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How can mobile work on your farm?

Kelly Robertson remembers his old bag phone well. Always in the cab of his pickup, the simple phone was a "tool of convenience" on his Benton, Illinois, farm.

But, that phone didn't even have caller ID. It was simple. It had a single purpose.

Now, flash forward a couple decades. Robertson now has a state-of-the-art Android smartphone on which he can make and receive calls, keep up with email, use the web and manage farm data and records through applications.

"Today, as predicted then, your cell phone is now your do all computer, phone, text, email, Internet, phone book, Twitter, Facebook, weather radar, grain market ticker and a list of apps and downloads for whatever else you're into," Robertson says. "It is your way to stay connected to the world. You can literally do everything you need to do in your office on your phone while sitting in your vehicle  or café or wherever. You’re connected."

So, you're connected now. What are some of the specific ways these devices can streamline your farm business work? It starts before you even buy your new phone. When you're making that purchase decision, don't get too technical. Make your comfort level the initial top priority, says Neil Mylet, central Indiana farmer and founder of LoadOut Technologies, a high-tech ag startup company. 

 

Mylet says it's all about finding the device with which you're most comfortable and one that accomplishes everything you need. Right now, for example, though his company develops applications for the latest iPhone and Android platforms, Mylet says he uses an older Blackberry phone for his farm, as it meets his current data needs.

Once you've chosen the device that meets your needs, think about your workplace. The farm is not the kindest environment for electronics like smartphones, so don't overlook the importance of protecting that device.

"Most phones are not built to withstand the harsh environment of agriculture," Mylet says. "If you're making the transition to a smartphone, definitely invest in a good case. It's definitely worth the investment."

Now what? How will you use your smartphone? Farmers say it's important to first identify the specific parts of your business for which you want to use your smartphone. Instead of jumping in and downloading every app you think you might use, consider how you can best use the new tool, then find the means through which you can get that done.

Take crop data, for example. Michael Lewis uses his Apple iPhone to keep track of historical yield data in his fields near Bayard, Iowa. It gives him a way to compile and track long-term data and make informed decisions on the fly.

"When I'm combining corn, I want to be able to bring up historical yield data as I am going through the field and see a comparison between the last time I planted corn on that field. Maybe the variables that caused the yields they did. If it was a thing that we can control, we want to be able to control those things to make each field more profitable," Lewis says. "The biggest thing for me is having all my financial data, my notes, etc., with me at all times."

Lewis also uses his phone's camera to document things like equipment performance while in the field. With this tool, he's seen a direct correlation between its use and payback on the farm.

"I use the camera quite a bit and also the video camera, to record things that aren't working and things that are working. Things that I can document and act on later. Places where I need tile, for example, for future reference," he says. "We added some different closing wheels to our planter, and I just wanted to document how they looked when we went through no-till, something that had been disked and field cultivated as my brother planted just to see the difference in how it looked while he was planting."

When you're looking at the different applications of your smartphone on the farm, be sure you don't overlook the more basic functions of the device. "Breaking down in the field and calling the dealer from the field can elicit help on the spot or knowledge of whether parts are in stock or we have to 'make do,'" says Kirkton, Ontario, farmer Bob Smith. "Several salesmen now call me on the cell since they know they will get me, not the answering machine."

Looking ahead, Mylet says a growing trend will be the adoption of more location-based services, or applications that can track data based on specific geographic location. Look for programs that can allow farmers to specifically track field conditions through geo-targeted photos and videos, for example, to lead the way.

Add to that more "streaming data" services in the near future. As mobile data infrastructure improves and farmers can get solid signal in rural areas, new applications will use real-time streaming services to collect more field data on the fly, making every in-field decision an informed one.

"I think people will find we like a lot of data, we want it right now and we want it on the devices we use," Lewis says. "As the broadband and rural networks catch up, the instant data will catch up, between the cab, servers, devices, etc."

But, some wonder how 'connected' you need to be. Though new communication tools like smartphones "will have an influence on every aspect of our lives" moving forward, as Mylet says, it's important to find balance. Robertson says, though he's benefited greatly from new communication tools like Twitter on his smartphone, he also makes a point to "unplug" when he can, making his Android smartphone another tool -- albeit a high-tech one -- in his farm's toolbox.

"I have made a lot of money with my Twitter account the last two years give or take a month. Not in selling a service or product on Twitter, but just in having the largest research community in the world reporting information to me that allows me to make farm decisions quicker," Robertson says. "But I don’t need play-by play-information taking up my day and phone call after phone call in between those Tweets or texts to keep my hands busy on the phone versus on the work at hand.

"I haven’t left the world of technology...still on Twitter, Facebook and blogging, just taking a break and listening to the cows moo, the birds chirp, the wind blow and the bugs talk while I work," he adds.

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