Farm Life

Farming in the age of the smartphone

Tuesday 10 April 2012 14:22
Andrew Gilman with his smartphone

Few things have changed in the world quite like the mobile phone.

From Del Boy’s prodigiously-sized portable to tiny touchscreens, there is now something for everyone.

And Farmers Weekly’s 2011 lifestyle quiz went to prove it, showing the mobile phone as the one gadget that 56% of those questioned couldn’t live without.

Clever phones have been sitting in the jacket pockets of company bigwigs since 1994, but it’s only in recent years that things have really taken off.

The driving force is applications or ‘apps’ which have changed almost unrecognisably from the days of poorly-graphiced games on outrageously sized handsets.

The average phone today boasts a camera good enough to put your standalone digital to shame, as well as media players, diaries and social networking.
 
We asked four converts to smartphones to tell us about their experiences of using the technology around their farms.

Read their experiences below. There is also a glossary to help you with smartphone jargon and a review of five apps for farming.

You can join in too by completing our survey on smartphones.

 

You can also comment on our forum on smartphones.

Smartphone Q&A

Andrew Gilman

"I have found the iPhone life-changing. It has become an absolute essential piece of equipment in my life both on and off the farm"

Andrew Gilman farms 400 acres near Tamworth, Staffordshire, in partnership with his father, David. He has a herd of 140 cows yielding 10,000 litres and grows wheat and oilseed rape.

What model of smartphone do you have?

An iPhone 4.

How long have you had it and how much did it cost?

18 months.

I’m on 02 and my monthly tariff is around the £30 mark. I had to pay £150 to get the iPhone4 above the free iPhone 3gs.

What’s the best thing about it?

Email:

Prior to my smartphone, receiving the latest ration for my dairy herd would involve getting out my laptop, waiting for it to start up, accessing the email, then printing it out -  all in all taking probably 10 minutes.

Now all I do is print it off wireless straight of my phone, which takes less than 3 minutes.

Internet access:

Being able to access the internet on my phone has also been a revelation; one day the weigher on my Keenan feeder was playing up and I did not have the support team’s number in my phone, so I went straight online and got the required phone number. Within 10 minutes of first seeing the problem an engineer was on the way and I hadn’t even left the side of the feeder. Without my phone I would have had to go to the house and spend 10 or so minutes in the office finding the number.

What websites or apps have you found particularly useful from a farming perspective?

The websites I use are the Dairy Co website and FWi. I also view my milk statement online and use Google Earth.

I use Twitter and Facebook and find them increasingly important for my business. I feel social networks have a massive part to play in the future of agriculture.

As far as apps go the most useful is the weather app which gives a detailed 10 day forecast. I use an app for converting measurements like acres to hectares lbs to kg etc.

Are there any downsides too smartphones?

I don't think there are any downsides to a smartphone.

How long does the battery last and is it robust enough for you?

The battery will last nearly 2 days depending on use but as a matter of routine I charge mine daily.

I was worried about the robustness of the phone but after an extensive search I found the Griffin case.

This tough rubber case protects the phone and even has a clear plastic screen protector, with it, my iPhone is the most robust phone I have ever had.

Would you recommend a smartphone to another farmer?

I would and have recommended the iPhone to lots of people both in and away from the industry.

If you could have a farming app created for you, what would it be?

A useful app would be one to condition score dairy cows using the camera on the phone.

Do you know about/have you ever used an iPad?

I have used my mum’s iPad and I would consider getting one, maybe for my birthday!

What is stopping you getting one?

Cost

Jim Scott

"I'm embarrassed to admit I have Facebook open a lot of the time - a great way to keep in touch with things on long harvest and cultivation days".

What model of smartphone do you have?

A Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini.

How long have you had it and how much did it cost?

I've had this one about 11 months now.

I got it on contract, so the phone was free. It has unlimited internet, but limited calls and texts (still higher than I ever use) and comes with a separate unlimited dongle for my laptop.

It all costs around £25 a month, including insurance, with T mobile.

What’s the best thing about it?

It's got a proper keyboard that flips out, a godsend when cold, wet and calloused hands won't work the touchscreen.

Unlimited internet is great too, no worrying about a monster bill at the end of the month!

What websites or apps have you found particularly useful from a farming perspective?

Websites:
I've got mostly weather forecasts and wind forecast sites as favourites! Ebay has been far more useful when I've got so much more access to it.

