27 March 1999

FRESHBYTES

FOR CROP SUITES

Choosing a crop management and recording system isnt easy, particularly for those new to computers. Lucy Stephenson reports.

THE driving force behind the increasing use of computers in farm management is the requirement to keep clear, accurate records that ensure traceability and satisfy health and safety requirements.

BAITA, the British Association for IT in Agriculture, is working to raise awareness of information technology for farming. The huge advantage of using computer systems to record crop management is that data entered just once can be used to produce a number of different reports. Information technology is there to smooth ruffled paperwork, but farming still hasnt realised the potential of computer systems, it says.

How do computer programs differ? Presentation is the most obvious. Layouts range from clear to cluttered, multicoloured to magnolia. But behind the Windows dressing the packages all have certain similarities.

Track inputs

All of these systems enable information to be entered field by field, recording all details of the crop management over the season, to produce reports that satisfy assured crop requirements. The systems can be used to plan and budget, and to keep track of input requirements. Gross margins can be calculated for individual fields, crops, and the farm as a whole.

All claim to be user-friendly enough so that hefty manuals arent necessary. After-sales support varies. Crop Trak includes 10 support calls in the price of the package. Farmplan has an annual support fee, which also covers system upgrades, and it runs workshops for existing users. Field Track currently offers free support direct from its farming creator, Charles Collinson. "Im confident that people wont need to ring me up," he says.

Most of the systems offer optional extras. DMS will customise Crop Trak for individual farms. Agripro has two farm systems: Lite Recost, which it describes as entry level, and Elite, for more advanced budgeting and agronomy.

Its a useful time-saver if data can be easily imported or exported from the farm computer to the advisers database. Large farms and estates may have to consider compatibility with, say, accounting systems already in use when choosing a crop recording system.

The extent and ease of inter-operability varies widely between systems. Multicrop and Crop Walker offer the most compatibility with alternative systems. Other programs offer some limited possibility for data exchange. With so many differentiated products, manufacturers could help overall uptake by increasing compatibility to allow people to choose the aspects of each system that best suit them.

Systems differ in their ability to deal with more sophisticated data such as that from precision farming.

Adrian Denham says the soil on his Warwickshire arable farm doesnt vary from one end of the field to the other. He doesnt feel the need to use precision farming, or the need for a complex computer system requiring more time in the office. "At the moment Im just using spreadsheets. I want a system that is straightforward and operator-friendly," he says. Mr Denham likes the look of Field Track, Crop Trak, and Fieldman Farmer programs.

Farms using GPS and precision farming technology could make good use of the mapping programs offered as part of the Farmplan, Cropwalker, Multicrop, Fieldman Farmer and Farmworks packages. John Dingemans has seen gross margin benefits using GPS and precision farming on his Hertfordshire arable farm. Hes been using Farmade for three years and rates it 12 out of 10. "I couldnt praise it highly enough," he says.

Split fields

Vegetable growers often have split fields where one plot may be harvested while another in the same field is sprayed and harvested a week later. One way to deal with this using simpler programs is to treat each plot as a separate field, giving full traceability for each batch. Programs such as Farmworks and Farmplan, however, allow growers to map field sub-plots.

The systems are all striving to differentiate themselves from the rest. Stock control is part of the main Multicrop package, which will suit all cropping situations, including horticulture. It can also create graphs to show up trends which could aid future farm planning. Perhaps the most ambitious development though comes from Muddy Boots. Its developing a pesticide database for users that will check spray suggestions for maximum dose, and will flag up restrictions such as buffer zones and known incompatibilities when a new tank mix is suggested. The database will be kept up to date by the manufacturers, it says.

Familiar

format is welcomed

Harvestmaster is the newest arable computer program on the market. Heres the verdict from farmers taking part in its development.

ANDY HAMILTON was inspired to develop Harvestmaster while in charge of computing at Easton College back in 89. There he saw the problems faced by students using early arable software.

