A host of digital weed resources are just a tap away
Helpful resources have become easier to access, thanks to the smartphone. This device packs the power of a personal computer but is portable enough to bring everywhere. Farmers can check news, weather, market information and get almost any question they can think of answered with a few button pushes. (They can use it to make actual phone calls too.)
Increasingly, universities and other entities are squeezing valuable reference materials into pocket-sized mobile apps and mobile-friendly websites so farmers can access production guides, weed identification databases and more on the go.
For example, University of Wisconsin Extension weed specialist Mark Renz and his colleagues have developed several online weed ID resources, such as its Weed ID and Weed Selector tools, that can easily be accessed with a smartphone or tablet. Next, they’re converting a 300-page production guide to a mobile-friendly format.
Ultimately, Renz wants a searchable database where farmers could easily pull up a list of recommended herbicides with details on rates, use restrictions and more.
"Farmers are in the field, but those books don’t always make it with them," Renz says. "But what is in the field with them is their smartphone."
Researchers are also turning to Twitter, blogs and other online formats to share information more instantaneously, he adds.
"For instance, if there’s a new herbicide-resistant weed out there, we can notify farmers immediately and link to helpful resources," he says.
An app for that. About once every week or so, Brian Arnall, Oklahoma State University assistant professor of nutrient management, sits down and searches for new agriculture apps.
He has a running list of ones that he thinks are the most helpful. It has grown slowly but steadily from 52 this past summer to 138 today.
The best way to find good new apps is through word of mouth, Arnall says. A close second is screening them yourself. Often, apps are free and easy to delete, so the risk of looking into new apps is generally worth the potential rewards, he says.
Arnall’s personal screening process includes something he calls the "three-second rule."
"If I open an app and I can’t figure it out in three seconds, I delete it," he says. "An app should be so easy to use, you shouldn’t have to think about it."
Arnall says he can be hesitant to recommend specific apps because the best ones tend to leapfrog each other, and new options often appear.
"There are more and more tools constantly coming out," he says.
One of his current favorite weed resources is the University of Missouri’s ID Weeds, which is delivered as both a downloadable mobile app as well as a mobile-friendly web version at www.weedID.missouri.edu.
Can’t identify a problem weed in the field? ID Weeds lays out a decision tree that makes it possible to ID without a lot of other knowledge required. Select whether it’s a broadleaf or grass weed, and then drill down to the exact species by selecting various other plant characteristics. Once users have identified the exact weed, they can access additional details and photos.
Kevin Bradley, MU associate professor of plant sciences, says the primary challenge in developing a mobile-friendly website or app is giving it functionality so it becomes more than a hard-to-search online photo gallery.
"We just hope farmers are quickly able to get to their weed in question," Bradley says.
So far, the reception has been positive. One of the app’s reviewers even called it "the best smartphone agronomic weed identification tool that I have used."
Bradley is optimistic that as agriculture colleges reach out to other areas of the university and even third parties, the ability to develop quality web and mobile app resources for farmers will greatly accelerate.
You can email Ben Potter at email@example.com.