I'm embarrassed to admit I have Facebook open a lot of the time over the summer, a great way to keep in touch with things on long harvest and cultivation days.

And of course I couldn't live without reading FWi regularly on it!

Apps:

The YouTube app helps keep the boredom away at times too!

I use the torch app several times a day.

It has a navigation app linked to Google maps which is handy.

Are there any downsides too smartphones?

For me the only downsides are the speed you can empty the battery, and sometimes it seems to have a 'go slow' mood, where it can take two or three minutes to shut stuff down and open up the phonebook to make a call.

How long does the battery last and is it robust enough for you?

Normally I get a full day out of a charge, and if I forget to plug it in one night I can usually get a second day if I'm careful. If I use it heavily I need to recharge at lunchtime, and the navigation app can kill it in about 40 minutes! Summer isn't a problem as I'm normally in a tractor, and each tractor has one of those £4.99 chargers from a supermarket lying around somewhere.

If I don't use apps or internet it will last four or five days. But that's not going to happen very often!!

I've never had a problem with robustness, but I'm fairly gentle with phones. It either lives in my breast pocket, or by the gearstick if I'm in a vehicle.

Would you recommend a smartphone to another farmer?

Yes! As long as they've got the inclination to set it up to suit them.

If you could have a farming app created for you, what would it be?

Maybe something involving machine parts books and workshop manuals would be handy. An accurate weather forecast would be invaluable!

Do you know about/have you ever used an iPad?

As part of the package of getting this phone I looked at getting a Notebook with a dongle, and at the same time looked at the iPhone/iPad option.

I ended up going for the smallest laptop I could get with the dongle.

What is stopping you getting one?

Doubts about touchscreens. Compatibility with the phone operating system. Just liked the little laptop idea better!

Nevil Amiss

"I am a great fan of technology that can be used and helps save time or stress".

Nevil and Rona Amiss tenant a 57-acre all-grassland farm in Drewsteighton, Devon. They produce organic free-range ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys, to the wholesale market and public.

What model of smartphone do you have?

Motorola defy mb525

How long have you had it and how much did it cost?

About 4 months. It's on contract of about £21 for 300 min 500mb and 100 texts

What’s the best thing about it?

The Android system and it's fairly tough.

What websites or apps have you found particularly useful from a farming perspective?

Websites:
Local market reports are good websites and access to FW and FG (sorry, but it's good to play the field)  and BBC news.

Twitter is great for knowing what’s going on in farming between here and New Zealand.

Gmail and Google docs which link in with our farming business. Google calendar is very important especially as my wife can update it from where ever she is.

Apps:
Livestock app is an interesting one that I’m trying to learn to use. The option to link it with an EID reader is exciting (in a sad sort of way).

Bloomberg and BBC News are good as are the weather apps.

Are there any downsides to smartphones?

Cost, vulnerability, and possibly addiction.

How long does the battery last and is it robust enough for you?

Easily a day and a half but I normally charge over night so it's not an issue

Would you recommend a smartphone to another farmer?

Without hesitation, but that's not to say it's everyone’s cup of tea.

If you could have a farming app created for you, what would it be?
A cross-compliance checker with record keeping and reminders for completing reviews.

Do you know about/have you ever used an iPad?

I’m aware of the iPad but haven’t used one.

What is stopping you getting one?

Not sure if it’s practical for my situation in terms of robustness and what it could contribute to my business.

Simon Batcheler

"The only other downside is that it is slightly bigger than a normal phone, and requires larger pockets!"

What model of smartphone do you have?

Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

How long have you had it?

Two years... just

How much did it cost?

About £320 on a 12 month contract , £90 worth of calls/texts per month and unlimited data allowance. Over the two years this has worked out cheaper than a 24 month one for me.

What’s the best thing about it?

To be able to use one device to do everything from sending/receiving e-mails, with a fully integrated contact list, taking photos and videos, surfing the net, social networking, playing music, texting and of course making and receiving phone calls.

What websites or apps have you found particularly useful from a farming perspective?

Some of the most useful apps I use are weather forecast apps, which are particularly useful when spraying as we have land spread out up to 16 miles away which means the weather or wind speed can vary from one end of the farm to the other. 

Other apps I have looked at are tank mixing ones and seed rate calculators, which could be very useful.

