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Taking your farm to the cloud

As Kerry and Angela Knuth traveled along the information superhighway, the path was lined with roadblocks. For years, the couple, who farm near Mead, Nebraska, have been navigating on a road that prevented them from seamlessly gathering and sharing data.

“In the past, for example, the person doing the field action would take the paperwork order, fill it out, and bring it to the office. I’d then have to enter it into our crop-management/accounting software system. It was a double-entry situation, where they were writing it on paper and I was entering it into the software,” says Angela. “We are trying to get to the point where our data is entered once.”

The Knuths also wanted the ability to generate easy-to-read reports that would show which areas of their operation were making money and which areas were costing money.

“Over the course of about eight years, we came up with a number of decent spreadsheets to track the people, inputs, and equipment used in a field operation. But again, we would come in at night and have to sit down and enter all of that information into the computer. We wanted to be able to manage more in real time rather than always trying to play catch-up,” notes Angela. It was also a stand-alone system, so sharing critical data with trusted advisers or collaborating in certain areas hit a wall.

Changing Direction

Notebooks and spreadsheets have been a way of life on the farm for decades. You gathered information in the field and brought it back to the office to be input into software. Yet, the software oftentimes fell short and was shelved in hopes that a better option would come along.

“Many people are frustrated with systems that can’t talk to one another,” says Jack Makowski, vice president of channel sales, Conservis.

“We refer to it as ‘shelfware’ because so many people buy software and it sits on the shelf, or they get 5% of the potential out of the software.”

As the next stage in agriculture’s evolution, cloud computing has the ability to streamline the gathering and delivery of that data wherever and whenever it’s needed. Software as a Service (SaaS) through the cloud allows you to better track every aspect of your operation to ensure you are as efficient as possible.

“Data is already being generated on the farm. The next challenge is capturing it easily so you can pull it into a smart database and see things in real-time accuracy,” says Makowski.

The concept of SaaS is fairly new to agriculture, and calculating the return on investment is an unfamiliar one, because you are not used to buying these types of services.

Conservis users pay a one-time setup fee. After that, there is an annual per acre charge for service and software. “This costs you from less than 1¢ to a few cents per bushel based on what you use,” notes Makowski.

Big Business

Cloud computing is becoming big business. AwesomeCloud Services, a cloud computing service provider, predicts the total size of the cloud-computing industry will reach $150 billion in 2014 compared to $46 billion in 2008.

The company says demand for SaaS is going up. The $27 billion enterprise in 2012 will be a $67 billion market by 2016.

Launching a pilot project in 2010 with about 110,000 acres, Conservis began offering SaaS for harvest. “We added inputs the following year,” says Makowski.

Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the company uses cloud-based technology to help you better track inputs and harvest results.

“It’s all driven by folks like the Knuths, who have said, ‘Help us convert this paper process so we can record things as they happen and have that go into a smart database. When we’re creating individual transactions or tickets, they can now be tagged with all of the other business-related aspects of the operation,’” says Makowski. “They can then start pulling meaningful reports from that information to gain more insight and to make better decisions about their business.”

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The input management module, which is what the Knuths initially invested in, applies inventory control and concepts used in many nonag business models. Since data is kept in the cloud rather than on a farm computer, the Knuths can take advantage of their wireless devices to collect, upload, and view data in the field.

The Knuths grow corn, soybeans, and wheat. Those crops use a lot of different inputs. The Inputs program tracks anything they use on the farm – fertilizer, seed, and chemicals.

“The organization the Inputs software brought to our operation is helping us tame the inventory monster,” says Angela. “We’ve had software in which we create product lists to track product used in a field action, but it wasn’t attached to actual inventory.”

Conservis creates an inventory for their farm based on suppliers used, contracts with suppliers, location of inventory, and ownership of inventory.

“We then use the software to record field actions, listing what products and amounts were used,” she explains.

“Once the field action is uploaded from the handheld device in the cab, the software automatically subtracts those amounts from inventory and gives us a real-time position on the products used.”

All information is transmitted wirelessly to the cloud, where it can be viewed almost instantly in the farm office. If you aren’t in range of a cell tower, the smartphone or tablet holds the information until it is in range, and then it uploads automatically.

“Without the cloud, the products used would have to be downloaded to a card and then uploaded to the software back in the office,” notes Angela.

Information that once had limited access is now available instantly anywhere within cell range or where there is an Internet connection. A cloud-based service also allows multiple stakeholders simultaneous access to the same data.

