July 24, 2016
Written By Adam Buckallew
The Next Revolution in Agriculture
Thanks to precision agriculture and advancements in equipment and computing technology, farmers are building a treasure trove of production information. The wealth of data generated by precision agriculture technology has enormous potential, but it’s what farmers do with this information that matters. If properly analyzed, farm data can reveal patterns, trends and insights capable of helping farmers become more efficient with their land and resources.
Many in agriculture believe ag data will be the thing that sparks the next wave of progress in farming.
In an October 2015 statement to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst testified, “It is extremely likely that the big data movement – and the innovative technologies and analytics it yields – could lead to at least as much change in agriculture as the Green Revolution and the adoption of biotechnology. Farmers are reporting higher yields, fewer inputs, more efficiency and, importantly, higher profits thanks to technology.”
Unlocking the Power of Ag Data
Len Nall understands the value that can be found in analyzing his farm’s data. So much so that’s he’s invested heavily in precision agriculture technology in his tractors, sprayers, combines and cotton pickers to make sure his farm’s data is effectively captured.
Nall has 18 tractors that he and his partners at Delta Farms use on their 16,000 acres of farmland they manage in and around Lake City, Ark. They’ve spent $25,000 per tractor to equip them with ultra-precise RTK satellite navigation technology that is accurate within a half-inch in any direction.
“We need pin-point precision in our tractors’ auto-steer programming because we use a lot of furrow-irrigated raised beds,” Nall says. “The accuracy the RTK guidance technology provides is beneficial for our yield maps and input applications as well because of its exactness. We get highly detailed maps and reports that we use to better manage our farming operation.”
As precision agriculture technology has progressed, the data it generates has become increasingly valuable to farmers. Nall has been stockpiling data generated from his farm’s fields of corn, soybeans, rice and cotton for several years. The data is used to create yield maps – georeferenced data sets that record crop production and other characteristics. Yield maps provide an easy way for farmers to review past crop performance and identify problematic areas in fields that call for different management tactics.
“We’re now capable of doing a lot of things with our data that’s just recently become possible, like variable-rate fertilizer applications and planting prescriptions,” Nall says. “That’s where the real value from this technology shines.”
Nall works with a consultant who helps him map his soils and their variability. The consultant uses equipment with sensors that are placed two feet apart and pulled through fields to measure electrical conductivity. This generates a report that quickly and accurately identifies soil types and characterizes other differences such as pH, organic matter and topographical information. This data gives Nall a good idea of how well his fertility program is performing and where he may need to tweak it to improve nutrient efficiency.
Getting the Most Out of Every Acre
James Wilson manages Hartung Brothers Farms, a family farming operation in Macon, Mo. He has been collecting yield data on their farmland since 1998. Wilson’s yield maps show him where he’s doing well and spots in fields that have issues. Like Nall, Wilson conducts soil tests to determine fertility needs. The tests are conducted using 2.5-acre grid patterns to ensure good spatial representation of fields is obtained to form a nutrient map.
“We take the yield maps and overlay them with our nutrient maps to develop our plan for each field,” Wilson says. “This gives us the information we need to create variable fertility prescriptions that fit the needs of each zone.”
Customizing his fertilization plan for specific areas allows Wilson to reduce his input costs across his family’s 1,300 acres of farmland.
“We’ve seen a big difference in our fertilizer expenses by moving from a flat rate fertility application to a variable-rate plan,” Wilson says. “That helps us avoid putting fertilizer on sections of fields that don’t need it and makes sure the areas that might need more than others get the right amount. This reduces over-fertilization expenses, and those savings can add up in a hurry.”
This spring Wilson added variable-rate seeding to his farming practices.
“We’re using our knowledge of the soil types, topography and long-term yield history of each field to adjust the amount of seed we place on specific points within each field,” Wilson says. “This allows us to increase or decrease seed populations when needed to optimize our yield and get the most out of each field.”
Wilson says using a variable rate for fertility and planting improves his farm’s performance, efficiency and profits.
