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Strategies for crop information management: past and future

G.T. McIntyre and Q.R. Jones

Queensland Department of Primary Industries PO Box 597, Dalby QLD 4405

Summary. The format in which information is presented to Darling Downs grain growers has experienced significant changes over the past decade. Computers have facilitated the presentation of information in previously unavailable formats. A major development has been the compilation of the very widely used Darling Downs Crop Management Notes from a disparate number of single topic Farm Notes. Computer based decision support packages such as CHICKBUG and WHEATMAN have created opportunities to make information interactive, increasing its usefulness and impact. Hypertext and optical disk storage arc seen as information technologies which will be essential to meet the challenge of future information management needs for Darling Downs grain growers.

Introduction

The presentation of crop information by Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) advisers and extension agronomists has changed substantially in recent years, facilitated by rapid advances in computer technology. The change is a response to the need for more sophisticated information in good decision making. This paper discusses the transition in strategies for crop information management from the past to the future. It identifies and discusses briefly some emerging technologies which are impacting on information management.

The past

Crop management information in the past has been in the form of farm advisory notes, Agnotes and various other extension publications. They typically addressed only a single subject or crop, were generally brief (two to three pages) with basic information in a recipe type format. The subject was usually independent of other farm needs or constraints and was therefore often fragmented and incomplete. This form of presentation was assumed to be sufficient at the time and appeared to satisfy the requirements of the majority of farmers. Those needing greater detail had ready access to farm advisory officers who could provide the reasoning and logic behind the advice.

The notes presented significant filing and retrieval problems for both users (producers) and suppliers (QDPI); they were easily lost and required frequent replacement. Their one major advantage was that they were readily updated at minimal cost.

The present

The emergence of computer technology such as word processing in the 1980s facilitated the compilation of farm notes into one publication, the Darling Downs Crop Management Notes (the Notes). This occurred in response to a need for more detailed information by growers making increasingly complex and critical management decisions which impacted directly on farm profitability.

The initial Notes were 30 to 40 pages long and were compiled by the advisers and extension agronomists in the region. They focused on high information demand topics as experienced by extension officers, such as, weed control, varietal information and crop economics. Under the generous sponsorship of a major fertiliser company the Notes have evolved into a significant reference on most aspects of grain growing for the region.

Currently, two versions, winter crop and summer crop Notes, are produced for the Darling Downs. They arc updated every two years, with the two versions published in alternate years. Some 2500-3000 copies of each are distributed with a near saturation penetration of grain growers. Each, of approximately 200 A4 pages, provides comprehensive information to assist grain growers and their advisers to make successful crop management decisions. Much of the underlying logic and reasoning associated with crop management advice is outlined in detail.

Additional Crop Management Notes are now published for South Queensland, the Western Darling Downs, The Burnett and Central Queensland.

Survey - Darling Downs Crop Management Notes

The Notes represented a significant commitment of resources by both QDPI and its sponsors, being prepared, published and distributed free of charge to grain growers, agribusiness and educational institutions. It was seen as highly desirable that information be collected to justify this expenditure and to assist with revision of the Notes' content, format and distribution.

A mail survey of 328 grain growers and agribusiness personnel, with 63% response, was undertaken in 1988 after three issues of the new format managementNotes had been distributed. The new format Notes were compiled by a team of Darling Downs extension agronomists, comprised over 100 A4 pages and were printed by a commercial sponsor. Editions surveyed were the 1987 and 1988 Winter Crops and 1987-88 Summer Crops.

Key findings from this work (3) indicated:

High rates of Notes ownership (66% of producers and 95% of agribusiness personnel indicated ownership).

  • Chapters most used were weed control, fertilisers and varietal information.
  • Most (94%) respondents indicated the Notes were moderately to very useful.
  • Good support (62%) for two yearly publication.
  • 22-30% of respondents indicated less use of QDPI staff for advice as a result of owning the Notes, while 5-14% indicated more use.

A majority (52-56%) of producers indicated a willingness to pay $20 for the Notes.

