It’s no secret that farmers love data and the gadgets that collect it. The challenge, however; is knowing how to analyze that data and use it to improve production, reduce input costs and increase farm efficiency.
Early this week, three experts of “big data” shared differing perspectives on how to put it to work at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. Ron LeMay, CEO of Farm Link, talked about tools his company offers to help farmers get the most from their data. Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association and a Delaware farmer, spoke of his personal experience with data collection and analysis.
Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director for Congressional relations, shared insights on privacy issues and AFBF’s efforts to help farmers understand data contracts, transparency, ownership and control of their data.
The global view
Farm Link is a data analytics company now offering a range of products providing detailed, multi-layer field mapping. “Farmers could be $45 per acre better off by using our technology,” noted LeMay. “We can use results from the top quartile of farms to predict yields, and show them how they compare with the benchmarks on comparable land,” he explained. Working with 150-square-foot sets, “we see over and over that farmers are wasting money on fertilizer and seed on marginal land.”
A more recent effort has focused on data accuracy. ”Seven years ago, we threw out about 70% of the data collected because we couldn't be sure of its accuracy," he explained. "Last year, we only had to throw out about 3%. We have 97% confidence that the data is good."
One of the simplest ways to avoid bad data is to make sure that [electronic] equipment is well-maintained to assure data collection quality and to check monitor calibration. "Some farmers are very careful and precise about their data collection and others not so much," he said. "You wouldn't believe the number of times farmer have collected data on corn yields with the monitor set to chick peas."
Protecting, saving farm data
Thatcher said Farm Bureau became involved in the data question because farmers voiced their concerns about data privacy, use and ownership. Working with ag and commodity groups and tech service providers, AFBF developed the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator – something of a mix between Consumer Reports and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s free for all farmers to use.
“We ask 10 questions that give farmers the information to evaluate companies that want to use their data. A very basic question is: ‘What happens if the company I’ve been working with, say Seed Company A, goes out of business? Can I get my data back in a still-useable form so my new provider can use it?’"
Farm Bureau is also working on developing a cloud-based database where farmers can upload their data for storage, keep it secure and give them control over who they provide it to. Uploading to a cloud is easy, she added.
"In many ways, data is another commodity," noted the AFBF staffer. "There has been discussion of forming a farmer-owned cooperative that would control a collective data base. Perhaps that may add value down the line. Our goal is to make sure that however it’s done, it puts the farmer first."
Farmer’s mixed sentiments
This spring marks Wilkins’ 44th year of planting crops. "We started with yield monitors in 1998. After three years of collecting yield data, we could overlay that data on soil maps. The, we were able to divide our fields into three zones based on yield and test soil samples from those zones.
"Yield monitors for the combines and maps that give us the ability to do side by side strip tests to determine what kind of results we get from each product. With today's downturn in commodity prices, we need to manage costs every place we can and technology helps us do that."
At the end of the day, Wilkins said, the value of data comes from the precision it adds to farm decision making. "There’s a big cost to imprecision," he explained.
Wilkins was surprised that some of their lowest yields were on soils with the best fertility. “The yield robber wasn’t fertility; it was moisture. We were able to convert that land to irrigation."
Wilkins’ B&W Ag Enterprises also grows vegetables – a $5,000-per-acre investment. Precision ag tech and data management for vegetables is behind the curve set by corn and soybeans, but they’re coming, he added.
He foresees the biggest advantage in variable-rate seeding and fertilizing. “I’m thrilled about the prospects for the next couple generations of agriculture, and being able to intermix biotech and information technology, as it applies to economics of production. It holds the key to being efficient.”
Even so, Wilkins worries a bit about the capital investment, and furthering the trend of limiting the number of people involved in agriculture. “I’d hate to see decision-making being separated or transferred away from the work ethic.”