WHETHER YOU use it to stay abreast of weather, markets and the latest agricultural research, to gather information before purchasing a product, or to buy or sell used farm equipment, you probably have found the World Wide Web to be a useful tool.

You haven't seen anything yet.

Over the next few years, a whole new menu of Web- and Internet-based tools built especially for agriculture will be available on your computer desktop.

In fact, a bucket of these tools already exists. Even now, they are changing the way farmers manage their operations. And because they are accessed via the Internet, they have the flexibility to be carried wherever you travel.

Unlike PC-based programs, both the software and the data reside on server computers located at a distant site. Because of this, most of these tools work best with a high-speed Internet connection. But as more farmers hook up to broadband connections, these tools will be widely accessible.

Software and networks

To date, these Web- and Internet-based tools fall into two categories: farm management software and wireless remote sensor networks that use the Web and the Internet backbone for communications.

Today, most farm-specific software is PC based, but that could change, says Norm Brown, president of Farm Business Systems (FBS) Software, which began offering Internet-based software earlier this year. “The Web could become the dominant player in the business software market, but agriculture may be the last to adopt this because fewer farmers have broadband connections than other segments,” he says.

Tom Stein of MetaFarms, a Web-based software provider, notes that Fortune 500 companies are rapidly adopting this approach. “This will be the development model that all agricultural software evolves to,” he says.

Although the current Web-based agriculture software tools are designed for dramatically different tasks, their use of the Web and the Internet provide similar advantages.

Collaborative environment

Because data are collected and shared via a secure Web site or Internet server, they can be accessed by many individuals from multiple locations. This enhances interoperation communication and makes sharing data with consultants and other outside resources easier.

For large livestock operations with widely scattered production sites, for example, this allows location and enterprise managers to access the same data, at the same time, no matter where they are located. And for a farmer operating in a small geographic area, a Web-based system makes it possible to work with crop, nutrition, farm management and other consultants from the next town, the next state, or across the country, using real-time data.

“This system opens up the geographic boundaries,” says Everett Chambers, a Wisconsin-based farm management consultant who works with clients in five states via Internet-based farm management software.

Advanced security and technical support

Typically, Web- and Internet-based management tools are housed in specialized, bunker-like server farms. The facilities have multiple redundancies, from incoming and outgoing data lines to electrical and other utility backup systems, plus multiple servers with regular data backup routines. Secure passwords, often at several levels, prevent outsiders from accessing data.

In comparison, most farm offices have marginal computer security and backup systems, at best.

Flexible programming

This is where some of the biggest benefits of Web-based software accrue. On the surface, this might not seem to matter to the end user. But this flexibility speeds up software fixes and enhancements.

“The real revolution with Web-based software is on the programming side,” says Stein, who developed the PC-based PigChamp software program in the 1980s and introduced i-Production, a Web-based swine management software program, in 2003.

“With Web-based software we can see what features customers are using and what is giving them trouble,” he says. “Many times, if there is a bug, a customer can call up and we can fix it while they are on the phone. Software development is turned into intelligent reaction instead of design and hope for the best.”

Worldwide connectivity

You can carry a laptop computer anywhere, so it's possible to access PC-based software when you are away from the farm. But with a Web-based system, you can use any Internet-connected computer — or Web-enabled cell phone or PDA — to gain real-time access to your data whether you are at the bank, the barn or the beach.

Cell phone-based connectivity is critical to day-to-day use of Web-based remote sensor networks, says Terry Schiltz of AgSense, which sells monitoring and control systems for irrigation and grain bin management, as well as weather-monitoring systems.

“The Web-based PDA or cell phone is very important to our customers because more often than not their office is a tractor or a pickup,” Schiltz says. “Our Web interface is designed to work well on small cell phone and PDA screens.”

Lower initial out-of-pocket costs

In general, Web-based software is subscription based, much like a lease instead of an outright purchase. The annual cost might be 20 to 30% of a similar stand-alone PC-based program.

In the long term, you may spend more for Web-based software. But its proponents argue that you will have a better, more flexible product.

Here's a look at some of the Web- and Internet-based products currently on the market.

i-Production claims it's first

MetaFarms designed i-Production Suite from the ground up with the Web as its backbone and introduced it in 2003. Its purpose is to help large, dispersed swine, beef and dairy enterprises gather and analyze production and marketing data. The swine program features four integrated applications: Enterprise Manager, Sow Manager, Finishing Manager and Sales Manager, and it includes software interfaces to import data from major packers and feed mills.