Are there any downsides to smartphones (e.g. battery life)? And is it robust enough for you?

Battery life is one of the downsides to a smartphone, you are lucky to get 24hours out of one charge, sometimes less than 12 if you’re using apps or the internet, rather just making or receiving calls.

I have found my iPhone has stood up to the agricultural environment well over the last two years in spite of being dropped a few times, but having a strong case and a screen protector have been vital to protect it.

To get the best internet experience you need to be connected to WiFi or be in a 3G reception area, otherwise web pages will be slow to load, especially if it evolves a lot of images.

The only other downside is that it is slightly bigger than a normal phone, and requires larger pockets!

Would you recommend a smartphone to another farmer?

Yes, it could be beneficial to running their business

If you could have a farming app created for you, what would it be?

Something that could be used to record field records, such as operation carried out, start/finish times, area covered, fuel use etc, that could easily be transferred to farm office.

Do you know about/have you ever used an iPad?

Yes, I have an iPad and I am very impressed with them, especially with the user experience.

Glossary

Here’s a list of terms to brush up your smartphone knowledge.

Smartphone:
There is no official definition for the difference between a smartphone and a standard feature phone. But if your phone can make calls, texts, send and receive emails and access the internet then you’ve probably got a smartphone. It should also automatically connect to wi-fi (both in your house or elsewhere).

Tablet:
They shot to fame with the advent of the iPad. So much so that the iPad claims two-thirds of the market and is pretty much the only desirable makeweight between smartphone and computer.

App:
An abbreviation of application (a small software programme), which became particularly prominent after the introduction of Apple’s App Store. They can be used to access useful tools, information and entertainment. Many are free to download, while others cost a pound or two.

Dongle:
A small little hardware device that plugs into the serial or USB port of a computer. Nowadays it’s used to refer to a device that can connect mobile users to wireless broadband.

Edge:
A step up from GPRS is Edge. (If you want the boring stuff it’s an enhanced data for global evolution). An upgrade from GSM and GPRS that triples data speeds over the standard GPRS. It is used automatically when the phone and network support it, but isn’t as fast as 3G.

GPRS:
Short for ‘general packet radio service’, it is a wireless communication faster than GSM. It supports a range of bandwidths, but is best suited to e-mail and web browsing. Basically any network connection that is not voice or text messaging uses a connection like GPRS. But newer technologies like EDGE and 3G are much faster.

GSM:
The tortoise of the mobile data transfer world. It stands for ‘global system for mobile communications’ and it’s thought that 80% of the world’s population used GSM when placing calls.

Smartphone:
There is no official definition for the difference between a smartphone and a standard feature phone. But if your phone can make calls, texts, send and receive emails and access the internet then you’ve probably got a smartphone. It should also automatically connect to wi-fi (both in your house or elsewhere).

Wi-Fi:
Short for Wireless Fidelity. Most simply, it’s a wireless network that lets devices like smartphones or computers exchange information. Range can be anything from 20m (indoors) to 90m (outdoors). All smartphones are wi-fi enabled and can connect to the internet using wi-fi signal to speed up data transfer.

3G:
The third generation, it provides rapid data transfer

Agri apps review

Crops magazine looked at some of the latest farming apps with a four-man panel of reviewers:

  • Jake Freestone, farm manager, Overbury Farms, Gloucestershire 
  • James Price, partner at DVH Price and Son, Perdiswell Farm, Oxfordshire 
  • Matt Redman, manager of Matt Redman Agriculture, College Farm, Bedfordshire
  • Tim Galloway, operator at Galloway Farms, Mount Farm, Essex

The panel looked at five agri apps:

  • BASF Weed ID
  • Crop Monitor
  • Hutchinsons Fieldwise
  • Kuhn Nozzle Configurator
  • Firestone TPC

They marked each app out of five for useability and usefulness, with five being the highest possible score.

Read their reviews below.

CropMonitor:

crop monitor appGives wheat disease forecasting and allows user to submit disease sightings to share with other users. Current and future risk is also shared from 13 trial sites across the UK. A photo library aids identification of key diseases. Available on iPhone only. (£2.99)

Useability 3.5
The reviewers were frustrated by the app, citing that it is not quick to start using. “It requires a form to be filled in and submitted to obtain a username and password,” says Mr Redman. “Once it is set up though, it is easy to use and quick to load pages.”
“It seems to take an age to log in, so ideally you need to use wifi, which isn’t always practical when out in the field,” explains Mr Freestone.