This past fall, the Knuths added the Harvest module and they are still exploring its capabilities. What they do know is that it’s another avenue to helping them become more efficient.

“For example, if you are 70% done with harvest but don’t know where to send the next truck because you’re not quite sure how much is in your bins or where you are on your contracts, this module can provide the answer,” explains Makowski.

“You can know both of those things within a minute or so after they happen and can make better decisions. Without having that information accessible out in the field, you just can’t do it any other way,” he says.

“Harvest results are real-time and organized,” adds Angela. “We know how much a field yielded, where the grain is stored, and the ownership splits when a field is done.”

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Accounting in the Cloud

The Knuths came to Conservis through John McNutt, a management consultant with Latta, Harris, Hanon & Penningroth, LLP, in Tipton, Iowa. He helps the Knuths with the Farm Business Software (FBS) system they’ve incorporated into their operation.

“The cool thing about what we do is we built an interface within FBS, so Angela can easily upload and exchange files between our system and their system so she can monetize it the way she wants to,” Makowski explains.

“Once we get the field actions into Conservis, we can export those out as a CSV file and upload them into our managerial accounting software,” says Angela. “It eliminates a double entry.”

Working with the couple since 2008, McNutt’s expertise and oversight have become invaluable. Having the ability to access the Knuths’ financial information through the cloud allows him to help better manage their business.

“What we love about being in the cloud is that John can see our operation at all times,” notes Kerry. “We can go on together and go through things. He knows our operation like the back of his hand. He watches it at all times when we haven’t even asked him to. He’ll just go out there to see how we’re doing to keep up with things and how our operation is looking. That’s a major plus. Without John being able to see it, there’s no way he could advise us in the way he does.”

Being in the cloud offers another bonus.

“If Angela is trying to post something and she’s not sure of the correct way to handle the transaction, she can call me and I can go into the cloud with her and simultaneously see what the problem is,” says McNutt. “I can actually work with her to find a solution. By doing that, I not only help her, but also teach her. Teaching helps her learn. That is a lot better than telling her to hit a key stroke and that’s all I do.”

Taking advantage of all the information superhighway has to offer is something the Knuths have been doing with water management, as well.

“We’ve been in the cloud with our irrigation systems for years. It’s been incredibly helpful,” says Kerry. “When we were harvesting wheat, it was right in the middle of the most stressful time for corn with pollination. Yet, we didn’t miss a beat with our 16 pivots, because we could monitor them from wherever we were.”

Being able to remotely control pivots afforded them the ability to change water application without actually going to the pivot panel.

“When we were running a variable-rate irrigation plan of 1-inch depth, it rained overnight but we only got .4 inch,” explains Angela. “Without the remote control through the cloud, we would have had to drive to the field, put on our mud boots, walk out to the pivot panel, and manually change the application rate to adjust for the rain.”

Now they can adjust the rate from their home, office, or the road and upload changes to the pivot without ever stepping into the field.

Most farm operations don’t have an IT department. Many are forced to outsource. What that means is the data you have been accumulating hangs in the balance.

Companies like FBS and Conservis are building the technology in the cloud to let you benefit from the very thing that may have been stalling your operation’s progress.

“The Harvest software brings data that was previously disconnected together,” says Angela. “It not only captures the harvester, its operator, and yield, it also tracks the grain cart and its operator, trucks, and their drivers as they handle loads coming out of the field. This is information not collected by a yield monitor, but it is needed to capture logistics and true cost of production.”

“Hopefully, over time, we can get these two pieces talking more, because you have to be careful with your financial information. You want it pretty darn accurate,” says McNutt. “If you can bring in the managerial information that comes out of Conservis and combine it with solid financial information, then as you get managerial information, like cost of production or cost per acre, it improves the accuracy of the whole system.”

Bringing the software, hardware, and systems together through cloud-based solutions will allow the Knuths to focus more on farming and making the most of the data they collect.

With much of this technology comes a learning curve that can be challenging and time-consuming initially.

“Since this is our first year with Conservis and FBS in combination, we are still learning how this all comes together,” says Angela. Yet, being in the cloud is proving to be priceless.

“If you tried to look at it from a 24-7, 12-months-a-year point of view, you’ll likely say, ‘What am I doing?’ But over time, you do see that it does make you more efficient,” says Kerry. “I don’t know how to put a price on efficiency.”

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