Picking the right digital tool

Have specific goals in mind – and be prepared to make new ones

Satellite imagery is one level of data used by most digital crop tools.

There are a lot of digital farm management tools out there. Which one should you buy into?

Why it matters: The number and capability of agronomic and farm business management tools is large and diverse, but they cost money. Knowing which best matches your goals and farm will bring a better return on investment. 

From large and long-established brands to emerging start-ups, Canadian producers have their pick of quite a few data-driven farm management and agronomic tools. Finding the right product, or suite of products, depends on identifying where improvements are desired, and whether the tool in question fits into your unique farm system. 

Remembering goals can be changed and added after investing can be valuable too. 

Diverse applications

The right choice of program or digital service requires understanding that each has its specialties, says Marty Vermey, senior agronomist with Grain Farmers of Ontario. 

Some use satellite imagery. Some are designed to make record-keeping easier. Some give insights in real time while others might focus on bulk data analysis. 

Many digital platforms do a variety of tasks, but it’s hard to find one that does everything. Producers should not expect all programs to provide the same results. 

Yield monitors alone, for example, only indicate yield and moisture on the go, or the averages of a set area.

It’s not bad for a first step, says Vermey, but the power of the data lies in creating a yield map and overlaying multiple data points, such as topography, soil and fertility to create management zones. The final step involves an economic analysis and profitability mapping. 

“That’s what businesses do which are successful, good managers of all the components of their business at an enterprise level,” he says. 

“It’s almost like breaking down what is important…A lot of people get blinded by the shiny lights. First determine what you want in the end like profitability maps, then decide on the best tools to reach the goals and avoid the distractions.”

Compatibility

Determining which systems are compatible with the equipment on hand is another consideration, though perhaps one of lesser import than it has been historically. 

For Nicole Rabe, land resource specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, precision agriculture analysis tools capable of accommodating multiple file types have been particularly valuable. 

“I always go with AgLeader SMS Advanced for precision analysis. I do this because it’s agnostic and can talk to so many colours of equipment directly,” says Rabe.

“Having said that, (there are) many other commercial offerings that also now operate in ESRI SHP files too as a sort of universal file format.”

Record management

The quality of existing farm records is a factor in itself. If a tool requires significant data or general business information to get things going, but those records are either non-existent or in an impractical form, Vermey says it might be worthwhile to reconsider initial priorities. 

Finances, inventory management, and even agronomic records are themselves valuable, but getting into the habit of keeping them can be a stumbling block. In such cases, management tools that support record-keeping itself might be a place to start. 

“If there’s a quick way of doing it and it’s not a chore… I think that’s why some of these tools are good because they do that,” says Vermey.

“Records are often required because of liability concerns. All farmers should keep track of that stuff because someone could come knocking on your door and accuse you of wrongdoings. Good records protect you.”

Goals lead to goals

Setting goals is important, but anticipating changes to those goals and establishing new ones is also part of adopting digital tools. 

For Paul Hermans, Eastern Ontario area agronomist for Pioneer, products such as his company’s Granular brand are designed to help producers identify what they should be investigating, and by extension, where they should be devoting more or fewer resources. 

Even without GPS and other in-field precision capabilities, the ability to extend one’s scouting capabilities can go a long way in pointing out otherwise unseen problems, such as nutrient deficiencies. Corrective goals can then be set.

“What information should I have before I go to get started? Field boundaries, farm and field names. Any grower has this,” says Hermans. 

“We can take notes and pictures, and share back and forth with Pioneer Seed reps, family members, crop scouts, fertilizer retailers, and more…. Growers can then prioritize which field to scout by walking on foot, or they can work with programs like Drone Deploy, throw up a satellite, and see what is going on in more detail.” 

Overall, Hermans describes the combined approach as “a glove and hand.” 

For rougher work, the satellite imagery (the proverbial gloves) can be employed. Drone scouting, NVDI maps, and other technology make up the finer, hand-supplied details. 

“It’s partially about where you are on the digital spectrum,” he says. “The more tech you have the more you can dive into things.”

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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