Roy Wendte, a farmer from Altamont, Ill., remembers the first spreadsheet program, Visicalc, from 1982. His University of Illinois master's thesis at that time focused on crop-production software. He’s built his own spreadsheets ever since then for budgets, crop production and yield analysis. “I don’t know how a producer could track of all of the farm data without spreadsheets’ immense time savings and analysis of 'what if' scenarios,” he says.

His 86-year-old mother tracks farm income and expenses with a double-entry program for cash basis accounting. “She’s always used Red Wing programs to produce balance sheets and income statements," says Wendte. "I use Excel for budgets, crop production and yield analysis. I don’t know how a producer could track of all of the farm data without spreadsheets’ immense time-savings and analysis of 'what if' scenarios.

"Excel is easy and flexible to use. I can do some 'what ifs' by changing various inputs by field or crop, and the numbers flow down right in front of me," he says. "I can make crop production plans five or six years out and know what I need to do to meet the plan. Your imagination is the only limit."

Admittedly, Wendte knows not all farmers want to create their own spreadsheets. He suggests University of Illinois’ FAST (Farm Analysis Solution Tools – (http://bit.ly/Q62lCM) is one way to "avoid reinventing the wheel." Pre-made Excel spreadsheets can help perform financial analysis, assess investment decisions and evaluate the impact of various management decisions. FAST spreadsheets have seven areas of farm business analysis and include crop and livestock tools, loan analysis, grain marketing, risk management, yield and land database tools and financial and investment analysis. FAST spreadsheets require Windows operating systems to use, the site says.

Other universities offer similar spreadsheets, including 119 Excel decision tools that are part of Iowa State University's Ag Decision Maker (www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/)."We link each spreadsheet to fact sheets and include contact information so farmers know where to go for help," says Ann Johanns, Extension program specialist. "Our spreadsheets cover enterprise budgets and have information from our annual estimates for various crops and livestock. We also have calculators focused on finance, leasing and other business information. Farmers can choose preloaded Iowa data or put in their own."

For example, Johanns says the cash-rent spreadsheet allows tenants and landlords to go through different methods for calculating rents based on the acreage's corn suitability rating (CSR). The spreadsheet contains average CSRs for each Iowa county and the state.

"You can input as much or as little information as you have, change variables, and everything calculates for you," she adds. "It is easy to use and print to share with lenders and landlords.

"Our most heavily downloaded information file is the Iowa custom rate survey. But often, farmers will use the rates in the publication without also using the machinery cost calculator," she says. "You can more accurately assess what to charge when you input your own unique costs. My husband plugged our farm's machinery data into the calculator, and validated that he was within 40 cents of the average and within the survey's range of what others were charging. That gives me great confidence these spreadsheets work."