A new, free, online tool to help farmers make better-informed operational decisions has been developed by software experts at Iowa State University.
The program -- I-FARM, found at i-farmtools.org, -- assists farmers, bankers, Extension and co-op people, and anyone else interested in finding out more about farm management, in understanding how to get the most out the land at the least cost.
The software was developed by Ed van Ouwerkerk and draws on information collected from state, regional and national sources. The I-FARM program allows farmers to input various aspects of their operation along with the location of their farm. The computer software then predicts and compares farming outcomes.
Very forward-looking technology, and it's free.
"This farming model gives you opportunities to calculate alternatives and see the benefits of each," says van Ouwerkerk, a researcher and software developer in ISU's department of ag and biosystems engineering.
The program starts with the location of the farm. Using Google Earth®, you can locate your farm and highlight up to 20 fields you want to evaluate. You then input the crops intended for the field, rotation cycle you'll use, types and amounts of fertilizer, farm equipment used, typical yield and many other factors.
The program then tells you what your costs may be, labor required, amount of fuel needed, how much soil erosion you can expect, amount of nitrogen and other chemical emissions the farm will produce, amount of income (this function uses frequently updated market prices) and the subsidy payments you can expect get from the latest farm bill.
You input the information that is specific for your farm
The farmer can input one scenario with one set of inputs, and a second scenario with different inputs and compare the two, says van Ouwerkerk. The program is designed to help the farmer and doesn't make any choices for the farmer. "The program gives information and lets the farmer make the choices," he says.
For instance, a farmer might discover his inputs will result in greater soil erosion. The farmer can use the information to choose to plant different crops. "The software knows the slope of the land because it uses Google Earth. If the farmer looks at the outcomes and sees that he is losing too much soil, he may choose to change crops," says van Ouwerkerk. "Maybe he shouldn't plant corn here, maybe he should plant a perennial, like alfalfa."
Program can help farmers make smarter choices about the farm
The software also can help the farmer with many aspects of the farm. "This farming model gives you an opportunity to calculate alternatives to different crop rotations and see the benefits of each," he says. "That includes environmental benefits, ammonia release, erosion, perennials instead of annuals, and if you have cover crops instead of only annuals and different tillage practices."
The program should help farmers make smart choices about their operations, says van Ouwerkerk. "Farmers find their information about farming from a variety of sources and often follow patterns because of habit," he notes. "This software will tell you what is scientifically right." Van Ouwerkerk also thinks this tool will be valuable for Extension agents, bankers and anyone else interested in looking at farming practices and profitability.
Farmers can go to Web site and try the program themselves
The program includes a short tutorial to help first-time users. Farmers can go to the site and try it themselves, and if they have problems, they can contact John Lundvall at 515-294-5429 or van Ouwerkerk at 515-294-4037.
The project started as a program to cover three states -- one that would give farmers answers on converting their farms from crops-only operations to crop-and-livestock operations. As the scope of the project grew, van Ouwerkerk says more people got involved.
Because the project touches so many aspects of farming (production, soil management and fertilizer runoff) the project began to gain interest from various organizations. In the end the project received funding from USDA, the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU.