Farm Industry News

Thought Power - Hands Free Farming Is Closer Than You Think

Fast-forward to next fall's harvest. You there? Now, step into your combine cab. Start driving. You come to a patch of weeds. Looks like bindweed. You want to make a note of it along with its field location so you'll know which areas to treat come next spring.

So you lean over and utter "bindweed" into a voice-activated microphone that turns on a videomapping system called VMS 200. The device, released just before press time by Red Hen Systems, plugs into your camcorder to instantly record the extent of the problem and its field coordinates on videotape. A global positioning system (GPS) and videomapping software are part of the package.

"The idea is to use the videotape as the vehicle for the GPS and to do the recording in place of a notebook computer," says Neil Havermale, co-owner of Red HenSystems. "What you end up with is a 'clipette' of information you can download to mapping software to show, for instance, that infestation was 30 stems per meter at this particular spot."

If you want to view a different spot, you can touch that area on the map, and the camera will automatically forward or reverse till you get to that clip of the field, Havermale says. Voice notes are transferred through the speakers on your computer. Contact Red Hen Systems, Dept. FIN, 800 Stockton Ave., Suite 2, Ft. Collins, CO 80524, 800/237-4182 or circle 130.

Sound like sci-fi? Just wait. It's just one of the next-generation tools being developed to harness spatial information on your fields, to help you make better management decisions. Here's just a sampling of the neat stuff you'll see now and in the future.

The big connection. The power of these tools will intensify when they start to feed in and out of a common system so that information can be electronically exchanged with other systems, predicts Dr. John Ahlrichs, manager of retail information systems for Cenex/Land O'Lakes.

"For example, remote sensing could exchange information with a decision aid," Ahlrichs says. "Videomapping could exchange information with other mapping layers. Vehicle tracking information could exchange information with farm accounting software to fine-tune dollar maps to another level. All of these technologies can stand on their own, but their overriding benefit will be how they can be exchanged with each other."

As a corollary to the new tools, agribusinesses are beginning to exchange site-specific information. Cenex/Land O'Lakes recently partnered with Ag-Chem, a supplier of variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applicators, to share customer account information such as product pricing, amount of inputs, date of application, and application maps to automate recordkeeping and customer billing.

"Whereas historically these folks may have worked somewhat independently, today precision farming is forcing the whole industry to work much closer together for the benefit of the grower," says Craig Elliott, marketing manager for Rockwell Agricultural Services. "When you do that, you start looking at massive amounts of data that need to be exchanged efficiently and quickly."

The problem is there isn't an infrastructure in place for everyone to do that. At least not yet. The PCMCIA card continues to be the standard vehicle for transferring data. Once data are transferred, the format may not be compatible with the software receiving the transmission. But companies are making strides.

Ag-Chem, for instance, has automated the process of cleaning and registering geographic data it receives from its dealers who do variable rate application. And it has developed a worldwide data warehouse with a GIS backbone to store the information. Dealers and their farmer-customers can access this information on demand through Ag-Chem's Web site at

The company is building software functions into the warehouse so that farmers and dealers can query the GIS database and get management recommendations for their individual fields. The first of these Web-based tools, the NPK Calculator, was released last month. It allows users to automatically calculate crop nutrient needs on their fields and implement a variable rate nutrient program-based on crop removals and nutrient credits - without having to soil sample. Contact Ag-Chem Equipment Co., Dept. FIN, 5720 Smetana Dr., Suite 100, Minnetonka, MN 55343, 612/ 933-9006 or circle 129.

Agris Corporation, a manufacturer of farm accounting software, is looking at building a direct modem or Internet connection to allow farmers to download field-specific account information stored by input dealers.

The concept is analogous to what is happening in the banking industry, according to Mike Allen, vice president of grower systems at Agris. "If you have your own personal books you are tracking at home, you can simply dial up the bank and download your transaction information so you don't have to reenter the numbers in your system." Contact Agris Corp., Dept. FIN, 300 Grimes Bridge Rd., Roswell, GA 30075, 800/ 795-7995 or circle 132.

Building the same type of communication umbrella for agriculture will take money, Allen says. "There may not be enough precision farmers yet for the industry to justify the expense." But there's speculation that the infrastructure will come.

Some industry experts say universal real-time information exchange is less than five years away. And it could lead to yet another revolution in the way you farm.

Command and control. The concept revolves around a subject referred to as "command and control" in military vernacular, according to Craig Elliott, marketing manager for Rockwell Agricultural Services.

"It's tying together countless points of information coming in from AWACS radar planes that help direct land forces, offshore artillery and fighter pilots," Elliott explains. "All that information needs to go back to a central commander who can then deploy troops and equipment throughout a digitized battlefield."

This concept could be directly extrapolated to farm fields. Elliott says it would involve bringing together all the data from implement dealers, crop consultants, seed suppliers, fertilizer suppliers and others involved in helping farmers maximize their profits. That information would be processed through a command and control center that would then direct and coordinate farming activities over a given geographic area. Once in place, such a system would essentially automate all the processes involved in growing a crop to make farming more efficient. Elliott adds: "My guess is it's going to be an independent business someplace." Contact Rockwell Agricultural Systems 120-130, Dept. FIN, 350 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52498-0120, 800/321-2223 or circle 258.

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