Although the use of precision ag is growing, farmers realize that there is more to record keeping than data by the square foot. Increasingly, they are setting aside the seed corn notebook as the repository of day-to-day field records in favor of software programs that capture basic field records and integrate them with site-specific ag data.
Software providers responding to this demand are converging from two directions. Coming from one side are software companies with a background in basic field record keeping. On the other side are precision ag companies that are incorporating basic field-record-keeping functionality into dedicated precision ag software and related hardware.
The major players approaching from the software side are Farm Works, which introduced its flagship Farm Trac software in 1992, and MapShots, which entered the market three years ago, but with a pedigree in field-record software that stretches to the 1980s.
Approaching from the precision ag side are three major players in the site-specific trend: Ag Leader Technology, John Deere and SST Development Group. Case New Holland and AGCO also are considering new software entries with enhanced field-record-keeping capability.
Although all the players have a goal of offering products that handle day-to-day field records and site-specific data, their approaches are different, both in terms of software features and hardware options for in-field data recording. All use visual, point-and-click or menu-driven interfaces to simplify use. SST's Stratus software, a Windows CE-based program, is designed for in-field data recording with a handheld computer. Farm Works' Farm Trac and MapShots' EASi Suite Farm Edition also have that capability through the use of optional Windows CE software that each company markets. Ag Leader's SMS Basic and John Deere's JDOffice use the companies' respective precision ag monitors for in-field data entry. Except in the case of SST Stratus, field records also can be entered directly on an office PC.
Here is an overview of the major field-record software programs, as well as evaluations of the products from some of their users.
Ag Leader, which introduced its SMS Basic mapping, management and analysis software more than two years ago, expanded the program's field-record-keeping functions in the fall of 2002.
To use SMS Basic's field-record-keeping functions, the user fires up the program on a PC to pre-identify fields and write field plans using default and customizable field operations and inputs. Built-in calculations predict the amount of inputs that will be needed and make sure the correct amount of each input is loaded for a day's work. This functionality, which Ag Leader calls Resource Tracking, also can be used to track vehicle and fuel usage, operator working hours and other productivity factors. At planting, the plan is downloaded to a PC card that is plugged into an Ag Leader monitor, which is used to log and/or control operations and inputs.
The cost of SMS Basic is $600. Telephone and e-mail technical support are free. All software updates are free for the first year, with an optional annual maintenance fee of 15% of the list price to receive all new releases. The software is available free for a 15-day trial.
In addition to Ag Leader monitors, SMS Basic also directly supports Case IH and New Holland planting and seeding equipment and Flexi-Coil's FlexControl system. It also can read John Deere GreenStar yield data.
Kent Johnson, Clemons, IA, gives Ag Leader SMS Basic field-record software high marks for ease of use and free technical support.
Johnson, who has been mapping yields for six years, hasn't fully explored the additional field-record-keeping functionality SMS Basic now offers, but he appreciates Ag Leader's commitment to improving the software's utility and ease of use.
“We are demanding more from technology today,” he says. “Every company has added more functionality to its software. Either you keep up or get out.”
Early on, in addition to yield mapping, Johnson began using Ag Leader's GPS function to map tile lines. In the past four years, he's begun using the Ag Leader monitor in his tractor to map seed varieties and seeding rates, herbicides and application rates, and sidedress N applications.
This has allowed him to easily track variety performance and to keep government-mandated spraying records.
He claims that technical support has been excellent. He also gives high marks to Ag Leader workshops he has attended for several years to help build his skills. “Ag Leader has the best support and training I have ever experienced,” he says. “They have a real farmer mentality.”
Since Farm Works introduced its Farm Trac field-record software in 1992, it has added several integrated crop-record-related packages, including Farm Site, which adds GPS capability to Farm Trac; Farm Trac Mate, which brings Trac-based record keeping to the field with a handheld Windows-CE computer; and Farm Site Mate, which adds site-specific mapping to handheld computers with a GPS receiver. All can be integrated with Farm Funds, the company's farm accounting package.
Because all software is integrated, specific modules can be added depending on individual needs. Yield data from all major monitors can be imported into Farm Site.
For 2003, Farm Works is making only minor changes to its field-record lineup. It has added an expanded seed variety report and a more flexible fertilizer report. Maps also now have more sorting capability by crop, landlord and year.
List prices: Farm Trac, $200; Farm Site, $300; Farm Trac Mate, $200; and Farm Site Mate Basic, $250. (Most modules require Farm Trac.) All software includes 30 days free phone support. Additional phone support is $30/month or $120/year. Web, e-mail and fax-based support are free.
When LeRoy Braun goes to the field, he carries two essential tools: a Leatherman in his belt holster and a handheld computer in his breast pocket.
Braun, who farms with his brother Doug near Millette, SD, retired his seed corn notebook years ago in favor of detailed job sheets to capture field records, which he later entered into Farm Trac field-record software from Farm Works. Three years ago, he incorporated the handheld computer along with Farm Works Trac Mate software to eliminate the paper completely.
“Before, I had to come in at night and enter [data] into the computer,” he says. “Now I just place the handheld into its cradle and it automatically downloads and updates the main record in Farm Trac. When you come in, you're ready for bed.”
Braun uses the entire Farm Works software suite of integrated field-record and accounting software. He and his brother record virtually every field pass, so they know exactly what they did during the year and what everything cost.
They also use handheld computers to assist in field scouting and mapping. When LeRoy scouts fields for weeds, he can easily transfer information to Doug, who handles spraying.
Braun, who began using Farm Trac in 1994, says learning the basics of any of the Farm Works software packages is relatively easy. For those just getting started, he recommends attending a Farm Works class.
