Field Tools Refined

How can scouts be more efficient and effective, whether walking or riding the acres they’re called to service? That’s the key question that David Krueger of AgRenaissance Software finds his crop consultant customers asking. They’re picking up additional acres to keep business going; “therefore, they have to work smarter. They’re looking for tools and ideas that will help them be more efficient in collecting field samples, scheduling and time management, data sharing, and data management,” he says.

For 20 years, Spectrum Technologies has been a major supplier of many “nitty gritty” measuring tools. The company specializes in ag weather stations and nutrient and soil moisture management equipment. Just this past fall, a redesigned Cardy Nitrate Meter made its debut — a possible boon in light of current concerns about nitrogen (N) prices and efficient N use. “As the plants develop, scouts can collect petioles, crush them in a garlic press, collect the sap, and then do tests to see how much N the plants are picking up,” says Cynthia Turski, integrated pest management specialist.

Other newer tools for this season are an array of light sensors and meters. Formerly used primarily in research, the units have come down in price and can give scouts a better idea of how much light is hitting plants. One unit, the 2475 PAR sensor, can measure the 400-700 nanometer wave range. Agronomists can then calculate the quantity (moles) per day a crop is receiving.

One red/far red light reflectance meter can measure the NDVI (Normalized Different Vegetation Index) of a crop — a number developed by the scientific community that relates to how much photosynthesis is going on in a plant, says Aaron Johnsen, green industry consultant with Spectrum. The data is especially helpful in determining if a plant is under nitrogen or drought stress. Johnsen says the meter has been used most in corn, but in January the firm will be releasing one for small grains.

Eric Lund, owner of Veris Technologies, announced that dealers can get better reads on soil pH with a key update on the Veris Mobile Sensor Platform (MSP), an on-the-go pH and EC sensing and mapping system. “A new metal pH electrode has improved the performance significantly, improving data quality and reducing operating costs significantly,” says Lund. “Our clients are busier than ever, with more acres lined up for mapping.”

Handheld Heaven

Handheld computers such as iPAQs and PDAs have become a major tool for scouts who need to log data on soil sampling and pests. The PocketRecon from AgRenaissance runs on a PDA. “It’s been completely rewritten so it’s faster and better and can communicate wireless to a server,” says Krueger. “More importantly, it can now be customized for retailers, chemical companies, seed companies, and anyone else that is looking for a field collection tool that will communicate wirelessly back to the company server.”

Brian Stark, Farm Works marketing manager, says many veteran scouts are looking for something more rugged than an iPAQ. His company has offered the TitanRT for three seasons. This tough computer — an American Society of Agricultural Engineers AE 50 award winner — features a huge 8.5-inch diagonal screen and allows scouts to use their existing GPS receiver along with the Farm Works “Mate” programs to perform a wide range of tasks in the field.

Stark touts Trimble’s Nomad as a “new handheld device that’s been a very hot commodity with scouts. It offers built-in GPS and a rocket-fast processor that utilizes Windows Mobile 6. The screen is the same size as an iPAQ (3.5-inch diagonal), but nothing comes close when comparing other small rugged computers.” Now available is a new broadband wireless modem for the Nomad that allows users to communicate from the field to office or other locations where Sprint cellular connectivity is available in the U.S.

SST Software has its own entry in this arena, the SST Field PC. Mark Waits, marketing manager, says this ultra-rugged and ultra-efficient pocket-sized PC is shockproof and waterproof — and can come with SST Stratus installed. “Sealed CF and SD card slots can accommodate a GPS receiver, extra data storage, wi-fi, or cellular modem cards,” he says.

Even conventional iPAQs can be improved, Stark says, with Farm Works’ new Site Mate program interface. “The new interface makes for easy, quick data entry by providing larger buttons and more map area for viewing information,” he says. Scouts can avoid using the iPAQ stylus and use fewer clicks to navigate the program.

Data Management

Scouting data management is a big topic for tool developers these days. Krueger says many consultants are currently saving time by e-mailing field scouting reports from the truck in the field to a grower — who can then receive it on his cell phone and call the retailer to place an order. “Data also has to be shared across different systems and between retailers, applicators, labs, etc.,” he says.

Standardized data collection software is becoming more important to dealers, says Waits. “SST Summit and Stratus users can now ‘synchronize’ field data with any other Summit user with the click of a button,” he describes, so a grower and the service provider have full access to all historical data recorded on a farm.

“We’ve found that one of the biggest delays to having good records and maps is getting data from the field to the office. Too often we hear stories that people have a drawer full of data cards, USB drivers, or PDAs full of data,” says Stark. It often sits untapped because the user doesn’t have time to sit down and read it. Farm Works has released wireless programs called Farm Works Sync (for field data) and Farm Works Dispatch (for vehicle monitoring) that utilize a wireless system, typically cell services, to automatically transfer information from the field to the office.

Mark Bechdol, federal land and natural resources and agriculture lead with GIS specialist ESRI, says that in the next five to 10 years, cell phone-based GPS technology is going to be good enough to do serious scouting logging for growers and dealers. He describes how they could simply hit a field with an iPhone, make a voice recording of field notes on the phone, and tag it with the GPS location. “We’re going to have far more ability to collect data at any time, any place and it’s going to be pretty accurate,” he says. “But we’re going to have challenges in dealing with that amount of data — how do we process it, store it, and keep it secure?” Bechdol says ESRI has released its ArcGIS Mobile SDK (software development kit) that allows mobile field collection devices such as smartphones, Blackberry, iPhone, and Treo to do real-time editing of data with web browsers, “as if it were a mini GIS right there on your phone.”

A powerful “product” that service providers can offer their clients is real-time aggregate data reporting, says Waits. So many providers are collecting standardized data, why not pool it together in a decision support program? Participants in a data pool could remain anonymous but have access to query it or ask questions. “An example would be to map the movement of an insect or disease across a county, state, or regions in order to protect fields before the pest arrives,” explains Waits.

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