Integrating Big Data on Farms Adds Value

Soy checkoff hopes to help farmers use data to cash in on new technology

Recent advancements in precision agriculture, telematics and data analytics have paved the way for the next important step forward in agriculture: incorporating big data on the farm.

Farm data comes from a wide variety of sources. Planters, combines, sprayers, soil tests, remote rainfall monitors and more are just some of the primary tools farmers may employ to record and analyze the efficiency of their operations. And the soy checkoff hopes they do.

Adopting new on-farm technology will allow farmers to develop highly detailed, valuable production plans capable of increasing yield, maximizing resources and improving sustainability. Together, all these benefits lead to increased profitability. For these reasons, the checkoff added goals to its long-range strategic plan focused on making farmers more aware of the technological options available to them and driving adoption of these tools.

Adam Watson, a soybean farmer near Villa Grove, Illinois, is one of many farmers who has embraced this new wave of digital agriculture to enhance his family’s farming operations. He says the information that can be gleaned from his farm’s data is of great worth.

“We have all of this farm data that we’re now able to analyze and evaluate to improve how we’re managing our farm,” Watson says. “It’s really incredible what you can learn and how you can identify ways to improve your efficiency and profitability. Every bushel counts and if you’re not making use of your data, you’re probably missing an opportunity.”

Watson got into big data by starting with yield mapping and began incorporating additional technologies as he grew more familiar with the process. He now uses multiple management programs from a few different companies to analyze his farm data.

“All of the data we collect is georeferenced, so we can easily identify problems within our fields and take the proper steps to correct those issues,” says Watson. “We then use the prescriptive recommendations we receive from our farm-management software to decide the best varieties to plant, proper seeding rates and how much fertilizer to put down. Each of these variables is designed to align with our specific soils and the productivity index of each section of farmland.”

The following are merely examples of the many products available. Farmers should evaluate multiple options before making a decision in order to find the best fit for their operation.

Building a data community

Over the past few years, farmers everywhere have seen an explosion of farm data-management and analysis services. Dennis Bogaards was one of the many farmers wondering how he could take advantage of this new line of products.

Bogaards, who farms a little over 1,000 acres near Pella, Iowa, was trying to find a way to extract more efficiency from his relatively small operation when he heard about Farmers Business Network (FBN).

FBN offers members the opportunity to leverage their own data along with data from other farms. It organizes and analyzes data from all of its nearly-2,000 member farmers and shares it – anonymously – with all the other members, providing a large base of information to use in decision making.

As a result, Bogaards has access to real-world, on-farm performance data that allows him to make more informed decisions about seed varieties, planting populations, row spacing and input applications.

He can also evaluate the financial performance of seed varieties under a wide variety of planting, weather and soil conditions. FBN’s collective of farmers has already contributed detailed yield and performance data for over 1,100 different varieties of seed.

Rather than focusing exclusively on yields, this performance data can break down the financial performance of seed varieties. In other words, Bogaards can use this data to determine if higher-yielding seeds are worth their price tags.

He likes to compare the performance of his fields with similar fields in his region, and he uses this feature as motivation to get better.

“I use FBN to look at my fields and take advantage of information I hadn’t used before,” says Bogaards. “The fact that I can compare my fields to others is a good thing. I think I kind of got complacent with some of my underperforming fields, and this motivates me to improve.”

Streamlined farm management with big data

Jeremy Jack, a soybean farmer near Belzoni, Mississippi, was looking for something to help him manage the sheer amount and variety of work required for his 8,500-acre operation; a way to keep track of his day-to-day tasks and decisions on his farm and consulting operations.

“I needed a tool that could help me keep track of everything going on,” he says.

He found Granular, a farm-management platform. It helps him keep track of his day-to-day activities and keeps him connected with his employees, suppliers and partners.

“We’re growing six different crops,” he says. “I sometimes find it impossible to remember what I did yesterday, much less three months ago. Granular helps me stay on top of things.”

While traditional spreadsheets are cumbersome and time-consuming, with Granular, he can keep tabs on multiple facets of his operation in ways that weren’t possible before.

Jack thinks Granular is easy to use and makes it available for all of his employees. The software keeps track of hours worked, specific tasks completed and other management details, and it organizes all of it across multiple wireless devices.

Ways technology can lead to profit on the farm

Big data can help farmers increase yields, decrease costs and ultimately increase their profits. Having the right tools to gather and make use of farm-generated data is a necessity for anyone interested in putting big data to work on their farm. Here is how some of these technologies can benefit farmers:

Planter – Sophisticated new planters have dual hybrid meters that allow farmers to rotate between two hybrids depending on soil conditions and hybrid characteristics – at any point in the field. This ability allows for opportunities to push yields higher with optimum seed placement.

Combine – Yield monitors calculate and record yield as grain crops are harvested. The GPS tracking technology in yield monitors creates detailed yield maps that allow farmers to zero in on problem areas to identify potential solutions.

Soil Test – Soil testing tells farmers how much fertilizer may be needed to enhance the performance of their crop. This information enables farmers to be more precise with fertilizer applications, which increases efficiency and reduces input costs – all while maintaining, or even increasing, profitability.

UAV – Unmanned aerial vehicles can provide farmers with highly-detailed maps of their farms. UAVs have cameras, sensors and autopilot capabilities to help farmers monitor plant growth, soil conditions, pests and topographic information in their fields.

By aggregating and analyzing their data, farmers can identify patterns and trends that reveal valuable insights. This information can be used to create prescriptive farm plans with pinpoint accuracy to maximize yield, farm efficiency and profitability.

What to consider before diving into big data

While the checkoff wants farmers to start incorporating technology on their farms, it’s also important that each investment is thoroughly researched to maximize the return.

The initial setup of precision agriculture systems, software and sensors is a critical step for farmers who are interested in using big data in their operations, according to Scott Shearer, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University. Collecting accurate yield data is especially important.

Shearer advises working with technical experts who are knowledgeable about the specific farm machinery and technology a farmer intends to use.

“Yield data is a fundamental piece when analyzing farm data,” Shearer says. “Just as it’s hard to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour if you don’t have a vehicle, it’s impossible to do big data analysis on a farm without a trustworthy yield map.”

Shearer recommends farmers think through these five considerations before diving into the world of big data:

  1. Yield monitors are must-have tools that are essential for collecting and archiving production data.
  2. Auto-steer, planter row-shutoff and auto-boom section control in sprayers are technologies farmers should strongly consider, if they’re not already in use.
  3. There is great potential to influence yield with precision planters that can control seed placement depth.
  4. Optimize variety placement and increase the odds of improving yield by using planters with dual hybrid meters that allow farmers to plant varieties that match seed characteristics with field data.
  5. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, but final regulations on their use may determine just how useful and practical they will be to farmers.

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