Getting Started with AgTech

Researching how to get started with AgTech in your farming operation can be daunting. There are so many options! All the popular brands, as well as brands you’ve never heard of... and plenty of features listed on the box that sound useful, but that your have managed to do without, for decades.

Well, there are going to be plenty of features that you don’t think you’ll need when you’re shopping around for AgTech solutions. But some solutions will be the perfect fit and provide the time saving automations, cost savings, and productivity boost you’ve been searching for.

Start with a Budget

Where do you start? How long do things take to get working? And once things are working, how many adjustments do you need to make before they’re working to their full potential?

Whether you’re purchasing a pump, a weather monitor, a backup battery, or a cable for an automation kit, upgrades cost money. So, first-of-all, work with your team, financer or bank to get some sort of budget or financing sorted.

If you don’t have a budget, start by asking yourself “how much time is the problem costing me, including my own time, each year?” Don’t forget to include the time that you spend worrying or talking about it. Then, multiply that amount of time with the cost that you would charge yourself out if you worked by the hour ($50hr?). You’ll quickly see that the problem may be costing you a lot more than you think. 
It’s up to you to make the call to invest in a solution to fix the problem or not, but do spend the time to work out things like the initial set-up cost, ongoing running costs (E.g. electricity, servicing etc.) and how these stack-up against the potential return and profits you could realise.

Ask yourself questions like:

  1. How much time will I and my team save?

  2. Will there be improvements in my crops (Better quality? Bigger yield?)

  3. How much healthier or fatter will my livestock become?

  4. Could I save on costs? How much? (money saved is money earned)

  5. What is the life expectancy of this solution? Will it last a few seasons, in these conditions?

  6. Does it have an IP67 rating? Is it suitable for outdoor use?

  7. Are there any reviews of the product or successful case studies? Are these reviews from an independent source?

When it comes to assessing the cost of deploying new equipment and technology, along with the actual cost of purchase also budget in costs for:

  1. delivery, freight, logistics management

  2. time spent on taking delivery (handling, unpacking, getting rid of the packing crates etc.)

  3. ‘break-in’ period or ‘breaking in’, also known as run-in or running-in costs (the procedure of conditioning a new piece of equipment by giving it an initial period of running, usually under light load, but sometimes under heavy or normal load). This especially applies to vehicles, machinery, tools or automated equipment that might need to be ‘broken in’ or that requires calibration during the first few hours of use (or few hundred hours of use!) before it is operating as it’s meant to.

  4. batteries (they can cost a lot to replace so buy decent chargers and power surge protectors)

  5. consider the life span of materials used (degradation in the sun, harsh weather, animals eating or damaging them)

  6. quantity required (the more you install, the more you need to maintain)

  7. software, hardware, machinery, software driver, control panel updates (what’s involved in the process of installing new software or hardware?) 

  8. people and machinery required for any updates to the equipment (do you need a driver or crane operator to move, lift or shift the equipment?)

Ask Yourself, "Can I Test with Less?

The next step you should take before buying your AgTech equipment is to determine if you need as much as you think you do. Can you test with less? Have you considered running a test or setting up a prototype on a small scale to see if things will work as you hope they will?

It doesn’t make sense to go out and buy ten robots to pick your strawberries only to realise that they’re the wrong robot. Start with one or two robots, sensors, monitoring stations, whatever, get the processes working, then scale up. 
Also, don’t always go with the cheapest option, or the most expensive (thinking that expensive means better quality). Just do your research and base your decision on what solution or machinery your farming or agri-food operation truly needs. If it is the cheapest option, great, but don’t let this be the only factor guiding your decision. 

Take a simple approach based on pros and cons.

For example, if you're choosing between one type of water quality sensor and another, write down each sensor’s pros and cons for power consumption, warranty, accuracy, then decide which one will benefit you more. If you’re using AgTech Finder you can favourite them and then email a list to yourself or a friend and compare them later.

Do Your Research on Costs versus Profits

Making the right decision on what type of AgTech equipment or technology solution you should invest in involves many different variables. The most obvious choice is to start with an investment that will either reduce ongoing losses or increase ongoing profit opportunities. AgTech solutions that reduce the amount of lost resources including water, fertiliser, seed loss, spoilt produce etc. can all provide return on the investment costs of purchase, set-up and getting operational. 
If you’re just getting started, then the set-up price will have the largest impact on profit. This is why it’s a good idea to take a ‘test-and-learn' approach. Run a few experiments to see how small changes made across the business (which are often more achievable) impact larger overall profits. 

