Big Data, Big Decisions

12:10AM Jul 26, 2014
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Some farmers are using the technology to evaluate hybrid performance; others are taking a wait-and-see approach

On a balmy May afternoon, Brian Marshall is in the height of corn planting. The smells of freshly turned dirt and diesel fuel hang in the air as the 37-year-old farmer drives his 16-row planter across a 60-acre, river-bottom field. From his tractor seat, Marshall eyes two precision technology monitors and an iPad synced to the planter. The monitors help guide his planting speed, seeding population and seed spacing, while the iPad allows him to perform real-time, in-the-field mapping and data visualization.

In the 12 years since returning to the family farm near Maysville, Mo., harnessing hybrid performance data has improved Marshall’s corn yield average by 8%.

"One year I noticed a 22% difference between two hybrids planted next to each other in the same field," says Marshall, who manages 4,600 acres of crops with the help of his father, Dennis, and two full-time employees. "That’s an extreme example that doesn’t happen very often, but I think it illustrates what our industry can do with technology now."

4v data seed guide14

To understand the phenomenon of big data, it is often described using four Vs. Value is arguably the most important because big data is useless unless there’s a return on investment.

While Marshall gathers and evaluates his operation’s data on his own, he sees the opportunity to benefit from using multi-farm data aggregation, often referred to as big data. Large ag companies such as DuPont, John Deere, Monsanto and Winfield, as well as many small niche companies, are helping farmers glean information from big data to make seed selections, plan fertility programs and, in the process, reduce or refocus their input costs.

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The big deal. The use of big data for such purposes poses a tremendous boon for the ag industry as it races to produce more food for a world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. At the same time, big data is big business. Some industry consultants project the ag sector will soon see total revenues of $20 billion or more annually from big data services. The huge value proposition is a lure for well-meaning individuals and corporations—as well as those less scrupulous. Concerns about the latter and various other risks are contributing to the decision made by farmers such as Marshall to keep their data to themselves, for now.

"I want to know there’s no opportunity for anyone to take my data and do something else with it," Marshall says. "That’s my sticking point."

Such concerns are sticking points for other U.S. farmers as well. A Farm Journal survey of 628 farmers conducted earlier this summer shows while 91.5% collect data from their operations, only 49.6% share their information with any individual or firm specializing in data aggregation management and analysis. Along with that, citing privacy concerns, 71% of the farmers surveyed do not use the "cloud" to store and access their data.

Chris Fennig, managing director of MyFarms LLC, says the business of big data has been poorly implemented in other industries. He believes agriculture has the opportunity to "do big data right," and make it a win-win proposition for farmers and service providers.

"The last thing I want to do is build so much concern around sharing data that no one is willing to share it," he says. "But it must be mutually beneficial—good for the farmer and good for his trusted advisers who are looking to help the farmer get better."

How did we get here? There has been a logical progression to the development of big data, though it is easy to miss or overlook. People have long-gathered information, analyzed it and made decisions based on it, but the amount of data created has skyrocketed in recent years. IBM estimates that 2.5 quintillion (a one followed by 18 zeroes) bytes of data are created every day, and 90% of the data in the world is less than two years old. Such huge amounts of data being generated require the use of multiple computer processors to help people sort and evaluate the information for decision-making purposes.

FJ pulse data
Source: Farm Journal Pulse

A similar scenario is shaping up in agriculture. The majority of producers, some unknowingly, produce a variety of data on their farms via various sensors and modems on their tractors, combines and other equipment. However, few farmers have tapped into the potential that big data offers for decision making, a challenge Monsanto identified early on and developed its new FieldScripts program to address. The program, formally introduced this year in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, delivers DeKalb-specific hybrid matches and variable-rate planting prescriptions to customers. The prescriptions are based on fertility data and two to three years of yield history in a given field. Company officials say use of the prescriptions can help farmers produce an additional 5 bu. to 10 bu. of corn per acre.

DuPont Pioneer also promises significant production, sustainability and financial rewards with its Encirca program, introduced to farmers this past spring. The brand-neutral suite of whole-farm decision services is designed to help farmers enhance yield results by fine-tuning their seeding rates and fertility programs.

