When Pete Carson, Kim Dreyer and Keith Kreps want to know how much crop they have delivered to the co-op, whether fertilizer they ordered has been spread, or the status of a tractor operating in a far-flung field, they turn to the Internet for the answers.
Carson, Dreyer and Kreps are pioneers in using new online capabilities that could revolutionize the way farmers gather and use information about their operations. By using secure Web-based services provided by a marketing co-op, an input supplier and a machinery manufacturer, they say they are managing their businesses better and faster than in the past.
At this point, only a few Internet sites provide management information specific to individual farm operations. But as more farmers become Internet savvy and request more online services, possibilities could multiply.
Here is a look at the online services that Carson, Dreyer and Kreps use and the impact they have had on their businesses.
Monitor crop quality
Pete Carson, St. Thomas, ND, has been a daily visitor to the American Crystal Sugar Company Web site (www.crystalsugar.com ) since the company introduced it about five years ago. The site provides detailed agronomy information about growing sugar beets, including tools for selecting the best varieties and calculating how much seed to buy, a calculator for comparing fertilizer costs, in-season agronomic field notes, pest alerts and a tool for determining the optimum order for harvesting beet fields based on potential sugar content. Processing information critical for scheduling a smooth harvest also is updated regularly.
Although Carson finds that information valuable, it gets even better in a secure section of the co-op's site dedicated to his operation. There he can monitor each load of beets he delivers during harvest, including their sugar content.
“I want to know the tare and sugar percentages of the beets so I can adjust harvest equipment or switch fields to give the beets more time to mature and add sugar,” he explains. Before the information was available online, an information lag reduced his harvest management options.
The members-only section also gives him access to Landsat imagery, which is updated every 16 days. American Crystal purchases all useable Landsat imagery of its eastern North Dakota-northwestern Minnesota service area throughout the growing season and makes the images available to members.
“I use the imagery to help determine zones for variable rate fertilizer applications,” says Carson, who has a high-speed satellite Internet connection to make downloading large image files practical.
Use of the Web site by sugar co-op members is high, notes Dan Bernhardson of American Crystal. More than 80% of beet delivery records are delivered online. Fewer growers make use of Landsat images, in part because some dial-up Internet connections are slow.
Review sales, input purchases
Last fall, when Kim Dreyer wanted to know whether StateLine Cooperative had completed anhydrous ammonia applications on his farm near Fenton, in north-central Iowa, he logged on to FarmerData.com  for the information.
By reviewing account information at the site, he confirmed that the applications had been made. FarmerData.com (www.farmerdata.com ) is a free Internet-based service provided by StateLine Co-op through its accounting software vendor, Oakland Corp., Story City, IA. Through the service, Dreyer can access information about input purchases and grain sales at the co-op. At the end of the year, the sales and purchase information is automatically provided in a Schedule F tax form, although he has not made use of that service.
“Whenever I am hauling grain, I access the Web site at night to see how many bushels we hauled,” Dreyer says. “It also gives me the moisture and grade.”
He especially likes being able to track deliveries on forward contracts, as well as track advance input purchases he has booked.Through agreements with several crop-share landlords, he also is able to keep track of the landlords' input purchases, which saves time.
Other co-op members have not been as eager as Dreyer to use the purchase and sales information provided at the site, according to Ross Ellsworth of StateLine Co-op. When the co-op made the service available about two years ago, more than half of the co-op's approximately 2,200 patrons said they wanted it. Yet in December 2002, the site had only 115 visits.
“It is disappointing, but I think use will grow,” says Ellsworth.
StateLine's experience with low use isn't unique, says Chuck Carlson of Oakland Corporation, which markets the service to ag retailers across the Midwest. Even though use isn't high, elevators say their most aggressive customers want the service, Carlson says. “As time goes on, we expect more general demand for the service,” he adds.
Track tractor performance
Last fall, Keith Kreps saved the cost of a new clutch by using John Deere's new JDLink Machine Messenger program to detect a clutch-riding tractor operator.
Kreps, manager of RDO Equipment, Breckenridge, MN, also envisions using the Web-based tractor management program to warn customers about excessive tractor idling, which could save thousands of dollars over a year's time.
“You would be amazed at the number of tractors that are idling 30% of the time,” he says. “On a 900-hour lease, that wastes $9,000.”
John Deere introduced JDLink Machine Messenger last fall after Kreps and other dealers across the U.S. tested it. The Web-based machinery management system provides real-time reports on current tractor operations, as well as summary data showing the total time each tractor spent idling, working and transporting, and its fuel use, average ground speed and average percent engine load. It also keeps track of all warning and stop engine alerts and includes a maintenance log.
The service, which automatically relays information from the tractor to secure John Deere computers via a built-in cellular telephone, is available on Twenty series tractors with cabs. It retails for $2,495 per tractor, plus a $495 annual service fee.
Kreps says farmers who rent tractors from the dealership will have a chance to try out Machine Messenger, since he plans to outfit his entire Twenty series rental fleet with it.
“We will not rent another tractor without it,” he says. “It will save money for us and our customers.”
For farmers with large tractor fleets, Machine Messenger is a “no-brainer,” Kreps says, but its potential to reduce maintenance bills also will be attractive to farmers who own a smaller number of tractors.