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There’s an Ag App for That
A good way to start a conversation in a coffee shop these days might be to ask farmers what apps they use on their smartphones.
It’s a fast way to shift a farmer meeting into high gear, too, says Blake Bennett, a Texas ag Extension economist who presents programs to farmers on using phone applications.
Some of the apps Bennett demonstrates are more or less like a toolbox of gadgets that can help producers tackle daily chores on the farm: apps for a bubble level, a flashlight, a calculator, unit converter, compass, and maps. He also shows off some of his favorite apps for weather, news, and markets.
He even throws in a coyote-calling app to make sure his audiences are wide awake.
After his demonstration, Bennett opens up the floor for discussion and finds that, with every meeting, he continues to learn from producers who are eager to share their own experiences with apps.
In the world at large, smartphone users actively use some 26 apps on a regular basis. The most likely way to learn about a new app is by a word-of-mouth recommendation, according to the statistics website portal, Statista.
“In my experience, I’ve seen that agricultural producers are right up there with everyone else when it comes to using phone applications in their business,” Bennett says.
At each new farmer meeting, he’s likely to learn of a few new useful apps.
At a recent session, a producer showed Bennett a couple apps that are now on his list of recommendations.
One is the Tank Mix Calculator, which figures the mixing rate for a sprayer tank based on acreage, tank size, type of chemical used, and spraying rate.
He was also shown the GPS Area Measure, which enables farmers to outline a field that will be sprayed and track its progress until the spraying is completed.
“The producer who showed me both of these apps said they have saved him money and made him more efficient,” Bennett says.
That’s a big reason more and more farmers are carrying smartphones to the field these days.
Ag Mobile Rises
A recent Successful Farming® survey shows that nearly nine out of 10 farmers are now packing a smartphone in the combine, tractor, or truck cab. A good number – about one in three – are also toting a tablet device.
These portable devices have become the Swiss army knife of farm management for many farmers. Not all of the apps on them are strictly of the ag variety, though.
Indiana farmer George Kakasuleff subscribes to a local weather service on his mobile device, and he keeps track of the markets in real-time on a financial app from TD Ameritrade. He uses a Twitter app to funnel news and other info while he’s on-the-go.
“Twitter has made the world a smaller place and more convenient to find the news that’s important to me,” he says.
Apps in the Field
One of the expanding areas of app development in ag focuses on crops and soils. A big selection of agronomic apps is increasingly available, including some new and improved versions, that can help with planting, spraying, tillage, troubleshooting, and more.
Many of these agronomic apps have a single purpose – think screwdriver rather than jackknife.
Kyle Stull, a Wisconsin agronomist, has recently helped develop the new Bean Cam app, which uses the green light spectrum on the phone camera to estimate soybean stands, providing a basis for replant advice.
“The Bean Cam app has taken a lot of the guesswork out of replant decisions,” Stull says, “Once calibrated, I get a quick and accurate population along with a yield estimation of the current stand and an estimate of a replanted stand.”
Other newer apps are ratcheting up the complexity of the app toolbox. Mobile phone apps are now running point for a variety of sophisticated crop and farm-management software programs, such as Farm at Hand and FarmLogs, two companies that were hatched by farm families. With these programs, you can collect and analyze data from the tractor, truck, and combine cab without having to resort to a computer back in the farm office.
Farm at Hand uses cloud computing to enable producers to gather and interpret field data while on-the-go. The app has a “simple, easy-to-use interface that can help you manage your entire farm,” says Breanne Kielich, marketing and communications manager at the company.
“We feel that cloud-based solutions give you the ability to make information-backed decisions on-the-fly,” she says. “Farming isn’t tied to an office, and farm information shouldn’t be either. We have seen a great uptake in cloud-based software. Farmers love that they can get work done while they are driving a tractor, sprayer, or combine.”
The app is free. “All of our current features are free,” Kielich says.
The plan for the future is to create paid portals for farm advisors within the system that will add value and help their farmer-clients better manage their farms, she says.
The basic service at FarmLogs is free, too. FarmLogs, a company that claims its service is now used by one in three U.S. row-crop farms, also offers consulting and field prescription services in its paid, premium-level service.
One reason for the company’s success is its ability to bring producers “the advantages of big data without any strings attached,” says Shep Whitcomb, product marketing manager at FarmLogs.
“We have no ulterior motives,” says Whitcomb. “We don’t market farmers’ data. We don’t sell seed, inputs, or equipment. We have one focus: Build the best product that gives you control over everything you do in your business.
“With FarmLogs, you can track crop health throughout the season against a performance baseline, and you have the ability to pinpoint the exact location of threats in your fields,” he says.
Alerts are sent through the app when a problem appears.
A favorite example of the software’s success comes from within the family who started the company. Cofounder Jesse Vollmar’s father, a fourth-generation farmer, received a crop health alert from FarmLogs on his own cornfield.
Apps in the markets
Another app sweet spot is in the area of markets and marketing, says Bennett. Several of the apps he demonstrates at meetings are marketing related.
“No longer are producers limited to following the market and potentially placing hedges to when they come in for lunch or after the day is complete. Now they have the ability to follow the market as they’re working. If they see a favorable price, they can immediately contact their broker and place a hedge,” he says.
A leading developer in the marketing space, AgriCharts, features AgMobile (a partnership with Successful Farming), as well as Grains.com, a new service for farmers and grain elevators.
“AgMobile is designed for farmers and others involved in the agricultural markets like grain merchandisers and traders. The app has received nearly 30,000 downloads since it was launched in late 2014, says AgriCharts CEO Mark Haraburda.
Another of the company’s services, Grains.com, is designed as a responsive website, so it works on any device. “It enables farmers to connect with grain elevators to sell their grain, calculate their break-even point, and utilize other useful grain market tools,” Haraburda says. There are a host of other features, such as local grain bids, futures quotes and charts, weather, text message alerts, and farmer calculators.
Though some observers may see the bloom coming off app development, Haraburda envisions nothing but more innovation in the field.
The next big thing in agriculture is the continuing development of “the internet of things,” he says. “Essentially, it’s the harvesting of data from machines and other ‘things,’ and using that data to help farmers be more predictive, precise, and efficient.”
For these tools to succeed, they “better result in increased yields, profits, or efficiency,” he says.
That’s been the case for Chuck Myers, a Nebraska corn and soybean grower and longtime leader in the industry.
Myers recently began using app-accessible equipment designed for monitoring a grain cart. Replacing the original scale monitor, printer, and wiring in the tractor cab is an Apple iPad, which communicates by Bluetooth with the new scale electronics made by Agrimatics.
“The new Agrimatics Libra app on the iPad provides a whole host of information from the scale,” Myers says. “It even senses when you start to unload and when you finish. It keeps track of loads, fields, farms, yields, totals, trucks, drivers, and so on.
“We also have the apps on our phones for monitoring the equipment. In the combine, when the grain cart is within range, I can also connect to the scale by Bluetooth and see all the info. I can check weights as I'm loading onto the grain cart.
“All of our crops go through the grain cart in order to weigh everything out of the field,” Myers says.
The kind of mobile technology used by Myers and many other farmers will continue to evolve, even if there may be a few bumps in the road, Haraburda believes.
“Mobile usage will continue to grow and many new apps will be developed,” he says. “Many will fail or not attract enough users to justify the business, but there will be those that succeed, as they will provide great value. Technology like cloud computing enables many of these start-ups to establish their business with low investments, which increases the supply of creative minds dreaming up the next big thing.”