Farmers face a frustrating gap between gathering information and using it to make management decisions
The massive amount of production data that farmers generate during the planting, growing and harvest seasons makes many feel they have a tiger by the tail that can’t be tamed.
Kevyn Van Wert says he counters that challenge by setting goals for the data he collects from precision farming practices, including variable-rate nitrogen applications and seedings.
"We record a lot of information from yields to moisture and hybrids to crop weight to refine the management zones in our fields," says Van Wert, who works for North Concord Farms in 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 is one of the primary benefits that have resulted from the data generated on the farm.
Plus, by analyzing the data from multiple years, he knows where to invest his input dollars 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, says Linda Flynn, product manager for Pitney Bowes Business Insight in Troy, N.Y.
"Fine-tuning how much fertilizer or chemicals are applied is an important environmental component," Flynn says.
The company’s Windows-based mapping and geographic analysis application tool, MapInfo Professional, can be used by retailers to pinpoint fertilizer applications as a value-added service for their farmer customers.
Tracking data for long-term analysis requires software with the capability to archive and retrieve data.
"Software is a huge factor, especially if you’re using variable-rate practices," says Isaac Ferrie, technical support specialist with Crop-Tech Consulting.
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 advises.
Ferrie adds that a software program that will do everything you want but is sold without technical support will just deliver frustration.
"It’s 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, a number of third-party software suppliers do an excellent job of providing farmers with both software and support without being tied to an equipment company.
Value element. Chris Barron, vice president of Carson & Barron Farms Inc., near Rowley, Iowa, 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 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 per hour at $7.75 per acre versus 4.5 acres per hour at $14.20 per acre when he ran the combine with manual steering.
"We were basically 50% more productive harvesting down corn with the technology than without it," he says.
Making decisions. While most farmers believe data is essential, not every farmer is interested or can evaluate it.
"A common challenge is having the ability to connect all the dots and mine that data," says Charles Michell, executive vice president of Cresco Ag LLC in Memphis, Tenn.
Cresco helps farmers understand and use the data that 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 he 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 adviser who can help them evaluate their 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, chemicals and fertilizers.
Barron doesn’t disagree but suggests farmers capitalize on the experience and information that 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 information on seeding rates or on the products you’re using," 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 almost a year ago to help farmers in three areas: logistics optimization, machine optimization and agriculture decision support.
FarmSight is integrated with farmers’ equipment, John Deere’s Agricultural Management Solutions 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," explains 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 a subscription.
Such service options are increasingly available from major agricultural manufacturers and retailers. Yet these options have created another problem for farmers to work through—the lack of a common data format. Hogrefe says that as he evaluates 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 of their data."