Finding precision agriculture training specific to crop consultants has been hard to find until recently. When precision ag technology first entered the agriculture industry in the mid 1990s, crop consultants didn't have many places to turn for help. Today, there are a few more options available.

"When precision ag first came on the scene in the 90s, no one knew what they were doing," said Phil Cochran, CPCC-I, CPAg, president, Cochran Agronomics Inc. "It was a total crap shoot to figure out how to use that stuff. As far as training goes, I went to the school of hard knocks.

"The challenge working with precision ag is making it pay for our clients. Knowing how to use a farmers' money to make money for him is key for consultants to earn their keep.

"As a crop consultant, for every $1 a farmer spends with me, I have to make him $2 to $3 in return. So, I have to know what works and how to use precision ag technology to gain that return for my customer. That's why training is so important to crop consultants."

The Stone Age of Precision Ag
Cochran explained how his first experience with precision agriculture came with the Rockwell Vision System, which he purchased in 1994. "We could not relate to this advanced system at all," Cochran said. "The Vision System was so beyond our knowledge. At the time, we were still having difficulty learning what Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer were and how to work with those tools."

Cochran served on an advisory committee for Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Rockwell. "The problem with Rockwell was that they were so far ahead of the curve. They'd spent too much time selling their products to the Pentagon, so when they started selling their products to the general public, they had no idea how to market it to laypeople -
especially the ag market," he said.

This lack of knowledge led Cochran to reach out to his colleagues in the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants. Members drew on each other's experiences in the beginning, but they knew they needed more training.

Training is Available
The first training sessions available came out of the fertilizer industry. Although some of those sessions were interesting, they lacked the specific information that crop consultants needed. Cochran and members of NAICC soon realized that they needed specialized training specific to consultants. They proceeded to launch the Precision Ag Workshop as part of NAICC continuing education programs. It has been held annually for five years. One workshop for 2009 took place in February, but Cochran said NAICC will be hosting another workshop later this year in Wisconsin. Details are yet to be finalized.

"This workshop is built around our own core," Cochran said. "We bring in a few outside speakers, but for the most part, it's our peers relating their experiences to each other. They explain what worked for them and what didn't. The most popular section of the workshop is the roundtable sessions where attendees work together on specific topics."

Even more consultant-related training is being planned for NAICC's annual meeting. Cochran said at the 2010 meeting, Jan. 20-23 in Orlando, Fla., they are devoting a one- to two-hour session to discussing training. NAICC is working to bring in some of the major equipment manufacturers like Case IH and Ag Leader, among others, to help explain how their equipment works, how it interacts with other company's equipment and how consultants can use it to help their clients.

"Normally, this is a shorter session, but the demand for this kind of knowledge is growing every day," Cochran said. "As consultants, we need to know how the software works and how it interacts with different controllers and guidance systems."

Other resources for training include InfoAg, which is held every other year. For 2009, InfoAg took place July 14-16 in Springfield, Ill. This show tends to be more oriented to the fertilizer industry than crop consultants, Cochran said.

Working With Companies
As the precision ag industry continues to advance and original equipment manufacturers are equipping their machines with the technology before they roll off the assembly line, OEMs are beginning to offer more training to consultants.

"I think they are beginning to see the need for training consultants," Cochran said. "There's so much information out there, and it's so easy to get confused."

One company Cochran has worked with is Mapshots, a Georgia-based company that provides agricultural information systems. Cochran began working with Mapshots about five years ago. He said Mapshots has offered annual training sessions that he's attended. He also recommends Mapshots because they have a strong e-mail and phone support system, which is critical to understanding a problem in a short period of time.

The Changing Face of Ag
In just more than 10 years, precision agriculture has changed the face of farming in the United States. Cochran agrees that precision ag is vital for farmers to be profitable today.

"In 1992, almost none of my clients were using any form of precision agriculture," he said. "Today, 100 percent of our clients use it. I tell them they can't afford not to use it."

He explained that nearly all his clients are using variable rate application and GIS on their farms. So, there's no room to not use precision ag tools. And now, there are a few training opportunities of which crop consultants can take advantage - much more than 10 years ago when Cochran began asking Rockwell questions about global positioning systems.