are occurring or responses to his management. He also can define a boundary within a field, and easily get costs of inputs or dollar returns for yields. One boundary could pertain to a fungicide trial; another boundary could be the adjacent area. “The program has given me a way to quantify with dollars and cents some of the cropping decisions that I make on my farm,” he says.
Stephens believes it really does take the software tools, combined with precision harvesting equipment, to bring out the important differences in how a field or a crop has performed for a farm manager. “I will not say that every farm should have this software, but every farm should be recording its activities and looking at the results. Playing with computers is not for everyone, just like farm accounting, but if you are not able or willing to do it yourself, then use your crop adviser. I see field records playing a much larger part in farming operations. The sooner you start playing with them, the sooner you will see the benefits,” Stephens suggests.