Data Truths — How Data Helps with Decision Making

Farming technologies have come a long way in the last two centuries. Modern agriculture has witnessed a technology boom that farmers a century ago would scarcely recognize.

Technological advancements allow today’s farmers to work much more efficiently than those in the past. Soil sensors gauge soil moisture levels and send alerts when irrigation is needed. Today’s combines have a larger capacity and utilize tailored software to relay information like yield and moisture levels to the farmer in real time during harvest.

Through the use of aerial imagery from satellites and drones to GPS-supported technologies such as autosteer and site-specific spray prescriptions, farmers are able to make more informed decisions, leading to profitability while reducing their environmental footprint.

Collecting this much data creates another problem — what to do with it and how to manage it. Data related to soil composition, historical yield trends and inputs can be overwhelming. The checkoff is working to solve this problem with research that provides solutions to help farmers better utilize and manage data, ultimately leading to greater farm profitability.

“We try to make good use of our data,” says Laurie Isley, a soy checkoff farmer-leader from Michigan. “We do regular soil testing on our farm, so we have a deep understanding of our farm’s soil health, and we make our fertilizer decisions based off the results. We also use precision technology and data points to help us ensure we only apply nutrients when the soybean plant needs it so it’s not wasted.”

Isley farms in the Maumee River watershed, part of the larger Lake Erie watershed in Southeast Michigan. The region is not immune to water quality issues. Keeping nutrients on the land and out of the waterways is an environmental concern she takes seriously.

“We generally have sandy soil on our farm,” Isley says. “We use data to show us where and how we can make the soil the best for our crops. We also use other management tools like cover crops to help keep the soil in place. We have a crop growing on our land 12 months a year.”

Tony Mellenthin, a soy checkoff farmer-leader from Wisconsin, agrees, saying, “Data collection is one of the most important tools we have to make decisions on the farm moving forward. From yield maps and collecting to tillage maps, we use data to make decisions that maximize our bottom line.”

Mellenthin also points out that yields are critical to profitability.

“We not only have yield maps on our fields, but we also have soil sampling for each field. When we combine those two data sets, we can zero in on where nutrients are and are not needed. It is good for the farm and good for the environment. And, it’s in our best interest to ensure our soil, water and air are available for the next generation of farmers.”

Derek Potter, a North Carolina soy checkoff farmer-leader, grows soybeans, corn, wheat and timber. He says every time he goes across a field, he collects data. Farmers have many data points that can help them make on-farm decisions.

“Sometimes, the problem is that we have too much data,” says Potter. “We want to make sure we are correctly interpreting what the data is actually telling us.”

If a farmer would like to dive deeper into data collection and analysis, Potter suggests finding a mentor or someone trustworthy to talk to.

“You can spend a lot of money on data. You can get pretty maps that look good, but what are you going to do with it?” he says. “Find someone who is doing something that you are interested in trying. See how it works before you spend money on something that might not work on your farm.”

Technology is an indispensable part of every farm, regardless of size. Through technology, farmers maximize yields by controlling variables like moisture levels, crop stress, soil moisture conditions and ever-changing climates. Data collection enables farmers to make informed decisions to increase efficiency and more accurately manage costs.

“We cannot eliminate every variable. Weather is going to do what it does. But by using modern technology and data to our advantage, we can increase yield and profitability,” says Isley.

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