Making profitable use of farm mapping software

Precision farming relies heavily on computers for discovering why yields vary across paddocks. If you are new to computers select a user-friendly program  or use one of a number of mapping services which are available from equipment suppliers

Well-designed and user-friendly farm mapping software can make the job of analysing why yields vary a lot easier.

Some precision farming equipment suppliers offer yield mapping services for a cost but a range of software is available for those who want to analyse

paddock performance information without outside help.

There are several steps involved in analysing collected data before making a management decision:

  • The data is downloaded from the paddock storage device, such as a personal computer (PC) card, into a computer equipped with the appropriate mapping software.
  • The mapping software is used to generate yield maps, topography maps, cropping or boundary maps.
  • Software is used to combine many maps and identify possible reasons for the yield variation.

Four types of programs

The computer software currently available for use i n precision farming can be grouped into four main categories:

Data transfer programs

Data transfer programs are supplied with yield monitoring systems and allow data to be transferred from the paddock storage device to a computer. They are the first step in the data storage chain and are vitally important. When using PC cards to store information, the computer must be set up to accept them. This must be done by a qualified technician as it is easy to make mistakes during set up and data from the card will be lost.

Stand-alone yield mapping systems

Stand-alone yield mapping systems provide maps of paddock yield and use lines to define paddock boundaries.

Farm mapping packages

Farm mapping packages allow the user to record and store features such as the farm and paddock boundaries, roads, rivers, buildings and information about the crop, workers and livestock history on the farm. These allow maps to be produced which record full paddock histories.

Geographical information systems

Precision farming enthusiasts who want to perform higher levels of mapping and analysis may benefit by having a close look at geographical information systems (GIS).

These are complex software packages which allow the user to overlay a number of different maps including yield and soil types.

GIS software allows costs and profits to be analysed according to yield , grain moisture, fertiliser and pesticide inputs, and variations in soil conditions and management histories.

Program performance

Apart from the random access memory (RAM) and processing speed of the computer itself, the speed and performance of a software package is affected by how efficiently databases link to the mapping features in the program.

Unfortunately, not all software programs are equally efficient. In fact, most are incredibly slow. The best way of avoiding problems is by asking the supplier about the processing requirements of the software.

Map and data compatibility

Prospective buyers need to consider how compatible software is with the type of data they aim to collect. Unfortunately, some packages are not very easy to use when it comes to importing yield data, so choose a simple program if you are new to computing.

Input format — Mapping software packages should be capable of importing data i n a variety of formats. The preprocessing steps are either performed using software provided with the yield monitor or directly by the mapping software.

This varies among packages and the type of yield monitor chosen.

Potential buyers need to choose the most appropriate mapping software package after a yield monitor has been selected otherwise the monitor and the program may not be compatible.

Output format — It is important for completed work to be compatible with other software packages such as mapping software, GIS, spreadsheets, word processors, database management systems and statistical packages.

Choosing a compatible program will enhance the power of any mapping program by not restricting the user to one package's analytical tools.

Hardware requirements

Mapping software requires a lot of number crunching power so the more powerful the computer the quicker the program will work. As a minimum, a 486 powered computer with eight megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM) should be used with hard disk space of 500MB.

A better configuration would be a Pentium computer with 32MB, a 2MB video co-processor and at least a 1.2GB hard disk. A Pentium machine is about 5--10 times faster than a 486DX33 machine with 8MB of RAM.

Software requirements

Software packages suitable for precision farming are available for different operating systems but most were developed for Windows 3.0 or higher and operate using Windows 95.

Agricultural software developers seem to be focusing their energies on the 32 bit capabilities of Windows 95 and Windows NT. This suggests new users may benefit by buying a PC loaded with Windows 95 or Windows NT.

The software can be run successfully on a Macintosh PowerPC with SoftWindows 95 or other windows emulation software for Mac/OS 7.x. But to date, windows emulators are very slow, even with a high-end PowerPC.

Features list of farm mapping software programs