Currently, the software suite is helping to manage 500,000 sows and 5 million finishing hogs and tracks 4 million carcasses annually, says Stein, MetaFarms chief executive officer.

The software suite also has been adapted to the cattle-feeding industry and will be made available to dairy producers. Cactus Feeders, the largest cattle-feeding company in the U.S. with 500,000 cattle on feed at a time, uses the program, Stein says.

Costs depend on service levels and the size of the enterprise. The swine software suite costs $0.05 to $0.25/pig produced annually, plus a one-time setup fee of $0.30 to $1.00/sow. Contact MetaFarms Inc., Dept. FIN, 423 W. Travelers Trail, Burnsville, MN 55337, 952/215-3220, visit www.metafarms.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 200.

AgSense connects sensors

At first it might seem counterintuitive to use the Web to connect a center pivot or grain bin monitor to a farm office less than a mile away. Why send data to a server hundreds of miles away when the farm office is right there?

A few months after AgSense began developing software using the traditional PC-based model in 2003, it concluded that its software and hardware packages would offer more value to customers if they weren't tethered to a single location. Thus the Web.

Today AgSense offers three software/hardware packages to monitor and control center pivot irrigation rigs, grain bins and weather stations.

Here is how the system works, using an irrigation rig as an example. Periodically (every 15 minutes for irrigation), data on flow, pressure, pivot position, speed, weather and soil moisture are automatically sent from the rig via a low-speed cellular modem to servers located in San Diego, CA, to be recorded.

To monitor and control the rig, the operator signs on to the secure Web site using a Web-enabled PDA or computer. The Web page shows recent data and the position of the center pivot. If the operator wants to change the speed, change the amount of water or turn on the end gun, he clicks a control panel, which reverses the data transfer sequence. Two to three seconds later, the pivot responds to the requested change.

The PivotSense remote management package sells for $1,500/pivot for equipment, plus $250/pivot/year, which includes cell modem calling costs. The StorSense grain bin management system sells for $1,000/controller, plus $100 annually. Each controller can handle several grain bins, depending on the number of temperature sensors. The WeatherSense weather-monitoring package sells for $1,650, plus $100 annually.

Contact AgSense LLC, Dept. FIN, 601 Lincoln Ave. N.W., Huron, SD 57350, 605/352-8350, visit www.agsense.net or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 201.

FBS Systems uses transition model

In January, FBS Systems announced the availability of its FarmServer accounting and management information system software over the Internet. Technically this software does not use Web-based programming tools, but it offers many of the same advantages, says Brown, president of FBS Systems.

FarmServer is the same PC-based software that FBS Systems sells for home office computers, but it runs on a remote server computer accessed through a secure Internet connection. The farmer's computer operates the software functioning as a remote terminal.

Because the software is not programmed using Web-based tools, customers have the option of migrating back to home-based software if they choose, Brown says.

The FarmServer service is available through two accounting/consulting firms: AgCompass, Tomah, WI, and Agri-Accounting, Upper Sandusky, OH.

In addition to FarmServer, other software is available on the server, including SST Toolbox, SST Toolkit and Dairy Comp 305, as well as Microsoft Office and other general-purpose software.

Server-based software makes support calls more productive, says Everett Chambers of AgCompass. “Farm management software is complicated,” he says. “Now when a question on how to best use the software comes up, the customer gives me a call, I click on their desktop and we take care of it. We can both see the screen at the same time.”

The biggest benefit is the ability to easily share information with consultants and other outside resources. “It gives producers a chance to work with the best people no matter where they are located,” Chambers says.

Annual subscription fees for FarmServer are 20 to 30% of the full cost of the PC software. Contact AgCompass LLC, Dept. FIN, 29175 Dorset Ave., Tomah WI 54660, 608/372-7689, everettc@agcompass.com; Agri-Accounting LLC, Dept. FIN, 8380 County Hwy. 134, Upper Sandusky, OH 43351, 419/927-6227, schilling@bright.net; or FBS Systems Inc., 1855 55th Ave., Aledo, IL 61231, 800/437-7638, sales@fbssystems.com; visit www.freeproductinfo.net/fin; or circle 202.