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Sharing data for profit

Community pooled data reveal the most profitable farming practices.

Jim Nergenah didn't feel he was capturing enough value from his five years of geo-referenced precision farming data from his 1,600 acres in west-central Illinois. "Quite honestly we had nowhere to go with all this information," he says. "There was no way to compare it to other farmers' experiences." That's why he eagerly enrolled in High Q, a community data pool offered by his retailer, Brandt Consolidated in Pleasant Plains. Now Nergenah's precision farming data are pooled with information from 60 other farmers covering more than 80,000 acres in central Illinois.

The acreage in precision farming data warehouses and community data pools is growing quickly. Many firms report a doubling of acreage from 1999 to 2000. GeoFarm, a southern Minnesota firm that we wrote about two years ago, has seen its acreage base grow from 10,000 acres in 1997 to 75,000 acres in the fall of 2000.

The driving force in this growth has been farmers' desire to understand and capture value from their precision farming data.

Accelerated learning. Pat Schaddel, technical support manager for Brandt Consolidated, says the High Q program, developed by Ag Ventures of Frederick, MD, is a powerful tool that's helping retailers identify management decisions that will improve clients' profitability.

"The program is helping growers identify strengths and weaknesses among different hybrids and varieties. It's also establishing what types of specialty grain programs and management practices are potentially more profitable," Schaddel says. For example, with three years of data from 80,000 acres, Brandt Consolidated has quantified a $6 to $12/acre benefit from strip tillage with a banded nitrogen application.

Nergenah says the High Q program has allowed him to compare hybrid performance, planting dates, planting rates and herbicide programs. "By pooling our data we're farther up the learning curve," he says. "It gives us unbiased, solid information to help us make better decisions. Every person in the world is trying to sell you their program, but if I can see the results that other farmers in my area had with that program [without identifying the farmers], I can make a better decision. Having that information helps me decide how many acres I should commit to a new practice. With good information I may be more willing to try things on a little bit larger scale and get a better price because of the larger volume."

Community-wide test plot. "Anyone can create a data warehouse to store information, but the real value comes from spatial analysis of the data on a community basis," Schaddel claims. A community might be a township, a county or a soil type. Fifteen retailers in 10 states participate in the High Q program. Brandt Consolidated's customers pay $4.50 to $5.00/acre to participate.

National data warehouses such as VantagePoint Network and Ag Central On-Line do not offer community analysis of data at present though most indicate an interest in adding that feature down the road. MPower3 clients can query county and statewide farming records for multiple production variables, but no interpretation or analysis is provided.

Stutsmans in Hills, IA, has 60 growers and 50,000 acres from a four-county area around Iowa City in the High Q program. Farmers record the following geo-referenced data using a laptop or handheld computer: variety, special traits, planting populations, row spacing, planting date, previous crop, tillage, nitrogen type and time and method of application, CEC rating, herbicide treatment and timing, insecticide use, starter fertilizer placement and rate per acre, liquid or dry nutrient analysis, and manure rates per acre by species and application method.

"Community data on all of these variables make our test plot so much bigger. By having a broader community to look at we're able to identify profitable practices," says Mark Stutsman of the agronomy department. With three years of data, Stutsmans has found no advantage to any type of tillage in soybeans. In corn, the High Q program has identified a yield advantage of 8 to 10 bu./acre for one-pass field cultivator tillage vs. no-till production. The company also has seen trends relating to optimum nitrogen rates and seeding rates. Stutsmans charges each farmer an annual fee of $600 to $700 to participate in the High Q program. Retailers involved in the program regularly visit farms during the harvest season to calibrate yield monitors and ensure data accuracy.

In southern Minnesota, 60 farmers are pooling their precision farming data from about 75,000 acres. GeoFarm, one of 12 SST Information Labs throughout the country, provides the spatial data processing and analysis for the group, which is called iFarm Group. To become a member of the group, a farmer must work with one of GeoFarm's partnering crop consultants, who assist with crop monitoring, assuring data accuracy and interpreting the data. The fee to participate in the iFarm Group is about $5/acre.

Capturing value. Patrick Duncanson, Mapleton, MN, is a full-time farmer with five years of geo-referenced precision farming data. He is a member of iFarm Group and serves on its advisory board.

"It was difficult and potentially dangerous to draw conclusions from just our own data," Duncanson says. "Now we can see whether other farmers had similar results. We can see how a hybrid or variety performed across a range of growing conditions and that gives us greater predictability of how it will do on our farm. We're actually able to see what other farmers are getting for yields on an anonymous basis. We don't have to rely on coffee shop talk. This gives us a benchmark for comparing our farms. Stacking maps and combining with other people's maps is what makes yield monitors pay off."

Last spring, Duncanson changed soybean varieties based on data that showed that the products he had been planting were consistently yielding lower than other varieties in the community data pool. "Members of the iFarm Group are very progressive and willing to share their ideas," he says. "The group supplements what the crop consultant already does for us and keeps us at the forefront of production trends."

During the 2000 crop year, the group collected information on more than a dozen production variables. Group members are comparing Bt corn vs. non-Bt corn grown under the same conditions, Roundup Ready vs. traditional herbicide programs, and hybrid performance on high pH soils. The group also is looking at nitrogen rates and application methods on different soil types and under different weather scenarios. Weather stations are installed on members' fields.

Selling the data. Duncanson and other iFarm Group members anticipate they'll also make money selling the information they are collecting and pooling. "I think these data are valuable. We have field data and research data that will answer somebody's questions," Duncanson says. An iFarm Group advisory committee has been formed to put a value on the data, which cannot be sold without a direct benefit to member farmers. As of yet, no one has formally asked to purchase the group's data, but there have been general inquiries from seed companies and cooperatives.

Taking control. "We think there are lots of ways to use this information, many that we can't even imagine yet," says Maggie Jones, a crop consultant who works with farmers in the iFarm Group. "We'll spend the rest of our lives capturing the value.

"With community pooled data, farmers have more control and power than they have ever had before. They have the power to figure out themselves what will work best on their farms."

Adds Duncanson, "We are able to look beyond our fence rows to get local field comparisons between multiple production variables. Sound statistical analysis increases our odds for making better production decisions."

For more information, contact Brandt Consolidated, Dept. FIN, 211 W. Rt. 125, Pleasant Plains, IL 62677, 217/626-1123,; Stutsmans Inc., Dept. FIN, 121 Lassie St., Hills, IA 52235, 319/679-2281,; or GeoFarm Inc., Dept. FIN, 2002 Third Ave., Mankato, MN 56001, 507/387-6866,

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