sealPurdue News
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September 1997

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A list of the seven software programs examined by Purdue is at the end of this story.

Before you buy farming software, answer these questions

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Sometimes it seems that you need a computer program to help you decide which computer software to buy. There's plenty of software on the market, but each version is a slightly different flavor. What to do?

If you are looking to buy precision farming software, here's help.

A team of Purdue University agricultural engineers examined seven of the top precision farming software packages on the market and developed a list of questions that will help potential buyers select which package is for them. This project was funded by Farm Progress Companies.

Each package was able to create a yield map from data provided by a yield monitor, but all of them had differences in analyzing what the data set was showing.

R. Mack Strickland, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, says that the first thing a consumer should look for is compatibility. "First, not only does the software have to be compatible with your computer, but it must be compatible with other hardware as well," he says. "Not every software package works with data from every yield monitor."

In addition to the yield monitoring equipment, according to Strickland, anyone wanting to run crop yield monitoring software should expect to spend a minimum of $2,000 on the computer hardware.

Sam Parsons, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, says buyers of precision farming software should ask the questions anyone would ask before buying any type of software.

"The basics would be 'does it run on my system?' and 'how much memory does it require?'" Parsons says. "Then you should probably ask about how upgrades are handled; what type of technical support is available, and when; and how difficult the software is to install.

"Next you should take a look at the documentation or manual to make sure it is well-organized and includes answers to frequently asked questions. You might also look to see if an instructional video is included, and whether the software has a quick-tour demonstration feature."

The team identified three major areas that producers should investigate before purchasing a precision farming package: yield map features, data correction and data analysis:

Yield mapping features

All of the software packages tested were able to construct yield maps and to do so quickly, at least in the hands of proficient computer users. Here are specific yield-mapping issues to consider:

Managing yield-data files

Generating the initial maps

Customizing yield maps

Map appearance and output

Data correction

In addition to the ability to create yield maps, the user will need to modify, or correct, the maps. The primary reason the maps need to be modified is to correct "flyers," or incorrect GPS data provided to the computer. "You could have nearly all of the data points in your field, but because of the errors, the computer has a data point listed as being in Illinois, another in Texas, and another in the South China Sea," explains Strickland.

"When the software plots these data points on a map, if it doesn't throw out the flyers, it will have to use a map big enough to show all of the data points, so your farm will just appear as one speck on a map of the world. It's mission impossible," he says. "Your mission, should you accept it, is to determine which of those black dots on the map is your farm."

A second data-correction feature is the ability to discount "zero-yield" data. Parsons says this is a feature worth searching for. "If the software doesn't have this feature, when you stop with the combine header down at the end of the row for 30 seconds, the monitor records 30 seconds of zero yield, and the map will inaccurately show a low yield for that area of the field," he says.

The researchers suggested farmers ask these questions about data-correction features:

Map analysis

After the maps have been drawn and the data set has been corrected, then what? According to the Purdue team, this is the most critical area for the software packages, and the area where they most commonly fall short. Users should look for features such as zoom maps, summary reports and quantitative data reporting in addition to the ability to create maps.

"Some companies are bundling basic yield-mapping software free with their yield monitors," says Dan Ess, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "It's an indication of how much just producing a color map by itself is worth. Not much without a lot of additional information."

Even with the analysis tools available, farmers shouldn't be in too big of a rush to change their management practices, the researchers caution. "If I'm going to use the maps to determine chemical application rates or seed rates, I would want more than one or two years of maps to look at. You'd like to have at least five years of maps," Strickland says.

Here are some questions the researchers suggested about yield analysis features:

Software sources

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Here are the software packages analyzed by the Purdue University agricultural engineers:

Web: http://www.cacd.rockwell.com/bus_area/ag_sys/vis_opti.htm

Sources: Sam Parsons, (765) 494-1177; e-mail, parsonsa@ecn.purdue.edu
Dan Ess, (765) 494-6509, e-mail, ess@ecn.purdue.edu
R. Mack Strickland, (765) 494-1222; e-mail, strick@ecn.purdue.edu
Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; e-mail, tally@ecn.purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu


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