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UW Changes Lives: Let your phone do the farming

April 2, 2019 By David Tenenbaum

From February through June, we will be highlighting the ways that UW–Madison changes lives for the better throughout the state of Wisconsin. March’s theme is Working for Rural Wisconsin. Watch for more at #UWChangesLives on social media. And here’s how you can help.

As the computer-Internet revolution continues its transition to the smartphone, researchers at the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Division of Extension continue to develop apps that record and process data in the barn or on the tractor. The apps streamline the acquisition and processing of data, and even help make diagnoses and decisions on the fly.

It’s no accident that CALS is taking the lead in a continuing stream of apps, says William Barker, associate dean for research and graduate programs at CALS.

A screenshot of the Sporecaster app.

“CALS is the ‘tip of the spear’ of the Wisconsin Idea.  For over 130 years, as the research, development and extension outreach arm of Wisconsin agriculture, our college has written a long, rich history of supporting the folks who produce our food,” Barker says. “Whether through early innovative use of radio, or now the creation of smartphone apps, CALS researchers and extension specialists work tirelessly to ensure availability of the latest technologies and information.”

As farms continue to struggle, Barker says, “I worry that small farms in particular might get left behind or priced out of the revolution of digital agriculture. That’s one reason why these types of apps are so valuable in powering decision-making at a time of great challenges to food production systems.”

Most apps are available for Apple (iOS) and Android (Google) phones and tablets; a few also “know” Spanish.

Soybeans: fighting fungal foes

Sporecaster is a tool that indicates whether a fungicide application is needed to control white mold in soybean. If so, a companion app, called Spore Buster, instantly compares 10 treatment plans to determine their average net gain and breakeven probability, based on research results.

Integrated pest management

A screen shot of the IPM Toolkit app.

The IPM Toolkit allows a user to read news articles, view videos, download publications, and access photos while applying the reduced-input practices of integrated pest management  (IPM). The user can dig into the scientific background of an agricultural problem – such as an emerging disease – to support a rapid diagnosis and choice of solutions. After seeing a local alert about soybean aphid infestations, for example, you could:

  • watch a video showing how to scout for aphids;
  • look up soybean aphid management in a publication; and
  • search the app’s online database for photos related to soybean aphids and scouting.

How well did Jimmy crack corn?

A screenshot of the SilageSnap app.

Corn kernels are enveloped in a tough outer layer that must be “cracked” to expose the nutritious starch inside. The Silage Snap app uses a phone’s camera to gauge whether harvesting or processing machinery is cracking corn enough for maximum feeding efficiency. By allowing immediate equipment adjustment, the farmer can maximize energy gains and milk production.


Minding manure

Manure Tracker records manure applications to particular fields.  Data inputs include field name and area, GPS location, spreader capacity, manure type, and application method (surface applied, incorporated or injected). The app calculates manure nutrient credits for the field. All data can be emailed to a server for efficient record management.

Legumes and manure: Credit where credit is due

The Manure/Legume Credits app allows farmers to save money and protect the environment by calculating the fertilizer value of manure and legume crops. The goal is to reduce expenses for fertilizer and avoid over-application. The app calculates the plant-available nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P2O5), potassium (K2O), and sulfur (S) nutrient credits. The output measures the fertilizer value of manure from various livestock species applied to cropland. The app also calculates the nitrogen available to crops planted following such forage legumes as alfalfa.

Secret to happy cows

A screenshot of the Locomotion Scorer app.

The Dairyland Initiative at the School of Veterinary Medicine hosts a suite of apps for dairy health and productivity.

The Locomotion Scorer deals with lameness in dairy cows, and “speaks” English, Spanish and German.

The Body Condition Scorer uses a graphical interface to score attributes of cattle, including herd name, scorer name, score date, pen ID, cow ID, lactation and other parameters. (For iOS only).

The Group Pen Respiratory Scorer evaluates symptoms of respiratory distress for pens of young livestock. Based on the number of affected animals and number of symptoms, pens can be identified for follow-up treatment. (For iOS only).