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Precision ag Q&A

This year's International Precision Ag Conference in Minneapolis included the University of Minnesota's first-ever lifetime achievement award in precision agriculture. At the event, Alvin (Al) McQuinn, founder of Ag-Chem Company, received the award in a public presentation. He took the opportunity to speak about the progress made to date in precision agriculture. A few days later, we caught up with McQuinn to find out why he is shaking his finger at ag equipment companies.

Precision Ag seems to be growing very fast. What's wrong with the way things are moving now?

I'd ask you this question: What is your definition of precision ag? Collecting yield data? Driving in a straight line? That's not enough. But this is about as far as most farmers get when thinking about the technology, and companies should be doing more to help them see the bigger picture. It's up to the companies to bring it all together in an all-encompassing, scientifically based system.

So what are the components of a complete precision ag system?

It must address all the information that goes into raising a crop. First you need to realize there are two types of data that need to be collected and managed. The first is field diagnostic data inputs. That includes things like soil tests, yield monitor data, pest scouting records, remote sensing, crop rotation history, seed varieties planted, weather and topology. Then you must keep precise records of field activity and data inputs. That would include variable-rate inputs such as seed, fertilizer, lime, pesticides and manure. Managing and understanding it requires a sophisticated central database accessible by farmers and the ag services industry.

But aren't systems that farmers can move from one machine to the next already available to help them collect and use data throughout the production season?

Yes, but only to a very limited degree. Remember that most fertilizer and chemical inputs are now applied by custom applicators with big machines like the TerraGator. So if a farmer's equipment isn't compatible with the system that's putting on most of the inputs, that's a huge opportunity lost.

So what's the incentive for AGCO, John Deere and CNH to get together to develop a common standard for precision ag? Doesn't each company believe it has the best system and will ultimately win, forcing the other companies to adopt their way of doing things? Look at what Microsoft did with desktop computer software.

Maybe some companies think that way, but I don't believe any of the big equipment manufacturers can succeed with that kind of strategy. We'll just end up with more of what we have now — a fragmented industry made up of incompatible, dumb black boxes. The companies are building a fence around themselves. If there is no common standard for the management of data collected, immense amounts of information will be either uncollected or unusable for improving farmer profitability.

So what's the solution?

The mobile phone industry could serve as a model. In 1998, the four major companies established an independent company, called Symbian, with the mandate of developing and licensing an open operating system that would be established as the world standard for new “smart” phones. A common global standard now allows mobile phone users to share data with anyone, regardless of phone manufacturer.

If that happens with ag equipment manufacturers, an immense amount of data will become available that can be compared, analyzed and overlaid. I think those comparisons will provide the surprises and insights that will allow farmers to make the next leap forward in productivity.

For the complete text of Al McQuinn's Precision Ag Conference speech, Click here .

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