As both start-ups and incumbent providers introduce new technology into the sphere of digital agriculture, more and more tools are becoming available to growers in all different aspects of agriculture. From new crop sensors, to yield data analysis and multi-spectral imagery, to variable rate input technology: growers are getting more options to improve their operations. But which part of a farm needs optimising? What parts of a field impact revenue the most? Suppliers of digital agriculture technology regularly debate where growers should spend their investment dollars for maximum return. So how does a grower start to answer this question?
The importance of measurement
As is the case with every business improvement process, you have to measure before you know. In the case of Digital Ag this means that growers have to keep detailed records of their farming operations, both input record keeping and geospatial data record keeping. Doing this means you can detect zonal variability, and in turn design an improvement process. Growers can then centre their digital Ag investments around those areas where the ROI is likely to be the highest. As variable rate input technology is becoming more predominant on farms across the globe, input record keeping is becoming more complicated, as not every part of a particular field will receive the same amount of inputs. In order to make record keeping easier and geospatially-referenced for even the smallest zone, growers and agronomists can use farm management software packages to accurately record the work they do in the field.
Few farmers use farm management software
Despite the first farm management software platforms’ introduction to the market over a decade ago, a recent report from Israeli Agtech market research company Alpha Brown shows that 69% of the 1,490 US farmers they surveyed still rely on pen, paper and non-computerised tools. 56% have added some standard software like Excel or general accounting software, but only 16.5% of the farmers surveyed currently use some form of farm management software (FMS). To translate this back to all of the USA, only 350,000 farmers use some form of FMS, which Alpha Brown estimates to generate revenue of $420 million per year – whereas the total US market for FMS has a potential of $1.62 billion according to their research.
What can farm management software help growers with?
So why should more growers start using FMS? Well, let’s take yield data as an example. If you look at yield data, it seems straightforward that those areas with the highest yield are also most profitable, as they provide you with more product to sell per hectare of land cultivated. However, if those hectares with the highest yield also need the most inputs, it could very well be that a different zone with a slightly lower yield, but with a lot less inputs applied, is actually your most profitable zone. In other words: we need to look at a dynamic profit map, one that takes all variables into account, instead of just a static yield map.
When a dynamic profit map has been created, it becomes clearer which areas of a field are more profitable than others. So which zones should the grower focus on now to make the field as a whole more profitable: increase the yield on the lowest yielding parts to raise the average, or further increase the yield of the top performing zones? To answer this question, growers, agronomists and ag retailers need to look at geospatial data such as soil nutrients, yield, and fertiliser inputs. It may well be that the yield in low performing zones is restricted by soil type, soil-water holding capacity or soil depth and thus cannot be fixed by additional nutrients. On the other hand, yield in high performing zones can very well be capped by nutrients as they have previously been applied in blanket rates, not taking soil performance into account. While this example may seem counter-intuitive, it is often encountered in reality. But importantly, what it shows most is that growers and agronomists need to measure and record farm inputs and geospatial data so that these equations can be made.
Growers need help from retailers and agronomists to maintain accurate farm records
It is easier to maintain accurate farm records when all links in the chain participate in data collection: growers, contractors, agronomists and ag retailers. By having everyone participate, growers can avoid extra work through double-entry of data and achieve and synergies in the data entry process. And, as Ernst & Young note in their recent digital agriculture report, however disruptive a new technology is, the trusted relationship model between grower and ag retailer will not be easily disrupted. In other words: both ag retailers, and agronomists need to be included in new technologies and processes to give them a chance of success.
In order to get growers, agronomists and ag retailers to use more farm management software for record keeping purposes, ease of use is important. Growers for example in general like to be out in the field, doing what they do best: working with the land, and tend to shy away from extra time in the office. The same goes for agronomists: they like to be out in the field checking crops and not bent over a tablet, entering data in a cumbersome fashion. Traditionally, FMS that provides crop checking and input record keeping metrics, tend to be time consuming: the more detail needed, the more time it takes, and the more prone to mistakes it is. Similarly, the more time-demanding new software is, the lower the adoption rate tends to be.
The future of farm management systems
New technology is on the way however, with Agvoice being a good example of a startup that aims to provide voice-to-data services to agronomists and ag retailers. This technology allows for location based audio recording and data capturing, which in the future will mean that no more data needs to be entered into a tablet or smart-phone: field staff simply enter data by talking while checking crops, and Agvoice converts this to structured data in a linear format. This allows agronomists to use both hands while checking, whilst simultaneously recording their findings.
Meanwhile, Agworld has recently announced an integration with the John Deere operations centre. This allows growers to automatically import as-applied data from the Greenstar and the JD operations centre back to Agworld. Prescription files are automatically uploaded from Agworld to John Deere. The advantage of these kinds of integration is that accurate as-applied maps, and the cost structure associated with it, are available in farm management software without manual importing procedures. They thus form an easy-to-capture layer of data that is valuable when evaluating field and zonal performance.
As shown above, record keeping through geo-referenced farm management software is a cornerstone for growers to start with the adoption of new digital ag technologies. While the adoption rate of FMS is currently low, the advantages that growers stand to gain from FMS indicate that an increase in adoption is likely in the near future. Ease of use, integration with other technology providers, and reporting capabilities will determine which software providers succeed and which will not. What do you need to develop for your client base in order to remain relevant in the future? Belatrix is looking forward to helping you solve this puzzle.