The biggest obstacle facing farmers interested in using data they collect from sensors, GPS systems and yield monitors isn’t lack of technology; it’s lack of time.
Dennis Burns, Louisiana Extension agent and precision agriculture specialist, said during the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference roundtable discussion “Turning Data into Decisions” that many farmers do not take full advantage of the information available from technology.
“The data by itself has no value,” Burns said. “It’s just an expense. Farmers collect a lot of data with yield monitors, grid sampling and other technologies. But are they using it?” he asked a group of farmers and consultants at the annual conference, held this year in Baton Rouge, La.
Burns said the most widely adopted precision agriculture technologies are auto-steer and swath control, “because they are automatic.”
The countless bytes of digital information farmers collect from technology installed in almost every piece of equipment on the farm sit on a virtual shelf gathering virtual dust.
Burns questioned if most farmers who use grid sampling technology, for instance, took the next step to apply a prescription approach to fertility. “Most still use a blend that hits all the base needs.”
Time is the bugbear that gets in the way. “Many farmers can’t justify the time necessary to analyze and use data against potential advantages. They have so much to do, they just don’t have the time,” Burns said.
Farmers have been collecting data for more than 15 years, looking at the potential for variable rate applications for nitrogen and potassium, possibly plant growth regulators in-season. “But comparing application back to yield is the big thing. It takes time. But that yield data is the report card. How did we do? A yield map is a component that gets left out.”
Burns says data may indicate where to vary seeding rates, depending on soil type or other field limitations.
Adequate analysis, he adds, includes looking for trends and normalizing data, analyzing every yield point.
He said a thorough analysis should cover five years, “to make it accurate and to determine what part of a field is most productive and where the weak spots are. That takes time. Field knowledge, identifying a spot that does not hold water, for example, is important.”
Burns says technology in use on most farms provides “layers of information. We just have to learn how to pick it out. A lot often gets lost in the bushes.”
A crop consultant in the audience pointed out that a lot of his growers face time constraints, sometimes just to get the usual planting, management and harvest chores done. “A lot of growers were crunched big time, especially last fall.”
Benefits of using data that’s already collected include pulling soil samples based on management zones, Burns said.
Two farmers, Daniel Arant and John Lindemoot, Tiptonville, Tenn., said they are beginning the process of analyzing data and using the information to make management decisions.
“It’s not so much a matter of saving money,” Lindemoot said, “but of maximizing inputs.”
Fertility management is something farmers can adjust. Fertilizer application may be based on including a maintenance level, most years, in addition to applying what the crop needs for that season. But when fertilizer prices rise, farmers may omit that maintenance level and just apply the crop’s basic requirements.
Outsource Data Management
Burns said farmers may consider outside help to analyze, evaluate and manage data. “We know of companies that will do data management,” he said. Many, however, want to do a complete farm management that may sometimes conflict with other management programs already in place. “Sometimes, farmers just need someone to analyze the data.”
Tommy Young, an Arkansas farmer, said he uses a John Deere system to help manage data. “It’s instantaneous,” he said. “I can see machines at work from my smartphone.”
He said information “is automatically uploaded. That’s a big advantage.”
“If you do engage a company to manage data,” Burns said, “you should remember, it’s your data. You know where the mudholes are and where the best fields are located.”
Off-farm data management may not be overly expensive, Burns said, considering the upside and the time savings. “I know very few farmers who do not have precision agriculture technology. Make it work for you. Collect the data and use it.”
He said farmers have already made the big investment — in the equipment. “You pay the big money up front, you need to make it work for you.”
He estimated that off-farm data management could be as low as $2 per acre.
“We hope to get producers to understand the value of data,” Burns said.
The time or the investment in outside help could be a profitable investment.