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Big data must help farmers increase profits

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Farm data is more than just a yield monitor plugged into a fertilizer rig.

Big data just for the sake of big data is useless unless it can be incorporated to help farmers increase productivity, efficiency, yields and profits.

That was a clear take away from a March 17 webinar on “Unlocking the Value of Farm Data” sponsored by Ag Launch, Ag Start and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. In the webinar, P.J. Haynie, a Reedville, Va., farmer and chairman of the National Black Growers Council; and Mitchell Hora, an Ainsworth, Iowa farmer and founder of Continuum Ag, a soil health data company, also emphasized that farm data must be owned and controlled by farmers themselves.

Haynie said farm data is more than just a yield monitor plugged into a fertilizer rig to figure out the right amount of fertilizer to apply. He said as with all computers what data you put in is key, so it is important that data be entered accurately and correctly.

“You don’t want that to be skewed where it is a 200-foot lag in the field from where the yield is. Trying to make sure that information is input properly is very important. But the data aspect is really a compilation on the work that we do to see if it’s paying off for the various production, fertility, and agronomic factors that we equate,” Haynie said.

Haynie said there are now more trusted sources and companies serving farmers in data management. The door has been opened with more experts willing to support farmers.

“Before, if it was just the fertilizer guy that’s selling you fertilizer giving you your prescription to put out fertilizer, you might question that source a little more than you would an independent non-biased party,” Haynie said. “You have guys and gals that are coming across the country in non-competitive circumstances, so it’s not like your neighbor’s son who works for the retailer that’s trying to sell you fertilizer.”

Hora said it needs to be easier for growers to get their data into a platform as simply as possible. The key is to get the data in so farmers can ask the right questions of the data to create the insights that can be scaled.

For example, Hora said data can be utilized to improve fertility management. He said farmers can compare grid sampling versus zones and regular soil samples versus the Haney Soil Health Analysis.

“We prefer utilizing zones. We utilize machine learning to build these zones and create better spatial analysis in the field. What we find in that utilizing zones versus grids helps us to implement the better placement component of the 4R practices,” Hora said.

“By utilizing the Haney test and understanding biology, understanding organic nutrients and inorganic nutrients, we can better understand the right rate when implementing the 4R practices. What we have found is that nearly every time, just in better fertility management via rate and placement, a farmer can create return on investment to cover our soil sampling cost just in better fertility placement,” he added.

Hora said Continuum Ag charges just under $10 per acre for soil sampling and that delivers greater than that $10 costs just in managing phosphorous better. He said the system does help farmers improve yields.

“We need to work with biology not against it. In our case study, on our own farm, we’ve actually been able to decrease our total synthetic fertilizer by nearly 50 percent. We’ve decreased our pesticides by nearly 50 percent and are maintaining record yields: Utilizing that data to help us to really drive holistic ROI,” he said.

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