Which smart tools make smart investments?

Mcintosh
Matt Mcintosh Correspondent North America
Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

From large and long-established platforms to new start-ups, the number and variety of digital farm management tools is pretty wide. They abound with pretty pictures, promise “actionable insights,” and in the end, more profitable acres. So – which one gets your money?

There’s no one answer, obviously. The good thing is, on-farm challenges are even more diverse than the tools designed to address them. For those in the field, answering the investment question starts by identifying where improvements are desired and determining the closest match.

Diverse applications

Not diving into the wrong program or digital service starts by understanding each has its own specialities, says Marty Vermey, senior agronomist with Ontario’s provincial grain producer organization, Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Some use satellite imagery. Some are designed to make record keeping easier. Some give insights in real-time while others might focus on bulk data analysis. Many digital platforms do a variety of tasks, but it’s hard to find one which does everything. Producers should thus not expect all programs to provide the same results.

The power of the data

Yield monitors alone, for example, only indicate yield and moisture on the go, or the averages of a set area. It’s not bad for a first step, says Vermey, but the power of the data lies in creating a yield map and overlaying multiple data points such as topography, soil and fertility to create management zones. The final step involves an economic analysis and profitability mapping.

A lot of people get blinded by the shiny lights

“That’s what businesses do which are successful, good managers of all the components of their business at an enterprise level,” Vermey says. “It’s almost like breaking down what is important… A lot of people get blinded by the shiny lights. First determine what you want in the end like profitability maps, then decide on the best tools to reach the goals and avoid the distractions.”

Achieving quantity, but ignoring quality

Determining which systems are compatible with the equipment on-hand is another consideration, though perhaps one of lesser import than it has been historically. For Nicole Rabe, land resource specialist with Ontario’s agriculture ministry, precision agriculture analysis tools capable of accommodating multiple file types have been particularly valuable.

“I always go with AgLeader SMS Advanced for precision analysis. I do this because it’s agnostic and can talk to so many colours of equipment directly,” says Rabe. “Having said that, there are many other commercial offerings that also now operate in ESRI SHP files, as a sort of universal file format.”

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Marty Vermey: “First determine what you want in the end like profitability maps, then decide on the best tools to reach the goals and avoid the distractions.” - Photo: Canva

Marty Vermey: “First determine what you want in the end like profitability maps, then decide on the best tools to reach the goals and avoid the distractions.” – Photo: Canva

The issue of interoperability

Rabe’s sentiments are, at least in this author’s experience, commonly expressed in Canadian circles. Indeed, the issue of interoperability continues to be a sticking point for those trying to break into the digital game, as well as those trying to branch away from just one equipment brand.

It’s also expressed by ag-service providers who, not infrequently, spend significant time and effort trying to simultaneously clean and identify useful information in multiple systems.

As one data analyst and agronomist expressed to me, efficiency challenges are not helped by labelling anomalies within tools – simultaneously using 28, 28%, and 28UAN for nitrogen fertilizer, for example. To use their own words, “keeping data calibrated and organized makes things easier. When people do a decent job of that, it allows for these types of tools to be used a lot more effectively.”

Quality of existing farm records

The quality of existing farm records thus is a factor in itself. Particularly if a tool requires significant data or general business information to get things going, but those records are either non-existent or in an impractical form, it might be worthwhile to reconsider initial priorities. More specifically, it might be wise to direct an initial investment towards record keeping management tools.

Good records protect you

“Records are often required because of liability concerns. All farmers should keep track of that stuff because someone could come knocking on your door and accuse you of wrong doings. Good records protect you,” says Vermey. “If there’s a quick way of doing it and it’s not a chore…I think that’s why some of these tools are good because they do that.”

Goals lead to goals

Setting goals is important, but anticipating changes to those goals – and establishing new ones – is also part of adopting digital tools. For Paul Hermans, an agronomist for Pioneer, products such as his company’s Granular brand are designed to help producers identify what they should be investigating, and by extension, where they should be devoting more or less resources. Even without GPS and other in-field precision capabilities, that is, the ability to extend one’s scouting capabilities can go a long way in pointing out otherwise unseen problems (e.g. nutrient deficiencies). Corrective goals can then be set.

“What information should I have before I go to get started? Field boundaries, farm and field names. Any grower has this,” says Hermans. “We can take notes and pictures, and share back and forth with Pioneer Seed reps, family members, crop scouts, fertilizer retailers, and more…Growers can then prioritize which field to scout by walking on foot, or they can work with programs like DroneDeploy, throw up a satellite, and see what is going on in more detail.”

Overall, Hermans describes the combined approach as “a glove and hand.” For rougher work, you use satellite imagery (the proverbial gloves). Drone scouting, NVDI maps, and other technology make up the finer, hand derived details. Fundamentally, the further along one is on the digitization spectrum, the easier it is to know what other tools can do.

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There’s a reason why autosteer and GPS systems are increasingly common in older tractors, like in Matt McIntosh's Ford 7700. "The Ford is an old workhorse, but works pretty well with GPS and sectional spray control."

There’s a reason why autosteer and GPS systems are increasingly common in older tractors, like in Matt McIntosh’s Ford 7700. “The Ford is an old workhorse, but works pretty well with GPS and sectional spray control.”

A cheaper government support opportunity?

The adoption of new equipment happens piecemeal. It seems logical for digital tools to reach the farm in the same way – indeed, there’s a reason why autosteer and GPS systems are increasingly common in older tractors. Both those looking to purchase and those marketing digital tools should keep this reality in mind, assuming it is in fact reality.

But whether hardware or software, my observations thus far appear to show a geographical disparity between farmers who do and do not make widespread use of modern technical tools. In places where governments find ways to incentivise or financially support adoption, that is, the rate appears to be higher.

Canada, I would argue, largely doesn’t fall into such a category. But given the comparatively low cost of digital tools, perhaps a public support system would be a comparatively inexpensive way of encouraging precision management on a more universal scale.