Until the launch of Farmplan in 96, all arable programs were DOS-based. Now most run on Windows. Even so, some still arent user-friendly, claims Mr Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton enlisted some Norfolk farmers over the three years it took to develop his program. One was Bernard Jones who farms 111ha (280 acres) in Lyng, Norfolk. "Suggestions are ongoing but there were more in the earlier days. Im really impressed with the program now," says Mr Jones.

Tom Green heard about the Harvestmaster trial through Mid Norfolk Farmers. Hed looked at a variety of other programs but was put off by price – except one which at just under £100, he "could have written in a day".

Mr Greens father is a bit of a technophobe, so Harvestmaster has been in use alongside conventional paperwork on the family farm near Fakenham, Norfolk.

Some of the Windows programs failed farmers, says Mr Hamilton, because they tried to reinvent Windows. He set out to use the familiar format to make his program as clear as glass. "With Harvestmaster the operations are standard, so people are used to it already. We think its the easiest program on the market," he says.

Both Mr Jones and Mr Green find the format clear. Says Mr Hamilton: "Rather than having a screen where theres masses of stuff, we have a logical progression so theres not too much information on the screen at one time."

Says Mr Green: "I find this program so easy to navigate round." And Mr Jones adds: "The drop-down menus and taskbars tell you where you are."

Most farming computer programs are written to run on all PCs – even steam-driven 386 models. Thats like putting kerosene in a diesel car, says Mr Hamilton.

Harvestmaster was written with faster technology in mind. "To the best of my knowledge its the only 32-bit program on the market," he says. Only those with Windows 95 and up will be able to use his program.

"Harvestmaster is suitable for farmers who arent particularly computer-literate, and dont want to be particularly computer-literate, but do want to get more out of their computer."

"I went to ACCS last summer-time," says Mr Jones. "I was looking for a program that satisfies modern recording requirements. Harvest- master requires me to put in all the details that ACCS requires – I cant leave things out. And the price was right," he adds.

It can cut down on recording time. "I did once time myself for inputting data for a days top dressing, about five tonnes of nitrogen, and it took me 21⁄2 minutes," says Mr Jones. "Its saved me a terrific amount at the end of the year doing a gross margin," he adds. "And I can cross-check the bills coming in."

Saving time

Information on inputs can be put in for the whole farm or individual fields. Operations are linked to save time: new chemicals and fertilisers are automatically added to the stock list as they are keyed in to a field data entry screen.

Says Mr Jones: "The stock control side to it has saved a lot of effort. Its stopped me having to calculate what Im doing so Ive got a far more accurate record of what Ive used."

Its also a simple matter to call up information on which inputs have been used and where. Says Mr Green: "It would be very useful for dealing with queries about chemicals from buyers.

Harvestmaster cant deal with mapping though. "Mapping increases costs dramatically. Ordnance Survey charges per hectare," says Mr Hamilton. There are other programs far better suited to mapping than Harvestmaster, he says, and too few farmers using it to justify the effort of producing a mapping component.

Three years of development seems finally to be bearing fruit. Commercially available from 20 January this year, Harvestmasters price is mid-range at £699, with a years free upgrades and support. "Since the programs commercial launch in January this year weve seen high demand," says Mr Hamilton.

There many farm recording computer programs on the market. Most do all the basics – record inputs and outputs, and generate gross margins. Some can deal with precision farming and mapping. All look different on screen. Here is a selection:

&#8226 Field Track from Co-ordinated Computer Systems

&#8226 Fieldman Farmer from Pear

&#8226 Crop Trak from DMA Sales

&#8226 Multicrop from Farmade

&#8226 Lite Recost and Elite from Agripro

&#8226 Farmplan from Farmplan Computer Systems

&#8226 Crop Walker FM from Muddy Boots Software

&#8226 Farm Trac from Farm Works

&#8226 Cropdata for Windows from Farmdata

&#8226 Field Management from Sum-It

&#8226 Crop Specialist from Datag

&#8226 Harvestmaster from Seamere Software