Usefulness 3.25
Despite the app being described as very useful for identifying disease and assessing disease risk, it relies on users for some of the information it supplies.
“The field sightings part is a good idea to help build a better picture of disease findings, but there aren’t many users uploading information so it’s not working to its full potential,” says Mr Redman.
“It could be quite helpful when looking at key fungicide timings, and I like the sightings option but it’s still showing data from 2011,” adds Mr Freestone.

Firestone Tyres:

firestone appAn app that helps the operator calculate the optimum tyre pressures to increase safety and efficiency when using Firestone tyres. It also contains listings of all Firestone dealers throughout the UK. Available on iPhone and Android. (Free)

Useability 3.25
The Firestone app is quite complicated and requires a lot of information to use it, says Mr Freestone. “You need load per tyre which can be quite difficult to ascertain if you have a full grain trailer on the tractor,” he adds.
“It lists every tyre model rather than just tyre size so can be difficult to get the information that you need, although it is free, so good to have a play around with,” says Mr Redman.

Usefulness 3.25
Our panel points out that more attention needs to be paid to tyre pressures when considering fuel consumption and compaction in the field.
“It provides a lot of detail about the tyres, pressures, rims, maximum speeds and weights, so it’s very specific,” says Mr Galloway.
“It’s a great app in principle,” says Mr Price. “It’s just a shame that I don’t own a single Firestone tyre.”

Hutchinsons Fieldwise:

hutchinsons appProvides market reports and agronomy news and in addition has practical tools for calculating seed and fertiliser rates, tank mix sequences and a unit converter. Available on both iPhone and Android. (Free)

Useability 4.25
“It’s really easy to work as you can navigate around the sections through the main menu or through the tabs along the bottom,” says Mr Freestone.
“It can be a bit hard to change values on the Agricalculator though,” Mr Redman points out. 

Usefulness 4.25
The reason why iPhones are so useful, says Mr Price. “It’s the Agricalculator that makes this such a brilliant app. Even though you may know many of the conversions anyway, it’s nice to have it there in front of you,” he explains.
“It’s a terrific app, as it allows you to keep track of most aspects of the agricultural sector. The information on there seems to be up to date, keeping tabs on global prices such as wheat, corn and crude oil,” says Mr Galloway.
Despite this, Mr Freestone notes that the NIAB TAG section had not been updated for over a month.

Kuhn Nozzle Configurator:

Kuhn appThis nozzle configuration tool helps sprayer operators select the correct sprayer nozzle for application requirements, based on water volume, ground speed and wind speed. Available on both iPhone and Android. (Free)

Useability 3.25
The Kuhn app is simple and easy to use and a good resource if you are in the yard and need to make a quick decision on which nozzle to use.
“It’s very easy to understand and work through, although you need a steady finger to select water volume, speed and wind conditions. It has a clear help section and a great resource to have,” says Mr Freestone.

Usefulness 3.25
The usefulness of this app is somewhat limited by the fact that it only lists Kuhn nozzles.
“It’s a great idea but a shame it doesn’t list common nozzles. If it did it would be a good app for spraying and liquid fertiliser application,” says Mr Redman.
“It does give a litres/min output for the given variables which is a good reference when using a nozzle chart,” he adds. 

BASF Weed Identification:

BASF weed appDeveloped with ADAS this app is a weed encyclopaedia on your phone containing over 140 weeds species with more than 1,000 pictures. Mapmyweed tool allows pinpointing of weed discoveries on Google maps. Users can share photos and location with customers/colleagues. Available on iPhone only. (£2.99)

Useability 3.5
Our panel generally found the app easy to use, although Mr Price found it a little confusing to navigate around.
“It took me a while to realise that you can scroll horizontally through weed pictures in a search,” says Mr Price. “Having said that, the ability to save the weed location on the map and email is really good,” he adds.

Usefulness 3.5
“It’s a really useful app if you are not 100% on your weed identification,” says Mr Redman. “It has great descriptions and pictures to help identify weeds, and is much easier to carry around than the BASF weed book,” he explains.
“It’s a good point of reference for more obscure weeds and especially grasses. The comparison aspect is a neat feature too. Worth the money at £2.99,” says Mr Freestone.

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