"When all of the components are working together, we believe there’s between $50 and $100 per acre ROI [return on investment] to the farmer," explains Joe Foresman, director of services for DuPont Pioneer.

While companies tout the potential payoffs from their respective programs, farmers don’t always see a consistent ROI from implementing them. Steve Pitstick, a long-time user of precision technology on his 2,600-acre corn and soybean farm near Dekalb, Ill., and a beta tester of FieldScripts, says he believes above-average growing conditions in 2013 cancelled out potential yield gains the prescribed recommendation might have contributed. Yet, he believes prescriptive technology has merit. He anticipates as the various programs are refined to evaluate more agronomic factors that impact yield, such as weather conditions, crop residue and tillage, farmers will benefit financially more often.

Glossary of Terms

If the language surrounding the topic of big data is foreign to you, take heart. You can master the basic lingo in no time, which will come in handy as you talk with technology advisers and read their terms-of-service contracts. Here are definitions of 10 key terms, some of which Farm Journal has modified to better fit the agricultural industry and its usage of big data, specifically.

Algorithm: Step-by-step instructions that allow computers to perform various tasks, such as sorting data or identifying records.

Analytics: The science of examining raw data with the purpose of drawing useful conclusions about that information.

Big Data: A term coined to describe a set of numbers or figures from two or more farmers that are aggregated in a single place in order to process, interpret and use the information to make more intelligent farming decisions. The data sets are usually so big or complex they are difficult, if not impossible, to process via spreadsheets.

Closed System: A program that does not interact with other programs and does not typically allow the transfer of information into or outside its established boundaries.

Cloud: A term commonly used to refer to a remote server you can reach via the Internet and on which you can store data and then later access using a user ID and password.

Predictive Analysis: Using data to make assumptions about your crops, livestock and other aspects of the farm.

Processor: A device such as a calculator or computer that performs operations on data.

Scalability: The ability of a computer application to continue to function well when it is handling data that has been increased in size or volume.

Small Data: A set of numbers or figures from a single farm, often referred to as foundational data, that is not combined with any other farmer’s data.

Telematics: The ability of computers/machines to transmit data among themselves. In farming, this is the foundation for practices such as fleet management and wireless data transfer.

"It’s not dynamic enough to look at all that stuff yet, but it will get there," he says, adding that he expects to gain incremental benefits from using big data on his farm.
"Fine-tuning my planter so I get 5% more of my seeds placed accurately or shaving my fuel use by 1% can add up to some pretty big bucks," he notes.

Those farmers who have more soil and nutrient variability within a field are likely to see a more significant contribution from prescriptive services than those farmers who have soil types that vary little.

Even so, some individuals and organizations question whether big data is big enough to deliver on its promises to farmers. Sara Olson from Lux

Research Inc., says she doubts it. In fact, she is concerned the cost for the various big data services, which run between $10 and $15 per acre on average, in addition to any dollars shelled out to update or buy equipment to transmit the data, is cost prohibitive for some farmers.

Smaller acreage operators in particular are less likely to benefit, she contends, given corn prices in the $4 range.

The lack of a consistent payoff is one reason some farmers and seed companies cite for not climbing on board with big data.

"We’re evaluating a lot of options but haven’t jumped in with both feet like many of our competitors because it’s hard to consistently find the value," says Jeff Hartz, director of marketing for Wyffels Hybrids.

"We all know there’s potential to improve productivity, and it will be realized," he adds. "But maybe the right thing to do isn’t to push everyone toward increased investments in technology that’s either unproven or in its infancy. We want to do what’s consistently smart for each farmer and not simply what’s popular at the moment."

Evaluate the risks and rewards. There is a question of whether technology companies benefit from the yield data they have gathered and analyzed in ways farmers don’t know about and don’t benefit from. Some farmers wonder whether companies gathering the data will use it to identify products and services that are most profitable to individual farmers and, as a result, charge more for them.

