Clouds used to be as welcome on the farm as the tax man, since they both have a knack for raining on your parade. These days, however, more desirable clouds — the high tech kind — are heating up farm profits by providing something valuable: information.
Those “desirable clouds” refer to cloud computing. That is, internet-based computing that provides shared processing resources and data.
“One of the biggest things right now is telematics, which involves the long distance transmission of computerized information,” said Joshua Thompson, product support manager for Markusson New Holland, an agricultural equipment dealer based in Emerald Park, Regina.
With this technology, farmers can use a modem and web portal installed in their combine or tractor to upload and download important information such as guidance lines, prescription maps or yield data for a particular field.
“It’s all transferred through the cloud,” said Thompson, “so you can see your speed, fuel consumption, combine settings and a bunch of other data, all in live time.”
While some of the technology has been around for several years, Thompson explained that the addition of cloud capabilities is a recent and, in the opinion of many farmers, welcome phenomenon.
“The cloud is enticing for customers because in the past, doing a physical data transfer was a big pain in the butt,” said Thompson.
“You had to go to the combine, put the data on a USB stick, take it to your computer and download it there. It was a barrier that prevented many people from adopting the technology.”
Now, the modem automatically syncs the data being collected by the combine to the cloud and you can download it directly to your computer.
With the pace of progress these days, advances in technology often carry a caveat: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. But when it comes to the cloud and related capabilities, Thompson sees nothing but upside. “This technology lets you analyze every aspect of a combine or tractor. You can see how it was operated, how fuel efficient it was and how many hours it ran.” You’ll have a complete set of data on your equipment, workers and operation.
Equally exciting for Thompson is what the technology reveals about your field.
“Through a coloured map of the land, you’ll know which areas are most fertile and have the highest yield, while identifying areas of high salinity that produce less.”
“The data guides the seeder to apply more or less fertilizer when you have a variable rate seeding system.”
The benefits extend to pesticide application, replacing the blanketing method of the past with prescriptive farming and targeted zones. As a result, you apply fungicide to areas more prone to disease and conserve your supply in less vulnerable spots.
In his position as integrated solutions manager for Enns Brothers Manitoba, Mitch Rezansoff sees additional uses for all that data.
“The information stored on the cloud for our customers can be transmitted to a John Deere facility, where the dealership or even third parties like agronomists can view it and provide feedback to the farmer,” said Rezansoff.
Alerts can warn customers of imminent equipment failure or advise them on routine maintenance. “In some cases, we will tell clients that they need to clean an air filter before they’re even aware of it.”
Working smarter when times are harder
As with any new technology, this one isn’t cheap, and with some farmers currently plagued by lower grain revenue, the price tag could be a deal breaker. Yet the way Rezansoff sees it, a downturn is the perfect time to upload.
“People are really starting to recognize the value of data collection. Given the tight profit margins for many out there, efficiency is more important than ever; if you collect data over a period of time, you can see what works and what doesn’t.”
By combining information on logistics (such as how long equipment is left idling between jobs), marketing and agronomic practices, farmers can streamline their operations at a time when “lean and mean” is the order of the day.
“There are huge variances from farm to farm on levels of efficiency,” said Rezansoff. “To survive, farms need to adopt manufacturing metrics and look hard at where they can reduce the cost of production.”
Of course, it takes time to adopt new technology, and get comfortable using it.
“Sometimes people get frustrated initially,” said Rezansoff. “They need to be trained on setup, calibration and specific uses that address their unique needs. It can be a year or two before they’re using the technology to its greatest potential, but it’s worth the time.”
In an industry where fortunes can change like the weather, having a cloud on your horizon may be a good thing.