E-Farming puts the paddock in your pocket
GroundCover™ Issue: 107 | Author: Rebecca Jennings
Meet three growers from around Australia who are taking different approaches to data collection from their phones and iPads – from 'testing the waters' to full immersion.
Thanks to mobile technology, the Smart family has the two properties they farm in south-east South Australia at their fingertips.
Brendon and Robyn Smart and their sons Ryan and Damien run a mixed-farming business on two properties 100 kilometres apart. The enterprises have a split cropping-livestock focus and represent a business centred on a formal planning process that requires precise record keeping.
“Our family business is focused on being sustainable, viable and amicable,” Ryan says. “We have a professional business structure, with external board members and an external executive officer.”
The accountability demanded by this system is underpinned by information, and Ryan does not hesitate when asked what the single biggest data collection tool is: his iPad.
“We have recorded farm activities using Paddock Action Manager (PAM) since 1997, and 12 months ago we introduced their app, PocketPAM, which we run on six iPads across the business,” he says.
The family uses PocketPAM for a range of functions, including record keeping, budgeting, strategic planning and decision support. They keep track of nearly all farm activities: chemical and fertiliser application, crop monitoring notes, fodder and hay production, delivery information, livestock movements, farm inventory, shearing results and soil tests.
By compiling information on cost of production and gross margins for all major business activities, they can create detailed reports, map trends on a paddock-by-paddock basis and identify where efficiencies can be made.
“This record-keeping tool has definitely influenced how we manage our business,” Ryan says. “In the past, my father was the only one keeping records, but now everyone involved in the business is responsible for data collection. Using a mobile device such as an iPad makes data collection easier and allows us to access information at any time.”
Regardless of what record-keeping program growers choose, Ryan says it is important to be able to enter the specific dataset required by each business and then access it to make decisions.
“All growers know how big their crop is – but how many know what their actual profit margins are? Collecting and using data provides a powerful tool to get a real handle on costs so you can better make difficult decisions, such as changing management systems, expanding or consolidating production, or putting up a case for acquisition.
“We are also developing a historical bank of information about our farm, to identify trends such as how changing rotations affects yields or if poor-performing areas are responding to fertiliser, to ensure we stay viable and sustainable.”
However, mobile technology in a farming environment does have challenges, such as network connection. The PocketPAM app works offline so data can be entered without internet connection and backed-up automatically when in range of the base computer. Information is also saved regularly to external drives.
Equipping employees with stylus pens has also improved the functionality of the iPad’s touch screen in dusty conditions.
Northern New South Wales grain and beef producer Rob Woods is harnessing mobile technology to run his tried-and-tested farm planning systems.
Rob and his wife Amanda operate two broadacre cropping enterprises on either side of the NSW–Queensland border, at Tulloona and Toobeah. With 150 kilometres separating the properties, the capabilities of mobile technology have become a crucial business tool, allowing Rob to connect with his farm manager at Toobeah.
Rob is no stranger to the benefits of technology – all paddock activities are logged using GreenStar® and his iPad is never far away – but when he could not find an off-the-shelf product that met his requirements, he created his own.
Channelling his ‘inner accountant’ (he studied commerce and finance at the University of New England in NSW before returning to the farm in 2004), Rob has developed templates to record and budget using the Microsoft spreadsheet program Excel.
“I found some of the agriculture recording programs currently available were restrictive. Many of the apps in the market are good at record keeping, but we were looking for a more numbers-orientated program. The ability to create our own templates gives us complete control of the data we need in our business,” Rob says.
Although the initial set up and incorporating cell formulas does take time, Rob now has an evolving suite of farm budgets that he and his farm manager can easily access from their iPhone or iPad using the file-sharing app Dropbox®. He has developed templates for farm gross margins, chemical inventory and harvest tallies, and uses these to identify trends, such as paddock performance, which can be overlaid on yield maps for targeted management.
Rob says the key components of his recording system are easy to access and use.
- Excel – a data analysis program, easy to use with some basic training.
- iCloud – Rob uses Apple devices to access files stored on the internet, rather than on his home computer.
- Dropbox® – files uploaded by Rob can be immediately accessed by his manager.
“I think the advent of the smartphone has been a huge step forward for our industry,” he says. “Most growers have their phone in their pocket, but now they can have a computer in their pocket. It allows us to use our time more efficiently and access information or input data into the spreadsheets on-the-go. The ute dashboard wouldn’t be big enough to carry all the paperwork that I now access from my iPad.”
Rob’s advice to other growers is to find the right system for their needs.
“Whether you are app-savvy or just looking for basic tools, it needs to suit your business goals. Do your homework – work out what records you want to keep and talk to your agronomist or accountant to see what apps or programs they recommend.”
He is optimistic about the future of technology and its role in saving costs, improving efficiencies and increasing outputs.
“As the world continues to demand increasing food production, Australian grain growers are well-placed to harness the potential of technology to deliver. The ability to collect data on the run allows us to create a snapshot of the profitability of our enterprise, so we can analyse our gross margins and target the optimum – rather than maximum – production goals.”
Western Australian grain growers Lance and Erin Turner are dipping their toes in the e-technology waters, introducing iPads and a farm record-keeping app into their management program this year.
The family owns three farms and leases another two, encompassing 5500 hectares of dryland cropping spread across 100 kilometres around Pingelly and Corrigin.
This geographical range provides a risk-management challenge, encompassing both low-rainfall/low-input and high-rainfall/high-input areas. However, the diversity of management programs requires detailed record keeping, and in the past Erin spent many hours at the computer deciphering hand-written notes from Lance, their full-time staff member Lindsay Johns and contract staff.
Inspired by a mobile devices project conducted by the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association – which reviewed the usability and functionality of farm-relevant apps – Erin set about investigating an e-technology solution.
She trialled several record-keeping apps, and eventually settled on F-Track Live, a free farm-management app that lets multiple users record and access information.
The Turners purchased three iPads and this year started recording spraying, sowing, spreading and harvesting activities.
While Lance admits he rarely touched the home computer, he finds the iPad to be practical, efficient and easy to use.
“I’m definitely not a tech-head, but even I can use the iPad. It is quite intuitive and is definitely a more streamlined approach to recording farm information and monitoring activities.”
The biggest challenge, Erin says, is making sure data is being entered into F-Track Live in a timely manner. It has now become a habit for the men, aided by the fact the app syncs when in range of the home computer so data is automatically transferred.
The Turners are still maintaining the written version as well as inputting activities into F-Track Live.
“We are just feeling our way at this stage and F-Track Live has been a good introduction, but as we get a handle on the opportunities for electronic data recording in our business, we will look for an app which is more advanced,” Lance says.
Lance has embraced other opportunities on the iPad as well. All mechanical work is done on-farm, so when his John Deere parts book was destroyed (the children’s pet sheep ate it), Lance downloaded the John Deere parts app. He also uses radar and forecast apps to monitor weather conditions when spraying.
“We have barely scratched the surface of what this technology is capable of. I see an opportunity down the track to integrate our yield maps for a really useful decision-making tool,” he says.
More information:Ryan Smart,
0407 566 065,
Region North, South, West