Like most livestock farmers, Robert McOuat would prefer to spend as little time as possible being stuck in his office. He would much rather be out on the land at his farm in Fornought, Perthshire, tending his 550 ewes and 60 beef cows.
Until recently, however, time in the office was unavoidable because that was where he checked the latest market prices for lamb and beef on his computer. But now he can do this via a mobile application, launched in October by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), the public-sector body responsible for supporting and promoting the Scottish red-meat industry.
Using the QMS app means that Mr McOuat has the information he needs ready to hand on his iPhone as he is involved in the day-to-day care of his animals. As a result, he can make instant decisions about which of them will fetch the best price at market.
“From November through to the start of January, I sell between 30 and 40 lambs every week,” he explains. “The app is simple and quick to use and it allows me to look at the performance of different weight bands of lambs and make a judgment call about whether to sell more light, medium or heavy lambs, week by week. If the trade for light lambs is weaker, say, I’ll hold them back to put on a few more kilos.”
It also helps him to decide at which market to sell his lambs, he adds, because prices at different ones can often vary by between 3p and 4p per kilo in any given week.
According to Stuart Ashworth, head of economic services at QMS, more farming organisations are launching mobile apps, for the simple reason that their audience tends to be based outdoors for much of the day. “Given the long hours worked and the remoteness of farms, a mobile phone is already an essential part of the kit for many farmers,” he says.
While using a mobile app will not in itself improve arable yields, the information it can convey might help farmers to achieve that goal, if it is applied in the right way and at the right time, according to Lisa Challis, customer relations manager at Bayer CropScience UK.
At Cereals 2012, she explains, an annual show held each June in Lincolnshire for the arable industry, the company launched three mobile apps. The first, Bayer Product Manual, is simply a mobile version of the company’s product guide, which farmers and agronomists turn to for advice on how to use the company’s products safely and legally. The other two, Pest Spotter and Weed Spotter, are designed to help them identify problems that could impact crop yields.
“We already knew that this information was popular and widely used by our customers, first in our range of printed books, and more recently on our website. But, by mobilising the information, it becomes far more effective, because it’s instantly accessible at the point of need,” says Ms Challis. Since their launch in June, the apps have been downloaded more than 9,000 times.
But it is in the developing world that mobile phones may have the biggest effect on farming and food production – not through mobile apps, since few farmers in the rural regions of these countries have access to data services, but through simpler, text-based services.
An example of this is Nokia Life, a range of “livelihood and life improvement” tools for emerging markets, which fall into three categories: health, education and agriculture. In India, where Nokia Life was first launched in 2009, the agriculture part of the service is the most popular of the three, according to Jawahar Kanjilal, global head of Nokia Life services. Since 2009, they have been rolled out across Indonesia, China and, most recently, Nigeria.
For a fee of about US $1 per month – for example, Rs60 in India and Rmb5 in China – subscribers to the agriculture service receive daily updates that include growing advice, tailored specifically for their region and the crops that they grow, weather forecasts and market prices for the specified crops in markets closest to them.
It is a price that K. K. Mathai, a retired engineer who grows pineapple, banana and vegetables on his own land in Kerala, India, is happy to pay. “I consider this an agricultural input cost. The agriculture service has been of great use to me, helping me to negotiate better on my produce. There has also been a noticeable improvement in my farm output,” he says.
He would like to see a feature that would enable him to upload a picture of a pest-infected crop to the service and receive a diagnosis and treatment advice by reply, he says.
But otherwise, he is a satisfied customer: “I can make decisions much more quickly and confidently – about what to plant and when, and also what I can expect to charge for fruit and vegetables, based on prices from surrounding areas. There is simply less guesswork.”