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Coalition supports mass collection of farm data

artiemedvedev/Getty Images farmer holding tablet
DATA COLLECTION: AGree, which has established a coalition to work on agricultural data collection, integration and analysis, hopes that information will help producers be more productive, profitable and resilient.
Can big data collection help farmers mitigate climate change?

Farmers have been collecting data on their farms for years to help boost productivity and to address environmental concerns. But can data-gathering from many sources translate to actionable information to further improve business processes and solve problems at scale and speed, while also considering emerging weather events or disease outbreaks?

“We think innovation in the collection and use of data can help address the broad suite of questions and provide opportunities in production, including and not limited to the financial and environmental performance increases in production intensity, and how to manage extreme weather events, as well as ensuring the success of rural communities,” says Deborah Atwood, who is the executive director of AGree, which has established a coalition to work on agricultural data integration and analysis.

“The systems and agreements are needed for the use of this data by qualified researchers both inside USDA and in the land-grant community, while protecting producer privacy,” she adds.

Atwood recently moderated a webinar panel discussion with agriculture industry leaders to talk about data innovation.

Bill Northey, principal at WHNorthey, Iowa farmer and past president of the National Corn Growers, says he installed a yield monitor in the 1990s, which made it evident not every field or every meter within a field was the same.

“It gave us the ability to try different nitrogen rates, which then evolved into no-till, strip till and cover crops, which had a major impact as time went on,” he says. “The opportunity for us to be able to measure across everybody's experiences would be welcome.

“Every year is different, every soil is different, every location is different, but that ability to understand those differences can make that information way more valuable than one farm’s information. I would love for us to have a longer-term vision and to be able to share that information across many farms.”

That information could provide a greater sense of how cover crops decrease the risk in drought, Northey says, or in a wet year, how no-till might allow for the crop to be planted earlier than tilled ground.

Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, who has also worked with the American Farm Bureau Federation, remembers when Farm Bureau was one of the leading climate change skeptics.

“They [farmers] perceived climate change as a threat and an attempt to get in the middle of their farming operations,” he says. “There was never an outreach saying you're going to benefit by working through this process, or this is going to be good for you. But now, farmers are suffering the consequences of a planet where the climate is changing, so we had to make that transition.”

Data needs

Farmers are looking to adopt practices that have “economic as well as ecological and agronomic benefits,” says Steve Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Association.

To harness that data, Censky says farmers need incentives, such as cost-sharing, grants and loans. “Equipment is expensive, but they also need good technical service to help analyze data,” he says. “Some farmers are really good at looking at the data themselves, but others need help to transform the information into insights.”

Another crucial component to advancing the initiative is access to broadband. “The United Soybean Board did a survey recently and found that 60% of farmers that responded said they do not have adequate broadband to run their businesses as efficiently as they would like,” Censky explains. “Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go for USDA to streamline the ability of the farmer to download data from his equipment or his management databases into the government to comply with the reporting requirements.”

Another obstacle noted by the panelists is concern with data ownership and privacy. “We have to make sure that we are safeguarding this information,” Censky says.

Privacy concerns impeded early adaptation of yield monitors and other data collection, “but that's slowly progressing, and growers are quickly starting to realize there is a use, a benefit, for this data,” Doggett notes. “It soon became apparent it enables you to improve productivity, improve the bottom line and to continue to do more with less. But we need to quit looking at things in a snapshot and look at trends.”

Censky cited a young, east-central South Dakota farmer whose farm sometimes suffers from drought. “He’s an early adopter of technology using data,” Censky says. “Recent data — like three to five years — helps him make minor management decisions, but using years of data may help him make major investments or decide to take a part of a field out of production because it's less profitable.”

On his farm, data insight has led to additional attention to more productive lands and calculations on investing in irrigation systems, as well as adopting a three-crop rotation because of the drought risk.

“So, all of this is empowered and made possible by data, because otherwise you're just guessing,” Censky adds.

The process

The capacity to collect data needs to grow, according to all the panelists. Northey says it could be with sensors on planters or remote-sensing fields with drones and airplanes to better understand combine performance. “It might mean looking at the impact on nutrition and how to get better yields on rangeland and to be able to make sure we feed those cows in a dry year,” he says.

The first hurdle — acceptance of data generation — has been largely overcome, Doggett says. Secondly, this effort requires identifying what needs to be measured and how do you measure it. “There’s a lot of new technologies coming out and a lot of brand-new players in agriculture,” he says.

“The third part is tough; it’s figuring out what to do with the data. Most are probably either one side of the spectrum; you have too much data, or you don't have enough data and can't really discern how to use it.”

Implementing new practices also comes with some challenges. “Sixty[%] to 70% of the land farmed is owned by someone else [other than the farmer],” Doggett points out. “The family [landowner] maybe won't let you no-till because that wasn't the way Dad did 40 years ago,” he adds. “We need USDA to help validate some of those things and be a partner … to explain to landlords what it is, and that it’s really in the best interest of the landlord as well.”

Censky says private data could be held by land grants or USDA researchers, who work with retailers to share data. “There’s power in the aggregation of data,” he adds, while noting some insights might come from various databases within USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service or Farm Service Agency.

However, Northey says USDA mostly accepts information based around individual programs, which may be incomparable to the way information was collected in different programs. If that information was sharable, he explains, farmers could have compliance with several different programs at the same time, or USDA might be able to use that information to suggest something else — a different conservation program.

Bottom line, “It's all got to be done for the good of the farmer,” he says.

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