JDOffice, which John Deere introduced in July 2002 as a replacement for JDmap, incorporates record-keeping and crop-planning functions that don't tie the user to precision farming equipment, though it can be used in conjunction with a GreenStar system if desired.
This winter, the company announced a JDOffice update that integrates its field-record-keeping functions with QuickBooks Pro 2002 and 2003 accounting software. In the future, Deere also may integrate JDOffice with other farm accounting software packages.
JDOffice can be used as a stand-alone, PC-based program or in conjunction with the GreenStar system and Field Doc data-collection software. For in-field record keeping, preplanned field operations developed in the base program are saved to a PC card for transfer to the GreenStar display and mobile processor. This allows the operator to input and record field operations as they occur. JDOffice cannot be used with other monitor brands to capture in-field records.
JDOffice, which is available through John Deere dealers, costs a nominal $5, which covers shipping and handling. There is an optional $199 annual charge for support, which covers all John Deere Ag Management Solutions (AMS) products, including mapping and monitors, GreenStar guidance products and JDOffice software.
West Central Illinois farmer Eugene Stufflebeam says that his GreenStar system has become a more useful tool since John Deere added PC-based record-keeping software, which allows him to use the GreenStar system in his tractor to capture planting and other records on the go.
Stufflebeam, who grows corn and soybeans near Lewistown, IL, began using JDOffice this past fall. Before that, he used JDmap, which the new software replaces.
“I use JDOffice to mark varieties, planting dates and seeding populations,” he says. “If you want more detailed records, it will keep them. I generally don't make other entries unless there is something out of the ordinary.”
After planting, Stufflebeam prints as-planted maps for each of his fields for use in scouting. He takes scouting notes directly on the maps for later reference. He also uses the maps at harvest so he knows where varieties and fertilizer changes occurred as he combines.
In the past, Stufflebeam has used Farm Works field-record software and is considering adding a handheld computer and software to supplement in-field record-keeping capability with his GreenStar system.
EASi Suite Farm Edition
For 2003, MapShots has integrated its EASi Crops, EASi Map and EASi Planner programs into EASi Suite Farm Edition. The separate programs are no longer available.
MapShots also is introducing Pocket Crops this year, for use on Windows CE handheld computers to capture data during field operations. Pocket Crops, which is not GPS enabled, automatically synchronizes data with the EASi Suite program running on a PC.
MapShots says it designed EASi Suite from the ground up to track both precision ag data and data generated by non-precision practices (that is, data on hybrids, seeding rates, weed control and other practices that are the same across a field). It allows sophisticated use of maps and map layers generated with precision ag tools.
EASi Suite Farm Edition sells for $995. Telephone and on-line support are free. All upgrades are available for an annual fee of 25% of the original software price.
Nathan Selking, who began using EASi Suite Farm Edition a year ago on his family's farm near Decatur, IN, has just scratched the surface of the program's capabilities. But so far he likes the software's ease of use and sophistication.
“The mapping and record-keeping functions are about as user friendly as I have seen,” he says. “My dad has always asked me whether the yield monitor is making us any money. This year, with EASi Suite, I have been able to tell him I think we may be getting there.”
In his first year, Selking used the software to record major field operations from planting through harvest. In 2003, he will be using a handheld computer to keep field records on the go instead of having to reenter field records on his PC from paper notes. He also plans to begin using the software to analyze yield, soil test and other data to evaluate the potential of developing management zones to farm more efficiently and minimize impact on the environment.
Selking says technical support for EASi Suite has been excellent. He especially likes using the company's on-line forum, in which software users and company technical staff discuss problems and solutions. “It's pretty neat to be able to share ideas this way,” he says. “I've also worked with technical support directly, and I am very impressed.”
SST Development Group introduced its SST Stratus software in April 2002 for use on a Windows CE-based handheld computer.
The software's detailed drop-down menus allow growers to easily collect and maintain field records. The menus, which ensure that collected data are consistent, include customizable lists of crop hybrids and varieties, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, weeds, insects, field implements and other frequently used items. SST updates its online database regularly based on customer feedback, and users can download database additions and version upgrades regularly via the Internet.
Data collected by a Stratus-enabled handheld computer is downloaded into SST Summit, a companion software program, which manages information and generates reports on a desktop or laptop PC. Files also can be imported into other SST software products.
SST Stratus, which is GPS enabled, supports display of aerial photographs as background images. SST Summit provides a built-in link to retrieve aerial images from MS TerraServer. SST Stratus also contains measuring tools that allow zones to be created without using GPS. A late-spring software update will include tools for soil sampling, tile line mapping and identifying center pivot locations.
A farm license for SST Stratus and the accompanying SST Summit desktop software costs $600, which allows use on five handheld computers. Technical support and upgrades are free for the first year and cost $100 annually thereafter.
To Steve Hoffmann, SST Stratus software looks like the beginning of the end of a record-keeping nightmare.
Hoffmann manages poultry manure applications on about 15,000 acres — some 700 fields in all — for S&R Egg Farms near Whitewater, WI. Keeping track of manure applications, in part to meet environmental regulations, “can be almost overwhelming,” he says.
In the past, he has relied on daily paper logs from each of several application rigs, which he compiles in an electronic spreadsheet program. It's labor intensive, and if he needs to pull up records on an individual field, he faces a paper chase.
Hoffman is using his new Stratus-based record system in conjunction with SSToolbox Lite to digitize aerial photos of all fields, import soil test data, and draw (or drive, using SST Stratus GPS functionality) setbacks from waterways, wells and houses to identify application restriction zones. These maps will be used to determine application rates and instruct rig drivers on where manure needs to be applied. As-applied maps also can be provided to landowners to document applications.
Hoffmann has been impressed with SST's technical support. “It is excellent,” he says. “Every one of the technical support people has been very professional and helpful. There is no stupid question to those guys.”