Tech Supplements Nature

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2006-10-02 Print this article Print

Crop farmers wield global positioning systems and business intelligence tools to nurture profits in the field.

Tech Supplements Nature

Several vendors offer hardware and software for precision farming.

Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill.; Trimble Navigation in Sunnyvale, Calif.; Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill.; Komatsu in Tokyo and CNH Global in Amsterdam build tractors, combines and other heavy machinery with global positioning systems, radar and scales.

For analytics, there is ArcView mapping and analysis software from ESRI in Redlands, Calif., and SMS Software specifically for the agriculture industry from Ag Leader Technology in Ames, Iowa. Also popular are statistical tools from business stalwarts SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., and SPSS in Chicago.

Robertson uses SMS Software, SPSS, a Microsoft Access database and Trimble GPS systems.

Information technology doesn't pervade agriculture the way it does, say, banking or manufacturing. There aren't many chief information officers on the farm. But in farming, good information management can mean the difference between making a go of it and going bankrupt, says Bruce Erickson, who teaches agronomy—scientific agriculture—at Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. "You have sun, soil and water," he says. "You use technology to tweak those basic ingredients to eke out that bit of advantage to give you profit."

At Rubenacker Farms, that job goes to Robertson, who has a master's degree in plant and soil science, a passion for technology and a penchant for asking what-if questions such as the critical one that faced him last spring.

In recent years, he explains, Rubenacker has double-cropped on about 400 acres—first growing winter wheat from October to the following July, then, after harvest, planting soybeans on the same ground, for harvest in mid-September.

A look at average yields over 10 years shows wheat production has increased by 25 bushels per acre, but production of the double-cropped soybeans has dropped by six bushels per acre, he says.

Last spring, as his wheat plants sent up golden spikes, Robertson wondered if he shouldn't do something different. "We know we can get 30 bushels of double-crop beans per acre," he says, outlining how he analyzed his risks. "If we harvest the wheat earlier—first of June rather than first of July—we will still get a high yield of wheat. But can we plant corn that late and still get a profitable yield [on that]?"

A crop plan generated by SMS Software pointed toward corn. "You look at a whole lotta data plus real-time data—the price of corn, what can we sell it for versus beans," he says. When he talked about his decision-making process with Baseline, the corn crop looked good but wasn't ready to pick. Robertson was wishing for one more soaking rain. But until the corn is harvested and sold this fall, he won't know whether the change-up paid off.

NEXT PAGE: Big Bucks for Big Bushels

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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