There are lots of useful online case studies proving how other farmers have used AgTech solutions to increase their profits. In a case study by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development's Agriculture and Food division the main drivers of profit are summarised – price, production, costs and management. The more you know about these the better placed you are to analyse the risk and resilience of your business and make more informed expenditure decisions. 
In the example within the DPI case study, a 2500ha mixed farm business in a medium-high rainfall region in WA is used to demonstrate how changes in price, production and costs impact profit.

The results from a series of small changes is a 10% increase in both price and production together with a 10% reduction in costs, which in turn doubles profits. 

Have you given enough thought to what the key drivers of profit are on your farm? 

What are some AgTech solutions you could test that could potentially boost profits?

To start, ask yourself...

Once you’ve answered this question you will be in a much better position to start searching for an AgTech solution that can help save you money across one, or all, of these areas.

Brands and Model Variants

Once you’ve decided what type of solution you’re looking for, how much you can afford to spend (budget), what the key drivers of profit are, and your test-and-learn approach, you can then start doing some research on the equipment you need.

Researching AgTech equipment not only involves finding out what’s out there, but also where you can buy it from. You will also need to research the brands and equipment types, models, their recommended uses and limitations, and compare them all.

One easy way to do this is to create a shortlist and then carefully consider the different specifications of each solution in relation to power supply (AC, battery, solar, IP rating if used outside), and any other information on Internet connectivity, set-up and installation etc. Having all this information on a few options helps makes it easier compare between models and brands, and prices.

There’s a very useful ‘shortlist as a favourite’ tool on AgTechfinder.com that can help you do this. When viewing a solution or vendor page look out for the favourite feature (an icon of a star) that you can click on to add them to your favourites list. In the navigation bar at the top of the site you can then view all your favourites and email them to yourself, to a business partner, or to your agronomist or trusted adviser.

Choosing the Right Vendor to Buy From

Finding a vendor who can meet your requirements and delivery on time is important and will also involve a bit of investigating. If you’re buying AgTech that is available from a few places, make sure you check out multiple vendors for options and prices.

When speaking to vendors it is a good idea to ask things like:

  • what after-purchase services do they offer?

  • do you need to buy replacement parts or consumables?

  • what are the costs of those replacement parts or consumables?

  • how long does it take to deliver them once ordered? (it might be worth keeping some stored on your property to prevent any downtime due to wait times on delivery)

Don’t Ask for a Cost. Ask for a Quote.

When you visit or call a dealer or manufacturer, ask for a quotation. This is a better way to approach your purchase as vendors are more likely to assume that your shopping around for a price (and their pencil will be hopefully be sharper when they send you their price). Vendors, suppliers and AgTech companies should more than happy to provide quotes to their customers. These quotations will help you determine how much a piece of equipment will cost you overall. Ask for some options as well, as you might discover that you need something you didn’t think you needed, or that you don’t need something you were about to purchase.

Getting a few quotations from different vendors will also help you compare prices and offers which will also help you choose which vendor you want to start a relationship with.

AgTech Fails

Things are usually pretty easy to get working and to service. If you are finding the setup of something challenging, don’t worry. Batteries get put in upside-down. Wires get connected to solenoids or relay points that they shouldn't, and at other times it really it a problem with the equipment and not with the operator (e.g. sometimes a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signal is just having a bad day!). Don’t be discouraged. Be persistent. Go have a cup of tea and come back to it later.

Jargon, Acronyms, AgTech Slang

If you’re a first timer and not remarkably literate when it comes to technology, it is easy to get buried in jargon. Many AgTech products come with lengthy manuals and it can be easy to quickly get lost in technicalities. You may think you’ve found what you’re looking for but then a spec sheet, case study, or explainer video might make you think that you’re on the wrong page altogether.

In a category like AgTech there are so many variables and solutions that are specific to certain crops, processes or livestock, so of course you are at times going to be a little unsure that the solution you’ve found is indeed the perfect fit. If the information online is limited and you haven’t seen the product or solution in action for yourself then be prepared to ask lots of questions. Be specific and don’t assume that ABC or XYZ stands for what you thought it stands for. Vendors love sharing knowledge and they’re happy to help you get started.

Had an AgTech experience of your own that needs to be shared?

If you have had an experience with AgTech that you would like to share (good or bad) we would love to hear about it so we can share it with the AgTech Finder community.

Email me at AgTechfinder@foodagility.com, or join the conversation on social media and use @AgTechfinder to invite us in.

AgTech Mike