Farm Progress

More farmers are using data-driven information to help them make better crop management decisions.

February 27, 2017

4 Min Read
DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS: Matt Darr, an Iowa State University professor of ag and biosystems engineering, sees new opportunities in digital agriculture. “It’s about using precision information to help farmers do things better, more efficiently and profitably.”

When times are tight, technology and big data can help farmers boost production and squeeze the most revenue out of every acre. At the recent 2017 Iowa Soybean Association Research Conference in Des Moines, more than 200 farmers, agronomists and industry stakeholders learned about opportunities to get the most out of technological advancements and the information it provides.

Matt Darr, a professor in ag and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, discussed “New Opportunities in Digital Agriculture” on opening day Feb. 7 of the two-day conference. Darr’s topic was one of four major presentations delivered that day.

Ag data, ranging from yield maps to prescriptive planting and fertilizer plans, can greatly speed the advancement of crop production practices by augmenting natural knowledge growth with data-driven information. The technology essentially aims to pack 50 years of farming knowledge into a 40-year farming career. “Ag data is about using information to accelerate the learning curve a little faster,” Darr says. “To survive and grow, agriculture evolves. Horses gave way to tractors many years ago. And yield monitors and autosteering systems, introduced in the 1990s, are now common on farms.”

Next generation will do it differently
The next generation of soybean, corn and livestock producers will evolve and do things differently as well. Technology and big data — defined as both structured and unstructured data whose scale, diversity and complexity require new architecture, techniques and algorithms and analytics to manage and extract value and hidden knowledge — will lead the way.

Data will help farmers use equipment section controls to reduce overapplication of crop inputs, says Darr. For example, some farmers using this technology now plant thousands of soybean seeds less per acre without sacrificing production. They lower their costs and increase profitability. Or some farmers apply fertilizer at variable rates. The rate is increased or decreased in certain areas of fields to maximize revenue and productivity.

Drones are helping some farmers quickly asses crop damage and nutrient needs to make in-season management decisions. Data services products, aerial imagery, and crop and nutrient modeling are other useful tools. “It’s about helping farmers do things better, more efficiently and profitably,” notes Darr.

Take advantage of these opportunities
He lists five opportunities in digital agriculture that farmers should take advantage of:
• Protect your data for current and future applications. The Agricultural Data Coalition is developing a farmer-controlled data warehouse for the safe storage and sharing of data.
• Use data benchmarking for field level continuous improvement. Aggregated data can be used to compare production practices, seed, inputs, etc., with others to make better decisions.
• Evaluate the profitability of your current production practices. Profitability maps can help producers locate areas within fields that are historically money pits.
• Use imagery to get a different look at your farming operation.
• Maintain the value of your equipment. Data can help minimize idle time, lowering hours of use to mitigate depreciation.

“We are in the very early stages of the ag data industry. Very few products exist with a bullet-proof ROI, return on investment,” says Darr.

Many ISA members are rapidly adopting technology and using data in their farming operations. ISA president-elect Bill Shipley of Nodaway, who attended Darr’s presentation, is surprised more aren’t doing so. Shipley used grid sampling to test soil fertility and has been mapping fields for 17 years. He also uses row shut-offs and variable rate seeding and fertilizer.

Use your data to make better decisions
“This all takes time and monetary input to accomplish, but I know it pays to meet the long-range goals of our farm,” Shipley says. “You need to use your data to make decisions.”

Some other examples provided by Darr on how data and technology can help:
• A farmer working with ISU planted two corn hybrids in one 170-acre field. Detailed planting and yield maps revealed one hybrid averaged 176 bushels per acre while the other 131 bushels per acre.
• Analysis of a soybean field with four different soil types showed there was a $95 per acre difference in revenue between soil types.
• In a profit benchmarking study of a field, data shows if the producer stopped farming the lowest yielding 20% of the field, the potential increases to double per acre profit.

ISA member Randy Souder of Rockwell City says data usage can help him be more efficient and unleash the true potential of his land. “As we generate data on our farms, and if we share it with the research community, we can use the results to help make better decisions on what works best for different soil types,” he says. “Looking to the future, I think what we consider high yields today will look like borderline crop failures in the future.”

Source: Iowa Soybean Association


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