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Today’s farms awash in data: But what to do with it?

JOHN FULTON left Ohio State University associate professor and Terry Griffin center Griffin Consulting Little Rock Ark speakers at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association visit with Jason Ward Mississippi State University Extension associate professor of agricultural engineering
<p><em style="font-size: 13px;"><strong>JOHN FULTON, left, Ohio State University associate professor, and Terry Griffin, center, Griffin Consulting, Little Rock, Ark., speakers at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association, visit with Jason Ward, Mississippi State University Extension associate professor of agricultural engineering.</strong></em></p>
&ldquo;Eighty percent of the data being generated by farm machinery in the U.S. today still resides on those machines &mdash; it never gets into a form that can be analyzed and ultimately used by the farmer or others,&rdquo; says John Fulton, associate professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological engineering at Ohio State University. But that is going to change, he says, as crop insurance and reporting for programs in the new farm bill will utilize that data.

The technology that has revolutionized agriculture — saving labor, time, energy and inputs — is creating another challenge for farmers and others all along the production/marketing chain: massive amounts of data.

And surrounding all that data are a host of questions about how it can be used, who owns it, who can access it, how private it can be, etc.

“Today, the average corn farmer in the U.S. can easily generate 0.5 kilobits of data per plant per year, or 26 megabytes per acre per year,” says John Fulton, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.

Multiply that across a thousand acres, or thousands of acres, and the amount of data becomes enormous, he says. But the majority of that data isn’t being captured for analysis and use.

“Eighty percent of the data being generated by farm machinery in the U.S. today still resides on those machines — it never gets into a form that can be analyzed and ultimately used by the farmer or others,” says Fulton, who is associate professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological engineering at Ohio State University.

But that is going to change, he says, because of provisions in the new farm bill that call for farmer reporting of data related to government programs and crop insurance.

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The one source reporting of previous farm bills can’t be used, Fulton says. “In the past six months, the Farm Services Agency has hired people to enable electronic reporting for farmers who enroll in government programs. FSA is looking at yield data, at planted data, and other digital information.

“In my opinion, this is one key element that will push farmers into the digital age. It is going to enable them to better, more easily, and at much less cost, enroll in and do the reporting these programs require.”

The Risk Management Agency and crop insurance companies all have software that utilizes data from precision agriculture systems, Fulton says. “They can use yield monitor data to confirm a farmer’s loss or yield, and they’re starting to look at data from precision planter equipment to verify true acreage planted.”

Precision technology rapidly proliferating

Over 60 percent of U.S. farmers are now using or have access to some form of precision technology, and that percentage is rapidly growing, he says. “Today, all large farm equipment leaves the manufacturer guidance-enabled. Guidance systems have become as standard as air conditioning on pickups. And other technologies, such as variable rate, are already built in.

“Nearly 90 percent of all machines rolling out of factories today have another key component on them: a modem that enables a machine to connect to the Internet and transmit data. Most of those modems are turned on as the machines leave the factory.

“Not only can the manufacturer track that machine when it’s delivered to the producer, but they have the ability to extract data from that machine and transmit it back to the company. They can obtain a wide range of information about how their machines are actually being used and how they’re operating under field conditions — data they can use to change and improve future models.”

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On many farm machines today, he notes, there is an electrical bus that can generate 900 bits of data per second on how the machine is operating, uptime, downtime, etc., and that bus is tied into a link that drives the data to the manufacturer. “We’re seeing more of this than ever before.”

Sustainability is another factor driving agriculture’s adoption of technology, he says.

“Major corporations like Walmart, Kroger, Kraft, Kellogg’s, and others are making sustainability a key component of their business structure, and they want to know that farmers are playing their part in the process.

“We’re also seeing major national commodity leaders or their representatives talking about how farmers are going to be sustainable in the future. I think this is going to have a profound effect on how farmers produce and market their corn, cotton, and other commodities.

“The key component in all this is data — how we’re going to link up all these data streams to show a farmer is being sustainable. Farm organizations are actively involved in steering this in a way that will help farmers work it into their management programs.

“I think the influence of crop insurance and sustainability is really going to push digital agriculture rapidly forward in the U.S.,” Fulton says.

The influence of seed

Seed technology is also a key part of today’s agricultural technology picture, he says. “It’s the major part of the cost of a bag of seed. On average, the cost of seed for corn is $125 per acre, of which $100 is for the technology in that seed.”

But increasingly sophisticated machinery will be a major factor in the mountains of data being generated at the farm level, he says.

“For example, you can now buy from John Deere a 120-foot 48-row planter. It’s a very complex machine that monitors every row for down force and adjusts for the proper amount so each seed is planted properly, with precise spacing and depth regardless of soil type. Not only does technology allow the farmer to best manage the planting of his expensive seed — just think of all the data that rolls out of that machine.

“These very large data sets, and the graphs, charts, and visual representations that can be generated, can enable the farmer or consultant to very easily see issues that may exist anywhere in the field — variations in yield, different varieties, etc. — and this can be done remotely from anyplace in the world with Internet access. This is a very powerful tool to allow a farmer to insure that his equipment is performing to the maximum and to make fertility or other adjustments obtain maximum yield across a field.”

To that end, Fulton says, “We’re now seeing a lot of players forming partnerships and vertical linkages: machinery companies, telematics providers, genetics/seed companies, software developers/service providers, third party data/precision ag service companies, data co-ops, etc.”

There is taking place “a unique shift” in the way things have traditionally been done in the agricultural sector, he says. “Now, we’re seeing very distinct linkages between companies. We’re seeing input companies telling machinery manufacturers what they want, and one of the motivations is for seed companies to capture and understand data about how their technology is technology is being planted.”

He cited the example of Beck’s Hybrids, an Indiana company that wanted a planter that would do multi-hybrid planting on the go. “They linked with Raven and Kinze and today, after three years of development, they have the planter they wanted, and they’ve sold 100 percent of those planters for 2015. Another company, Stine Seed in Iowa, told John Deere how they wanted planters built. Case, John Deere, and other companies are now offering planters fully loaded with a wide range of technologies.

“So, here we have seed companies telling machinery companies how they want to build a planter to get the most from every seed. It’s a very significant change in how companies are looking at research and development, even on the engineering side.”

UAVs: Even more data

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will also increasingly be a tool in agriculture, Fulton says, and the images they capture from aloft will be another source of large amounts of data.

“We’re working with UAVs at Ohio State, in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory, and we’re now at 98 percent confidence in using UAV imagery to calculate corn plant populations.”

So accurate are the images, he says, “We can even tell the orientation of those plants, how’re they’re oriented in relation to north. We’re talking about resolution of 2 centimeters or less, and the Air Force Laboratory is considering going down to almost millimeter resolution — just think of all the data that will generate.”

It’s not hard to see, Fulton says, that growers “will increasingly have a significant investment in data-generating technology going, and that’s another reason they’re increasingly concerned about what companies may be doing with their data.”

How those data are handled is still in flux, he says. “Machinery data, yield data, production data can be passed to whomever the producer wants to share it with, to manage it, and generate prescriptions for the farmers.

“But, the reality is that 95 percent of farmers will rely on someone else — perhaps a trusted data consultant — to analyze their data. They don’t have the time or the inclination to sit down and analyze all that data and generate prescriptions for nutrients or chemical applications.”

A number of companies are already providing prescription services from farm-generated data, Fulton says, and this often necessarily involves sharing of data between companies.

The bottom line, he says, is that “there’s a tremendous amount of data being generated in today’s agriculture. The challenge is, how do we put all that data into useful form to allow the producer or his consultant to take advantage of that and drive information back to the farm?”



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