Can we benefit from many farm apps?

Every time you pull your phone out of your pocket, is it to answer a phone call, reply to a text or to simply check the time? Most likely all of the above, but I’d also think that your phone has become an integral part of your daily life for making farm management decisions.

The evolution of technology brings a dynamic and rich experience to your phone, which essentially allows everything, from the most common task of checking your local weather, to turning your centre pivot irrigation on or off. The spectrum of what we can do in agriculture with our phones is vast and has accelerated rapidly in recent years with no sign of slowing.

Advancements in web technology gives you a stronger connection between your mobile, tablet, laptop and desktop through a ‘cloud’ environment, where much of your on-farm data seamlessly integrates between applications. This integration of technology will grow as applications begin to recognise and speak the same languages, or at least become better at translating between apps and devices.

So, is it such a bad thing to encourage the development of many specialised apps?

All this connectivity has opened the agtech world to greater opportunities in disrupting large organisations with their end-to-end captive customers (namely us farmers). These end-to-end products, where the same company’s hardware and software are used for all areas of management, have long stood as the sentinels of being reliable and seamless, but also expensive due to the cumbersome nature of large organisations. This is changing thanks to advances in technologies that allow smaller businesses to disrupt and provide higher valued services that meet the changing demands of agriculture. This disruptiveness comes, especially in the form of finding niche markets, where specialised skillsets are at the ready for solving your isolated on-farm problems.

Let’s look at it closer with an inspection of the Australian dairy industry.

There are approximately 6000 Australian dairy farms, 440 of which are in my home state of Tasmania. This represents a small market to serve. Within the 6000 dairy farms, there are five different feeding systems, classified by Steve Little from Dairy Australia. The feeding systems range from rations that are dominated by pasture grazing only with a low grain/concentrate fed in the bail at the dairy, all the way through to total mixed ration (TMR) systems where cows perform zero grazing and are housed and fed a total mixed ration.

The brief look at feeding systems above demonstrates the complexity and variance across dairy farming systems. Even at the local level this difference from farm to farm takes on more complexity when you throw in differing soil types, irrigation vs dryland and the varying levels of each management type.

It is little wonder that catering for all dairy farming systems with one management application is a huge and onerous task, which ultimately will result in wastage of resources such as money and time.

So, why do we want end-to-end products that lock us out of benefiting from the next best technology advancements? Do we really want to be isolated further in agriculture by not accepting that the beauty of separate accounting software, separate crop management software, separate herd management software and the breakdown of each category into its own sub-category is truly in our favour? As quickly as the apps themselves entered our lives merely a decade ago, they are quickly tapping into similar data streams from such places as weather, plants and animals, reporting on dashboards and allowing quick management decisions.

I agree that few apps offer their uniqueness for serving your specialised needs and it is possibly these apps that are creating the commotion for farm management dashboards, encouraging farmers to lock themselves into their eco-systems. These paddock apps are saturating the market place, while charging you a dime to store and utilise your data, but essentially aren’t providing you with specialised tools to increase your on-farm productivity.

But is this a mad craze in itself, especially as technology is advancing that will allow us to bypass these apps and dashboards that show ^vanity metrics? Let’s dive straight into the nitty gritty of making robust management decisions. Let’s encourage the development of specialised apps that offer unique functions. Let’s not get caught up in the gloss, but instead let’s ask, how willing are they to work with your unique farm?

As mentioned above, the linkage between management platforms is becoming increasingly easier and more efficient. This is perhaps influenced by the evolutionary advancements of recent web technology that is disrupting large organisations across many industries and the growing ecosystem of the internet of things (*IoT).

Let me explain further: large platforms that can ingest streams of data from services such as weather stations, markets for commodities, and farm inputs (to name a few), are rapidly developing and competing with deep pockets. These data platforms are essentially offering large opportunities for a new generation of apps that can utilise and model data for many on-farm management decisions. All these apps need to do is connect with the data platform through an application-programming interface, (better know as an API) for hooking into the relevant data streams.

As farms become more and more connected to the world wide web, the more data that can be fed into these data platforms, the more we can all learn for essentially advancing the competitiveness of our (the farmers) products and services.

So, the next time you open an app on your phone, think about the use of that app and the features it offers to those of other apps; think about the complexity in design and the team required to build such ideas into real-life practical-use cases; think about how wonderful it is to have people who are keen to make a real difference by developing apps that have huge on-farm impact.

Pasture.io offers a unique pasture management solution (photo by Ollie on his family dairy farm)

^ Vanity metrics are numbers or statistics that look good on paper, but don’t really mean anything important. For example, you may farm 1,000 ha and your neighbour may farm 100 ha. Just because your farm is bigger, doesn’t mean you are making more money.

* The internet of things or IoT is the internetworking of physical devices such as smartphones and sensors working in a network connected environment that enables the devices to collect and exchange data.


Check out these unique apps that are revolutionising agriculture at http://pasture.io and http://milkflow.io