Computerised Extension Systems

In the latter 1980s computerised decision support systems such as WHEATMAN, CQ AG WARE and CHICKBUG have been developed for use in agricultural extension. Others are still being developed. With computer ownership amongst grain growers less than 10%, the target audience for computerised systems is relatively small. These programs have had significant applications for extension agronomists and agribusiness consultants as well as those producers with computers. The benefits from these programs have extended beyond computer users because they are used extensively to derive information which is widely publicised, including its incorporation in the Notes. An important major benefit of program development and use has been the identification of knowledge gaps and research needs.

The advantage of such programs is the interactive process of question and answer with the user which mimics a discussion with an expert or adviser. It ensures that the user considers all relevant information in a logical way to find appropriate advice, whereas in printed material there is a tendency to look for a quick and simple answer and thus overlook important management considerations. For example, printed text containing critical pest information may be ignored as the user refers directly to a pesticide table when proper evaluation may have produced advice that spraying was not warranted. Program users can, in contrast, experience and learn the decision making process of an expert. Computer programs, particularly expert systems, can offer help, explanations, how and why interrogation procedures and most importantly 'What if?' options, where advice under differing sets of circumstances can be reviewed.

The future

Human knowledge on all subjects is accumulating at an ever increasing rate and quickly becoming unmanageable using traditional information recovery techniques. As computers facilitated the development of the Notes so it is very likely that they will be essential to the management and dissemination of information in the future.

To date the reality of the information revolution has not been realised with most people still primarily using paper-based information systems. Current computer technology has enabled the large amount of text comprising the Notes to be stored and edited for output as paper based media. The next step will be to publish the Notes on disk and to develop systems which allow the user direct interaction with this corpus of information. At its simplest, the user should be able to undertake simple key word searches to access information relevant to words or phrases of interest.

Hypertext is a development which enables information to be presented in a non-sequential but logical flow on a particular subject. Hypertext provides information workers with the tools to create paths through, or links within and external to the information, giving the inquirer greater flexibility and selectivity in the topics on which they require information.

Hypertext (2) is the key to effective use of a large number of separate information sources and databases provided that information based organisations such as QDPI capture their information in an electronic format. Most publications are processed electronically and these files need to be captured so that they can be linked in hypertext / hypermedia systems.

Hypermedia is simply an extension of hypertext that incorporates other media with text. Links or paths may go to graphics, animation, video or audio rather than just going to another piece of text. Multimedia, whilst similar to hypermedia, reflects more the merging of two pervasive electronic technologies; the personal computer and the video. Future products from this marriage will incorporate the entertainment and educational qualities of video, animation and graphics, and the interactivity and 'intelligence' of computers. Such products are likely to impact on all aspects of work and recreation. An early application of such technology is QDPI's INFOPEST, a text based database for pest management currently being developed to incorporate high resolution, full colour images of pests to aid usability and effectiveness of learning.

A possible scenario using the Notes as the central information corpus could involve links from the summary of crop varietal information contained in the Notes to a separate report with the full varietal trial data. In a more sophisticated system the chickpea pest section could be linked to an interactive decision support model such as CHICKBUG.

Such information systems require large amounts of permanent computer data storage. This has traditionally been met by centralised mainframe computer databases accessed by telephone lines. Such systems have not achieved widespread adoption and increasingly optical disk storage devices (e.g. CD-ROM: Compact Disk - Read Only Memory) are being used to disseminate large bodies of information. Current CD technology can store 300,000 pages of text on a 13 cm silver disk. Many applications of these technologies are emerging - library bibliographies, court judgements, government procedures and recently in the USA, moves to publish information relating to the agricultural sector (1,4). It is well within current technology and financial considerations to publish annually a CD-ROM with QDPI's entire publication output.

Conclusion

Information has become an important resource. Computer technology has become an essential tool for meeting the information needs of Darling Downs grain grower. It will continue to facilitate the development of both paper based and electronic crop management information systems.

References

4. Ada, R.L. and Jamieson, A.M. 1990. Proceedings of the QDPI Extension Conference, May 1990, QDPI Publication No. QC9002, 113-117.

5. Jonassen, D. 1989. Hypertext/hypermedia. Educational Technology Publications, New Jersey.

6. Jones, Q., Palu, L., Harris, G. and McIntyre, G. 1991. In: Darling Downs Crop Management Notes, Survey Report. QDPI publication in press.

7. Tate, T. and Jones, P. 1987. SAE Technical Paper No. 87 - 5009, Am. Soc. Agric. Eng.

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