New collaborations drive the next wave of advancements
Precision agriculture has officially left its infancy. Companies have layered a full suite of products and services on top in recent years, including remote alerts, geo-tagging functionality, fleet management services and more. Now, data management is the next challenge to conquer.
"Early innovators have upward of 15 years of yield data and soil maps, but not many are doing much with that information," says Jeff Farrar, vice president of sales for Outback Guidance.
Thanks to the collective efforts of the ag industry, a farmer has more options than ever to put data to use on the farm. Solutions don’t just come from precision ag companies anymore, either. A growing list of tractor manufacturers and even seed companies are dabbling in the precision ag space, including John Deere, AGCO, Case IH, Monsanto Company, DuPont Pioneer, Burrus, WinField and Steyer Seeds.
Some ventures, such as the Monsanto Integrated Farming Systems program, will develop farm-specific field prescriptions that deliver hybrid and planting rate recommendations. The
initial offering, FieldScripts, will be commercially available in 2014.
WinField, with its R7 Tool, has also made big investments in supporting its seed products with top-notch precision ag capability. The R7 Tool employs the use of satellite imagery and soil maps to showcase soil variability so farmers can make smarter seed selection. This tool was recognized in March as the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) Technology Contest Winner. ARA president and CEO Daren
Coppock says investing in precision ag is a logical move for seed companies.
"It’s extremely beneficial for ag retailers to have new technology available to them that helps ensure they are informing their customers about the right amount of seed, nutrients and crop protection products to place in their fields at the right time," Coppock says. "Innovations like the R7 Tool enable our industry to produce crops in a more environmentally sound and efficient manner.
By understanding a farmer’s geography, soil types, nutrient levels and maturity levels, Ohio-based Steyer Seeds can better select the right portfolio of hybrids for individual farms, says Ben Steyer, administration with the company.
"To be successful, we have to help the farmer be successful," Steyer says.
With the assistance of MyFarms, Steyer Seeds combines proprietary product knowledge with the farmer’s data to procure hybrid selection and plant population recommendations. Customers select their fields from Google Earth maps. Back-end programming pulls up a wealth of data—everything from soil type to yield potential. As farmers enter additional information about their farm, such as crop rotation, traits used, etc., the algorithm spits out recommendations that users can accept or tweak as needed.
Steyer says the process allows the farmer to be the "ground specialist," and his company to be the "seed specialist." Adding precision ag becomes the tool that brings the two together, he says.
Basic guidance packages, such as the Cruizer II from Raven, ensure that smaller farms won’t be priced out of precision ag.
Left behind? As precision ag has made huge strides during the past decade, farmers can do more with their field data, and new terms such as "telematics" and "fleet management" have crept into the lexicon.
But all of this progress has left some small- and medium-sized farmers wondering if new functionality is only tailor-made for larger farm operations. That’s definitely not the case, say industry experts.
"It is low-hanging fruit for the big guy," admits Dave Swain, manager of ATS marketing with AGCO. But, he quickly adds, smaller operations can gain just as much value.
Even a farmer with just one tractor can still use AGCO’s Ag Command telemetry software to his or her advantage through maintenance alerts, detailed vehicle performance (speed, miles per gallon, etc.) and tracking vehicle location.
"It all depends on what your expectations are," Swain says. "Farmers have to ask themselves, what’s the tipping point where it’s a value to them?"
Matt Hesse, America’s sales manager with Trimble’s ag division, says farmers shouldn’t feel overwhelmed jumping into precision ag because there are often simple entry points to help ease them into the new technology.
"You can start simple, get comfortable with using it, and then upgrade or add on the next solution later," he says.
Farms of all sizes can benefit from some sort of connectivity, Hesse contends—whether it’s through diagnostics, guidance, planter monitoring, vehicle synch or simple data transfer.
"It really just depends on what you want to do first," he says.
Cost is an important factor to consider as well. Tim Heins, product manager with Raven Industries, says most farmers can get a basic guidance package for under $2,000. Be sure to balance the monetary cost against the savings in time and stress, he adds.
What’s next. New innovations will continue to drive the precision ag industry forward, says Illinois Soybean Association CEO Craig Ratajczyk.
"We’re only going to get smarter," Ratajczyk says. "Some think we’re at the top of our game, but we’re nowhere near there."
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.