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Set Goals for Using Precision Farming Data

November 30, 2011
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
precision agriculture
  

Start with small objectives to gain experience, savings and increased profits.

 

The large amount of data farmers generate today triggers a feeling for many that they have a tiger by the tail that can’t be tamed.

Kevyn Van Wert says he counters that emotion by knowing the goals for the data he collects from precision farming practices he implements, including variable rate nitrogen applications and variable rate seeding.
 
“We record a lot of information from yields to moisture, hybrids used and the crop weight to refine the management zones in our fields,” says Van Wert who works for North Concord Farms, Concord, Mich.
 
After 10 years of gathering and using data, Van Wert says the resulting management decisions have put corn and soybean yields on a more even keel across the farm.
 
“We don’t see as much fluctuation now between the poor areas in our fields and the higher producing areas,” he reports. That benefit is one of the primary benefits he says have resulted from the data generated on the farm.
 
Plus, by analyzing the data over multiple years, he knows where to invest those dollars available for inputs for the greatest payoff.
 
“We don’t spend money needlessly on fertility and chemicals in fields or areas of fields where they won’t pay for themselves,” he says.
 
The reduction in inputs has an added benefit beyond saving money or improving profits, adds Linda Flynn, product manager for Pitney Bowes Business Insight, Troy, N.Y.
 
“Fine-tuning how much fertilizer or chemicals are applied in fields is an important environmental component,” she says.
 
The company offers a Windows-based mapping and geographic analysis application tool, MapInfo Professional, which retailers can use to pinpoint fertilizer applications as a value-added service for their farmer customers.
 

Software Selection

Tracking data for long-term analysis requires software with the capability to archive and retrieve data for future review.
 
“Software is a huge consideration, especially if you’re using variable rate practices,” says Isaac Ferrie, technical support specialist with Crop-Tech Consulting, Heyworth, Ill.
 
Variable rate practices are based on prescriptions that are field specific. Each prescription is loaded onto a software file that then guides any product application or planting practice you implement.
 
“If someone else is developing the prescriptions, find out what type of files they can make as the file type determines the controller and monitor you will use in the field,” Ferrie says.
 
If you opt to develop the prescription files, explore several different software programs before you buy. Evaluate what jobs they can handle, whether they are compatible with other programs and how easy or difficult they are to use, he encourages.
 
Ferrie adds that a software program that will do everything you want but is sold without technical support will just deliver frustration.
 
“Better to have three different software programs with good technical support than one program without good support,” he contends.
 
He says that many farmers buy software provided by their local equipment dealer because that individual is already involved with the farm.
 
However, Ferrie notes that a number of third-party software suppliers also do an excellent job of providing farmers with both software and support without being tied to an equipment company.
Chris Barron says he believes management decisions based on farming data must always loop back to some type of value, either convenience, cash savings or cost returns.
 
For example, Barron says he calculated the value of using AutoTrac RowSense to guide his 12-row combine through fields of downed corn this past harvest.
 
He determined that the tool enabled him to harvest 10 acres/hour at $7.75 per acre versus 4.5 acres/hour at $14.20 per acre when he ran the combine with manual steering.
 
“We were basically 50 percent more productive harvesting down corn with the technology than without it,” says Barron, vice president of Carson and Barron Farms, Inc. based near Rowley, Iowa.
 

Making Decisions

While most farmers believe data is important, not every farmer is interested or able to evaluate it.
 
“A common challenge is having the ability to connect all the dots and mine that data,” says Charles Michell, executive vice president, Cresco Ag LLC, Memphis, Tenn. Cresco helps farmers understand and use the data they collect for cropping and risk management decisions.
 
Michell recalls a Mississippi Delta farmer who was displeased with his corn yield results but couldn’t figure out why they were lower than anticipated.
 
“We looked at his data and determined his irrigation pivot heads weren’t putting out the correct amount of water,” Michell says. “He had all the data but didn’t know how to evaluate it.”
 
Michell says farmers who struggle or lack the desire to use data effectively benefit from working with an independent consultant or a trusted advisor who can help them evaluate information and make meaningful decisions for their operation. He believes farmers gain the best information from companies that offer data mining services apart from the sale of physical products, such as seed, chemical or fertilizers.
 
Barron doesn’t disagree but says farmers also need to capitalize on the experience and information their input suppliers and retailers have--expertise that is often free or available for a low fee.
 
“Some of these companies do a great job with precision ag and have a lot of information on seeding rates or on the products you’re utilizing,” Barron says.
“As producers, we really need to lean on our suppliers and say ‘help us here.’ If we can improve our profitability then there’s more money available for those companies, and they want to see us succeed,” he adds.
 
Numerous manufacturers are offering data support services to farmers. John Deere, for one, launched FarmSight last spring to help farmers in three areas: logistics optimization, machine optimization and agriculture decision support.
 
FarmSight gives the farmer a totally integrated solution with their own equipment, John Deere’s AMS technology, and its dealer value added services.
 
"We are investing in networking tools that help farmers manage data and information from their machinery easily and efficiently so they can make better decisions for their operation," says Tyler Hogrefe, senior technical product manager.
 
One of the core products supporting FarmSight is the new JDLink telematics system. Besides remote monitoring of a machine’s location, fuel consumption and status, JDLink Ultimate also enables remote diagnostics. The service is available via subscription.
 
Such service options are increasingly available from major agricultural manufacturers and retailers. Yet, those options have created another problem for farmers to work through—the lack of a common data format. Hogrefe says as he evaluates some of the major issues with collecting and using data that need to be addressed in the near future, this one comes to the top.
 
“That’s where the market needs to go,” he says. “Similar to the hydraulic coupler situation a few decades ago, the industry needs to agree on a common data format to enable growers to have full control over their data.”

 

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