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Corn+Soybean Digest

Adopt big data, or else

Be an early adopter or compete against those who will accelerate farm consolidation.

“You don’t have to adopt new technologies, but you have to compete against those who do,” says Moe Russell, farm management consultant. This sums up the huge advantage that Big Data provides to farmers. One expert compares Big Data profits to the launch of hybrid corn – where new technology separated winners from also-rans.

 “We’re at a Y in the in the road. One group raises 250-300-bushel corn consistently on the best acres within their fields, and the other group doesn’t,” says Steve Becraft, crop input system manger for Cargill’s AgHorizons. “If you produce 180 bushels, that competition is tough. When margins are $50 per acre or less, higher yield has a magnified advantage.” This technological divide, created by better decisions from digital agriculture, will likely be more pronounced after 2019, Becraft says “These data-generated insights will trigger a major turnover in farm operators in the next 10-15 years,” he says.

Cargill recently introduced a data-analysis service, NextField DataRx that aims to improve growers’ data-enhanced decisions.

John Power agrees. “There’s a significant gap between those prepared to adopt this technology and those who are skeptical or fearful of it,” he adds. Power is president and senior advisor of LSC International, Chicago, a global agricultural and food industry consultancy. Some of the future farm consolidation will result from low crop prices forecast for the next several years, along with advancing farmer age, he says.

key players in ag data
This is one global agricultural and food industry consultant’s partial appraisal of where various digital agriculture services currently stack up: John Power, president and senior advisor of LSC International, Chicago, a global agricultural and food industry consultancy. "For many digital agriculture service companies’ the business model is in a state of flux," Power says.

Digital agriculture is the next productivity leap, with decisions based on data from variable-rate planting and input application, multi-hybrid planting, yield maps, benchmarking, swath control and aerial imagery; not from the tools themselves

Data is useless unless it provides insights and decisions. Here are a few real-world farm examples of problems individual farmers never knew they had, revealed by slicing and dicing farm information in new ways to see new correlations and identify causation:

  • Why does corn harvested by combine operator A yield 12% less than corn harvested by combine operator B?
  • Why does corn growing in grain-cart tracks consistently yield less than the rest of a field?
  • Why does corn that emerged on Day 1 yield $19 more per ear than corn emerging on Day 2?
  • Why did corn planted at 5-5.5 mph yield so much more than corn planted at 7 mph (with a three-year old planter)?
  • Why does the crop following sugar beets in rotation consistently yield less than the crop following other crops in rotation?

One agricultural Big Data service identifies a farmer’s top 10 yield-limiting factors by field. It compares 234 data layers from fields to corresponding information from 3.5 million crop acres, to benchmark a client’s agronomic and financial performance.


How to profit from data

Power worked with the Hale Group to develop a farmer-centered transition plan to digital agriculture, based on their research of Iowa farmers’ attitudes toward digital agriculture. Power offers this advice and insights on adapting to agriculture’s digitization:

  • You must develop a digital plan for your farm. How will you capitalize on the agronomic and financial data available to you? Your digital plan includes improved analysis of your finances, marketing, hybrid selection, nutrient management, machinery logistics, and other factors. It embraces your machinery, hardware, software, and human skills. Determine what you and your team can realistically do, and what must be contracted with a vendor. Choose your data provider based on their ability to provide demonstrable, hands-on value and ease of use.
  • Because these new technologies provide such powerful capabilities, your only options are to adapt or exit, Power says. Digital agriculture will accelerate structural change in agriculture.
  • Developing your 21st Century digital skill set is as critical to you as it is to those in other industries.
  • Agriculture is at the cutting edge of 21st Century technology, making it attractive to new entrants. That means new and sophisticated competitors for you.
  • Become more agile and adaptable. A quote to remember: “Adaptability’s become the new key to success, given today’s complex and rapidly changing environment.”  -- U.S. General Stanley McChrystal.
ag data offerings
The marketplace offers a vast range of rapidly evolving digital agriculture services. This Technology Map was developed to help understand this very complex environment. This partial listing of companies provides examples only. Credit: John Power, president and senior advisor of LSC International, Chicago, a global agricultural and food industry consultancy

Data must guide decisions

“While farmers have been grid and zone sampling, mapping yields, using soil maps, EC, imagery and more for many years to characterize and understand field variability, the returns from these efforts have not provided much of a competitive advantage,” says Bruce Erickson, Purdue University precision agriculture expert and director of distance education and outreach. “But telematics and cloud storage are falling into place that should automate the data transfer and storage functions, which have long frustrated them. But even with all of that information at hand, the hardest part is interpreting and making sense of all that information to make management changes—that’s where the value lies.” 

Digital agriculture: the next productivity leap

Farmers using the best available digital decision-making technologies will gain a $33-62 per acre net advantage when corn is $3.50, says Power. This profit gain is driven by better decisions made on nitrogen-use efficiency and input use that raise yields; and from operators’ ability to manage more acres profitably, he says. This profit gain is over and above previous gains from precision-ag precision planting and application equipment.

Big data technology is advancing rapidly, and tech-savvy farmers are adopting it enthusiastically, Power says. 

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