“Every field has its own unique conditions, and you have to match your plans accordingly,” Wilson says. “We have a mix of river bottom and hilly farmland. Our strategy in the river bottoms is different than the hilly ground. The variable-rate approach allows us to tailor our plans to give us the best chance at maximizing yield and consistency across all of our acres.”
Convenience of the Cloud
The insights farmers can glean from their data is only worthwhile if it is accurate. That is why collecting correct yield data and other information from the field is vital to any farmers interested in putting big data to work on their operations.
Nall typically checks harvest totals in his grain bins in comparison with the yield data his combines transmit from the field to see how it correlates. He says it is usually close, but the equipment occasionally needs to be recalibrated to improve accuracy.
The setup of farm sensors and the software used to analyze the data can be tricky. Scott Shearer, a professor and chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, advises working with technical experts who are knowledgeable about the specific farm machinery and technology a farmer intends to use. Once the equipment and programs are ready for use, many are now capable of beaming data directly to cloud-based computing systems that store the information for farmers.
“Connectivity to the cloud has made it much easier for farmers to take full advantage of the data they are generating,” Shearer says. “Auto-syncing data from the field greatly improves the chances that the data will be properly recorded and used by farmers.”
Wilson says the immediate access to his yield maps, variable-rate plans and the rest of his farm data via the Internet is a great advantage. Some of his equipment is set up to automatically transmit from the field to the cloud, but he still has some machinery that records its data on a portable memory device that must be downloaded before it is ready to be integrated with the rest of his information.
Wilson appreciates the convenience of the automatic data transfers, noting, “It saves a lot of worry. I think you’re going to see a lot of farms start managing their data like this. It really makes the process so much quicker and easier.”
Deciphering the Data
Although precision agriculture has been providing an unprecedented amount of data to farmers for many years, not all farmers know what to do with the data once they have it. Wilson understands how this could discourage some farmers who are looking for answers from their data.
“I could spend hours looking through all the data we generate on our farm,” Wilson says. “There’s so much information out there that it can become overwhelming. It’s taken us several years to work up to the level we are at now.”
Similarly, Nall concedes it is not always easy to see how to best take advantage of the vast streams of data.
“We have 18 guys who work for us, and none of them know how to manage the data,” Nall says. “I do most of that on my own right now, but it can be difficult to interpret. We work with consultants to help us create and adjust our variable-rate prescriptions. We may have to look at hiring someone to manage our data at some point in the future.”
Though Wilson also manages the majority of his data on his own, he sees the value of working with advisers to aid in his data analysis and the development of variable-rate prescriptions.
“It’s important to find ways to take advantage of all the resources we have at our disposal,” Wilson says. “Analyzing our farm’s data and applying the insights we learn from it has without a doubt helped us push yields higher and increase our overall profitability.”
There are many ways farmers can use their data beyond seeding and fertility prescriptions. Technology now exists that allows farmers to view real-time data on their crops, soils, equipment and weather instantly via smart phones and tablets.
This enables farmers like Nall to keep tabs on his fields and equipment from anywhere. Whether he’s using infrared satellite imaging to review crop growth or is checking on harvest progress, the data is right at his fingertips.
“The technology has made it much easier to manage our farmland in many different ways,” Nall says. “I can get a good feel for how well seed varieties are performing without even setting foot in a field. My system will also show me where all of our tractors are and what they’re doing at any given time.”
The precision of Nall’s RTK GPS systems in his equipment allows his machinery to interact in clever ways. His sprayers have automatic section control capabilities that can prevent unnecessary applications by detecting areas of fields that have already been sprayed or those that are not meant for production. The shared data between equipment is also helpful to Nall during harvest.
“Our combines and tractors will sync up to match their speeds and directional heading, which helps prevent mistakes during harvest,” Nall says.
Though he has found many ways his data can boost productivity and efficiency on the farm, Nall believes he and most farmers have only scratched the surface when it comes to taking full advantage of the true power of farm data.
“We’ve got so much technology, and we’re still in the learning phase with much of it,” Nall says. “There are lots of things that make more sense now than they did a few years ago, but we know there’s more we could be doing. The data is there, and we know it’s valuable. We just need to put it to better use.”