Smartphone to smart farm: Mobile technologies help farmers monitor operations

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Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 12:00 am

About six years ago, Joe Hossle, now 58, found himself thinking he probably could get through to retirement without diving into all the technology available to farmers today.

He quickly decided that was a bad idea, and today he estimates that the automated devices that shut off the flow of seed from his planter at the ends of rows alone have reduced his seed bill by upward of 6 percent.

And for each of the last two years, he's been able to use mapping systems on his tractor to back up insurance claims for the loss of about 1,200 acres of corn downed by wind.

“The more you learn about technology, the more you're going to earn,” Hossle said.

Now he's taking technology a step further, moving toward turning his homestead near Emerson, Iowa, into a smart farm.

Last week, he and his wife, Jody, hosted a demonstration of remote monitoring and security technologies that help them keep an eye on buildings, control locks and monitor grain bin levels from a desktop computer — or a smartphone.

Some remote monitoring technologies have been available for a while, allowing farmers to monitor water, feed and air flow in livestock buildings or flow rates on center pivot irrigation systems from a farm office.

But now that technology, while still in its infancy, is going mobile, putting the ability to keep tabs on operations in the palms of farmers' hands.

Clear2there LLC, one of the companies that sponsored last week's demonstration, provides a software platform that brings such systems together, using cloud technology. The company provides the systems to telecommunications companies, which, in turn, offer the services to customers.

“We can leverage that mobile device,” said Craig Steen, the company's president and chief executive officer.

That's a big deal, said Steen, who grew up in Emerson, given that smartphones now have a market share of about 70 percent among mobile devices.

Helping to make such connectivity possible is the fact that local telecommunications companies over the past handful of years have been extending fiber-optic cable into rural areas. While such installations often have started with residents' desire for video on demand and the capacity to run multiple devices, it has provided opportunities to step up technologies on the farm.

Interstate Communications, a telecommunications company that serves southwest Iowa, including Hossle's farm, just completed such an installation.

“It's using the broadband in a different way that nobody thought of before,” said Dave Sherwood, the company's office manager.

Bruce Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this is a transformative time in agriculture. “We've talked about precision agriculture for a long while, but it's coming to be, and it's sophisticated to the max,” he said.

What such systems can provide, he said, is the opportunity for more efficient use of inputs and production opportunities. When used that way, the technology can pay off quickly, particularly on the larger farms that are becoming more common today.

With crop farmers over the last several years having built up cash reserves, he said, they've been much more interested in upgrading their machinery, “and this is part of it.”

Until now, costs for such systems have been prohibitive, said John Brehm, senior strategist and consultant with Compass Intelligence, a market research consulting firm that works with telecommunications companies.

But with the cloud, individuals don't have to maintain servers to store data, he said. Wireless technology and broadband already are widely deployed, and the cost of devices themselves is coming down.

“Time is probably the most precious resource these farmers have,” he said. “And it's very economical to be able to do a lot of this now.”

For Hossle, the system means he can keep an eye on his farm — and including his equipment sheds and grain storage bins — no matter where he goes, even when he's harvesting 14 miles away.

“We sit on a lot of money out here in the country,” he said. “It provides a level of protection that surpasses” what we've had before.

Hossle started adding smart technology last fall, installing door locks with wireless technology. He can set them to text him if someone tries to enter without authorization. He can even pull up video from his recently installed surveillance cameras to see who's there. Or if a neighbor calls and asks to borrow a tool, he can simply unlock the door.

Recently, he installed SmartBob grain bin monitoring systems on some of his bins. The devices, made by BinMaster, a division of the Lincoln-based Garner Industries, allow farmers to remotely monitor levels in bins.

The monitors help keep farmers safer, limiting the number of times they climb narrow ladders and drop tape measures down to check grain levels. They also enhance security.

Indeed, BinMaster has been doing remote monitoring at industrial sites for years, said Todd Peterson, vice president of sales. But in the last year or two, the company has seen increased interest from farmers. Farms are getting larger, and more farmers are storing grain in large bins on their own property rather than taking it to area feed mills. The system also can calculate bushels and crunch the value of the grain, based on current prices.

Hossle has bins on his farm and others as far as 14 miles away. Not only does the system allow him to cross-check bin levels, improving his efficiency at harvest, but it also can send an alert if grain levels change unexpectedly, indicating someone might be attempting to steal grain.

“A grain bin is no different than your personal bank account,” he said.

Hossle, who grows corn and soybeans and keeps a few cattle, said the system probably would offer even greater advantages to livestock operators.

Technology is advancing at such a speed that it's hard to keep up, he said, but it's necessary — high-tech controls and monitoring systems on planters, sprayers and combines, along with advances in seed science, already have helped boost yields.

“Back in the '80s, if you learned anything it was how to become more efficient to survive,” he said.

Hossle, for his part, already is planning to add more on-farm monitoring systems. His 1920 farmhouse already is pretty smart. He and his wife can control lights, temperature and locks from their smartphones, which will be a plus if they do more traveling.

“I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg with technology on this farmstead,” he said.

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