Low commodity prices and tight margins are driving farmers to use data and the technology that creates it.
A roundtable discussion at this year's Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference highlighted roadblocks and successes from farmers who have embraced precision ag and the data it creates.
Interpreting, managing and finding value in data seems to be the biggest problem. They want to know how to manage it, analyze it, and turn it into usable information to improve their operations. "It seems to be one of the most frustrating things they talk about," says Ed Barnes, senior director, Agricultural and Environmental Research, Cotton Incorporated. "Farmers tell me they have huge files of precision farming-generated data, but utilizing it is overwhelming."
Jackson County, Ark., farmer Tommy Young, a partner in Generation Three Partnership, uses data from in-field weather stations and moisture sensors to schedule irrigation and monitor pivots. Young once thought he needed to keep water levels so high between his corn rows it could "…keep goldfish alive…," but sensors told him otherwise. "Learning to use this technology has decreased my water costs. I also put less time, wear and tear on my equipment," Young says. "I'm a more efficient irrigator, and I feel like I'm making better crops."
Five years ago, Generation Three Partnership updated technology. "We put the best monitors on our sprayers and combines," Young says. "We even put scales on our grain carts and calibrated them so our yield monitors could collect accurate data."
Today, he uses his phone to monitor tractors. He receives real-time yield data during harvest and his overall farming efficiency has increased significantly.
"This year, I'm using wireless technology," Young says. "I have three years of crop rotation (corn, wheat, and soybean) data. I can take those layers, overlay them, and design a fertility program based on yield maps. It's completely changing the way we implement our fertility program."
Young thought he was doing a good job putting out potash, but the data showed his fields were deficient in places.
He says getting everyone on the farm to buy into using data has been difficult.
Producers need a platform to culminate data into a useable format in real time. "You don't need the data six months down the road. You need it now," Young says. "It's taken us a long time to improve the map shapes of our fields."
Does it pay off? "We harvested 2,065 acres of corn and were less than 1% off of the scale ticket," Young says.
Brent Lassiter, a farmer, president of ProAg Services, Inc., and a pilot, creates his own aerial imagery. He says trying to pick out the data from which he receives the most value is like trying to choose your favorite child.
"I can't pick one because it's all important and can be used to improve my decisions," Lassiter says. "If a grower's precision equipment breaks or needs recalculating, the last thing he needs to do is keep harvesting and losing data. Treat it like a row planter stopped planting. Fix it and get going again."
Today's more efficient farming operations have reached a high level of productivity. "Focusing on the macro decisions has taken them where they are now," Lassiter says. "They need to focus on the micro decisions to gain incremental efficiencies moving forward. Change can be difficult for some producers."
Data utilization, learning
Alabama famer Neal Isbell says he was farming with precision ag before it was called precision ag. He knows the one constant with the technology is change and change can be difficult. "You have to be willing to accept constant change and adapt to it," says Isbell, who farms with his son, Shane. "We can't tell you every way to use it, but it's been one of our greatest tools over the last 20 years, especially in times of low commodity prices."
Those low prices and tight margins are driving farmers to use technology and the data it creates. Shane's son, Tyler, is the family's sixth generation to farm. "I'm amazed that I can sit in the tractor cab with an iPad and see data streaming across the screen," Tyler says. "I pull soil samples each year in zones we've established with data. I'm learning fast."
The learning curve can be daunting.
Dennis Burns, LSU AgCenter county agent, believes workshops help farmers sift through the data maze. "The quality of data has improved, and the volume has increased," Burns says. "Farmers need help navigating this expanding aspect of agriculture. It's too valuable to have it just stored in a hard drive. I think the next step is working with farmers to help them understand the capabilities this technology can bring to their farms."