Pitstick doesn’t think so, but he urges caution. "Beware of the profit of the prophet," he says.
There’s also the issue of who owns the data the farmer generates. While farmers almost always say they own the data, company policies don’t always indicate that, notes Steve Cubbage, owner and president of Prime Meridian LLC, based in Nevada, Mo. The company provides farmers and retailers with precision data services and analytics.

"Some of these companies pat you on the back and say they’ll take care of you, but if you dig into the fine print, you might not walk away with warm fuzzies," he says.

Sometimes there’s a lot of fine print to wade through. The contracts corporations are asking farmers to sign range in length, from as little as two pages to 10 pages.

Language varies from simple, easy-to-understand content to complex, legal jargon (see "Before You Sign on the Dotted Line" below).

Cubbage also recommends farmers retain, protect and keep track of their data, especially once it
is shared with an off-farm consultant or adviser. He encourages growers to share their data; however, he adds that "sharing access doesn’t mean giving it away."

Marshall, who typically plants with two different hybrids at a time, says he essentially puts in 1,300 acres of side-by-side test plots each year with his 16-row planter. He tracks a variety of agronomic factors at planting and then again with the combine at harvest. He then overlays his planting and harvest maps and uses the resulting information to make his seed selections for the next year.

"If companies get a hold of that data, what kind of value does that have?" Marshall ponders. "I just did all kinds of work for them for free."

In addition, Marshall wonders about the impact big data will have on seed companies that don’t have the resources to implement it. He questions whether it will sound a death knell for small-scale companies and eventually result in even less diversity in the marketplace.

Then there’s the question of what happens if a farmer decides to switch seed or machinery companies. Can he take his historical data with him when he goes?

For the greater good. Concerns about the value of big data and who benefits are fueling efforts by the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) to provide guidelines to help farmers manage and safeguard their data.

"We have been striving to make sure our grassroots members and the agricultural technology providers engaged in this emerging arena of precision agriculture innovation understand we see this as a collaborative process—effectively a business-to-business discussion," explains Dale Moore, AFBF executive director of public policy.

Moore says the organization is working with technology providers on how big data can be used to improve the productivity, efficiency and profitability for producers. That includes identifying the best ways to help educate farmers on the technology and services and, most importantly, he adds, "how all interested parties can be confident that further innovation is both anticipated and welcomed as the horizon expands."

What AFBF is not pushing for at this time, Moore adds, is legislative or regulatory action, especially because industry and farm groups have been working cooperatively this year to improve big data policies and processes. Instead, he says, they simply want government officials to be educated on the issue and how it is impacting farmers now and will continue to in the future.

Security issues. However, some farmers and industry members believe the need for data security is imperative and could require government intervention at some point. The issue is that anyone who can aggregate a large share of data could conceivably influence markets or input costs, says John Fulton, biosystems engineering specialist at Auburn University.

Security breaches lend credence to Fulton’s concerns, with one being reported earlier this summer by Monsanto’s Precision Planting. The company has been notifying customers and employees that its systems were hacked by an as-yet-unidentified outside party. A leading forensics firm is working with authorities and the company to "remediate this issue," according to John Larkin, Precision Planting commercial lead.

Charting a better course. The direction big data will take in the future is still being mapped. Some consultants, such as Cubbage, believe there will be an ever-increasing need for someone to assist farmers in analyzing the data, essentially a precision data accountant. As the amount of data and number of devices continue to increase, he says the help of a trusted precision adviser will be increasingly valuable.

"That individual will file the forms, make sure they’re in the proper format and delivered to your crop insurance agent and fertilizer applicator," Cubbage notes. "He’ll work as a liaison to all those people who may want or need to interact with that data and deal with all the conversions, software and hardware on the back side."

He adds there also will still be those "rare growers, the very best ones," who do an excellent job on the data management side and are likely to continue interpreting their own data.

Marshall is one. Determined and data savvy, the young farmer is confident in his ability to analyze data and put it into context on his farm. Eventually Marshall expects to step into the realm of big data as he believes it holds the promise for more profits. But he will take his time and make sure he and the advisers he works with get it right.

To learn more about the development and implementation of big data and how growers are putting it to work on their farms, visit

You can email Rhonda Brooks at [email protected].