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Farm computer use evolving

If you own a computer, odds are the farmer down the road does not. While technologies like automatic steering and yield monitors flourish on many farms, significant numbers of operations function without a basic computer.

In an age when a computer is as common as a car, a recent USDA report reveals that 37% of farms still don’t have a computer. Even if a farm does have a computer, 63% do not use it for farm business, and 38% are not yet connected to the Internet.

The numbers are in

The Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report also reveals that farms with higher incomes rank at the top when it comes to usage and ownership. In fact, 84% of farms with sales and government payments of $250,000 or more have access to a computer, 83% own or lease a computer, 72% use a computer for their farm business, and 82% have Internet access.

For farms with sales and government payments between $100,000 and $249,999, 68% have access to a computer as well as own or lease a computer, 52% use a computer for their farm business, and 67% have Internet access.

Of those with sales and government payments between $10,000 and $99,999, 63% have computer access, 62% own or lease a computer, 41% use a computer for their farm business, and 60% have Internet access.

For crop farms, 67% have computer access (that’s up 2% from 2009). Also, 41% used a computer for their farm business in 2011, up 1% from 2009. Internet access for crop farms increased to 64% in 2011, compared with 60% in 2009. In 2011, 63% of livestock farms had computer access, and 61% had Internet access.

If farmers do have access to a computer, what are they currently using it for?

According to the report, only 14% use it to buy ag inputs, which include seed, fertilizer, vet supplies, feed, machinery, replacement parts, farm supplies, and office equipment.

Not surprisingly, larger Midwest farms use their computers to buy inputs or to manage marketing activities. Yet, of the farms with over $250,000 in commodity sales, only 25% buy inputs, and only 33% do Internet marketing like direct sales of commodities, online crop and livestock auctions, or online market advisory services. However, 50% of the largest Midwest farms say they will do business with a nonag website.

Critical component

Even though the numbers may seem low, progress is being made, albeit slowly, especially as the computer’s role evolves.

“Computers will continue to be more crucial, as producers realize the power of the data that’s being collected and utilized for management decisions,” says Kent Shannon, University of Missouri Extension. “For example, implementing on-farm research, developing fertilizer recommendation maps, doing better record keeping, and incorporating crop insurance are all ways computers can be utilized with precision ag technologies.”

Shannon, who has presented at the Computers on the Farm conference for more than 10 years, leads the sessions on precision ag technologies.

“I have open-ended discussions with individual producers about the latest in precision ag technologies and what they should be looking for in the upcoming year,” he says.

Most questions revolve around software and the utility of precision ag software – specifically, how to utilize soil test equations for developing fertilizer recommendation maps.

Assessing Your Needs

Determining how much computer you need depends on whether you’re doing all the data collection and processing, or if you’re working with an ag service provider or consultant.

According to Matt Darr, Iowa State University, most growers don’t have the necessary IT infrastructure to manage and maintain a long history of precision ag data. He sees three challenges:

  • Upgrading computer hardware.

  • Performing timely and secure data backup.

  • Maintaining compatibility with changing hardware systems.

If you do decide to crunch the numbers independently, there are a few things that are important for you to know, Darr says.

“One of the first things you need to determine is what type of media it takes to transfer data. For example, is it a USB flash drive or a compact flash card?” he asks.

Darr says there are other questions you need to address. “Is your computer capable of reading a compact flash card if needed? Is the USB flash drive specific to the precision ag device? What is the file format? Is certain software needed to read the data collected? Are there different levels of the software used for managing data?” he asks.

Always, he says, double-check to make sure your operating system is compatible with software and data transfer media.

In the future, Shannon says the biggest hurdle for computer use on the farm will be deciding among the different platforms. “Will it be a tablet, smartphone, laptop, or desktop? Do you need them all?” he questions. “The exciting developments in computers are tablets and smartphones being able to access data in a mobile environment like never before.”

Shannon isn’t alone in his thinking. In December 2012, technology research firm IDC reported that the growth of laptops would rise 31% in the next four years, while tablet sales would grow by 131% in the same period. It doesn’t look like that trend is going away. Experts predict tablets will start outselling laptops by 2016.

Yet, there could be one limiting factor. “The only issue I see is having access to the Internet in the mobile environment,” Shannon says.

While access to the Internet has come a long way on the farm, connections are still low. DSL leads at 38%, wireless claims 20%, and satellite takes 15%. Dial-up connections dropped to 12% in 2011, which is an 11% decrease from 2009. Cable comes in last at 11%.   

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