TODAY'S PRECISION agriculture equipment provides a wealth of data that can help drive a multitude of farm management decisions. Yet with the increased complexity of these systems comes an even greater need for operator training to ensure producers can quickly and easily navigate through the growing number of menus, buttons and display screens.
“One of the biggest hurdles for producers just starting out with precision farming equipment is to demonstrate how to effectively use their system to get the most benefits,” says Ryan Molitor, marketing supervisor for Raven Industries. “Some of the newer systems can be quite complex, and while some producers understand the benefits of precision farming, they hesitate because they think it will take too long to learn.”
And even for the more seasoned users of precision equipment, the speed at which new product updates, newer software and updated monitors are being introduced can mean more time learning which buttons to push.
That's why companies have been making an effort to ensure producers have the latest online training available and hands-on help in a classroom or in the field. Prospective customers also can use these tools to compare the features and benefits of various systems.
“We work to make our products as user friendly as possible,” says Dan Hendricks, Trimble training manager. “But our systems can perform an increasing number of tasks, and that adds complexity. We talk about how much training was devoted to the first Autopilot systems we introduced nearly a decade ago. Those products seem simple compared to today's lineup.”
Last year Trimble ramped up dealer training programs on its new flow and application control equipment. “There are a tremendous amount of variables involved with installing and operating this system that we have strengthened our training to ensure customers have the latest and best information,” Hendricks says. 
Tim Norris, CEO of Ag Info Tech, a precision ag dealer in Gambier, OH, says hands-on training starts as soon as a customer buys a system. “We begin the customer training as we are installing the product on the equipment,” Norris says. “We walk through every piece of software and hardware, pointing out how each piece works, and we even go over how to correct common problems.”
Spring and fall training sessions also allow customers to bring in their products for updates and to receive additional training. “We help producers set up the system as it pertains to the season,” Norris says. “Once producers have gone through a couple of these sessions and they feel more at ease with their systems, we field fewer calls during planting or harvest, and the level of frustration drops considerably.”
Recently, Ag Leader opened its Ag Leader Academy, a training facility located near the company's manufacturing plant in Ames, IA. The academy offers large-scale dealer training programs as well as small-session customer “classroom” sessions. “We developed the academy to provide precision ag training for producers,” says Jessica Reis, marketing communications specialist for Ag Leader. “We can bring in groups, walk them through the various features and benefits of our software and hardware, and provide intense training sessions that let producers get the most out of their equipment.”
In addition, Ag Leader's top dealers are required to offer training sessions at a minimum of two times per year.
Training at the Ag Leader Academy is offered throughout the year, for both customers and prospective customers. In addition, Ag Leader dealers hold in-field training and field day demonstrations. More information on ongoing events is available at www.agleader.com/customer-support/training-sessions .
Desktop, online tools
Increasingly, companies are harnessing the power of the Internet to bring training and education directly to dealers and customers.
“We are using our Web site to post online tutorials on how to set up our various systems,” Molitor says. “And we have a tutorial program so producers can become familiar with their systems on their computers before they get out in the field.” In addition, Raven systems can be set to “demo” mode so producers can learn how a system works and become familiar with each function before going out into the field.
Producers can sample these tutorials on Raven's Web site: www.ravenprecision.com/Support/Tutorials/index2.jsp .
In response to dealer inquiries, Trimble will increase its online customer support in 2010, offering Internet-based tutorial programs. “We think it will be a great option for our customers who want to dive in and get the most out of their system,” Hendricks says. For more information, visit www.trimble.com/agriculture .
Training will become an ever important aspect of learning how to get the most benefits from precision ag equipment. “Today's monitors can be used in several different farming applications, from planting to harvest,” says Cyndi Punke, Case IH precision farming sales manager. “And because many of these systems from various companies often work together, it's amazing the information you can get.” For example, new software can track engine load and fuel economy on the tractor, helping a producer map out machine performance and make better decisions on how to use the equipment. “As these systems provide more and more options, training will be even more important,” Punke says.