What’s around the bend for precision agriculture? It’s difficult to predict precisely where precision ag will eventually flow, but without question, the current is phenomenally fast. A new information-packed report from the Context Network offers a look behind the veil and carries significant implications for growers, retailers, industry professionals, and ag companies. Looking beyond the hardware tools on ag machinery and monitoring equipment, the report details a turn toward data integration, which represents transformative shift from precision ag to decision ag.
The report, titled “The 2015 Context Network Precision Agriculture Multi-Client Report,”is composed of in-depth grower and ag retailer interviews, along with industry expert insights, as well as global and regional market estimates. In addition, the findings were bolstered with a 200-grower survey: 70% from the Corn Belt; 20% from the Mississippi Delta; and 10% from the Far West.
Senior Associate Kip Pendleton helped produce a similar report for the Context Network in 2013 and found that in 2015, ag technology’s pendulum has moved toward decision agriculture. He believes agriculture has reached a critical technological stage where data pieces are merging. “In 2013, growers talked about specific usage--maybe auto-steer or variable planting. In 2015, they talk about everything as an integrated system and no longer focus on a particular item. They’re looking at a system as a whole that either saves money or increases yield.”
Faster, Better, Easier
Agriculture’s computer age remains in its seminal stages. The technologies that once defined precision ag are set for massive expansion and will find inclusion on all farming vehicles; self-calibrating and a given part of a purchase. Think Moore’s Law for agriculture, which is the golden rule of electronics whereby computer processors gain power at exponential rates and lower prices. The progression leads to an increase in adoption rates, partly because of the lower costs, but also related to continuing ease of use.
Farming has entered a period when data convergence, collection and storage are headed toward synchronization. The computer processing power related to data enables extensive analytics and wider insights to push yields, not only on individual farms, but as an aggregate from operations with similar climates and soil types to offer benchmarking.
Within 10 years, Pendleton sees multiple machines collaborating in the field at unprecedented levels: One more step toward driverless combines or other equipment. How does that translate for growers? “This allows a farmer to get out of the combine and focus on purchasing or marketing and managing. Farmers may get access to best practice data from large swathes of other farms. They’ll focus not only on raising a crop, but raising the best possible crop. It might be bigger, cheaper, faster, and better. It’s an integration of technology that allows farmers to use a golf analogy of ‘aiming for the pin, not the green.’”
To date, precision ag industry sales have been driven by hardware (auto-guidance, precision planting tech or many others), but currently most machines are manufactured with precision hardware in place, and ag professionals are eyeing continued growth sources. Kevin Monk, senior associate, Context Network, says the stage is set to look at overall data services in determining what can be done to benchmark operations and bring maximum returns to growers. “Most precision ag payback has been found in efficiency returns and lowering costs. However, with data management and analysis, the focus is going to switch back to improving yields. How to increase yields alongside lowering cost will be the big precision question, especially during a downtime for ag.”
Hardware Costs Drop
The common core of a precision farming system consists of a receiver, display or tablet, and an application component. Outfitting an average tractor with a full suite of precision components averages $12,000 per vehicle, but that price is dropping and looks to fall below $10,000 by 2020. However, the annual services a farmer has to buy will increase over the next five years, and probably not on a per acre basis. Instead, it will be more like a flat annual charge for data connectivity and analytics.
In 2008, according to Monk, products sold by the top eight to 10 ag players made up 96% of precision ag sales, while all other players occupied the remaining 4%. In a short six years, emerging companies have jumped to 34% of market sales, mostly with solutions provided by data services and not just hardware.
“The biggest surprise from the 2015 report? People went from not using decision support systems to trying different ones,” Monk says. “The acceptance of decision support systems has been extremely rapid and it’s evident farmers are trying out multiples to find the best fit for their operation.”
The 2015 report also points toward standardization for precision ag. The differentiator will center on how growers increase yield through crop care decisions, and in order to get that yield increase, decision support tools will serve as the conduit. “I see precision ag not as auto guidance, steering, rate control and yield monitoring. That’s very shortsighted. Those are going to be expected and will feed into decision support tools that help farmers do a better job in the field,” Monk notes.
Hope and Bias
The 2015 report raises glaring questions about data validation and certification. In a given operation, a single hole in the data chain causes the entire structure to fall. “There are companies with no vested interest in selling products that could hone in on data certification. That would allow us to throw hope and bias aside and just let the data speak. It might be a company stocked with statisticians and data scientists that drive credibility of the data applications. No sales or angles; just data analysis. The neutrality of the recommendations will win with ag customers.”
Data storage is cheap and collective data storage is cheaper. Over time, data will seek the lowest price point--that's just basic economics. Pendleton believes data validation may pass through phases with manufacturers and machinery groups using their own data clearinghouses in an initial stage, followed by cooperative clearinghouses that evolve toward a final conglomerate.
Choose Precision Ag Partners Wisely
“Pick your partners wisely, but don’t be afraid of the progression from precision ag to decision ag. The farmers who have most adopted are getting the most return. Farmers reported a $6 average per acre return in 2013 and now more than 50% are looking at an above $11 per acre boost from precision ag. They are integrating data along with field tools and machinery tools and asking what it all means.”
Analytics systems are only just beginning to show data implications and what actions a grower should take. With analytics a farmer knows far more about the season and crop he’ll likely take to market, all on a probability factor. “We all compare seasons: the spring of 1973; the summer of 1988; the pollination of 1993. It’s been 20 years and people who have adopted precision ag have done better than their neighbor. Yet, the future is even more exciting now than looking back over two decades of precision ag,” Pendleton notes.
A century back, farmers went from mules to tractors in the mechanized agriculture jump. Mechanized ag faded as a term when tractors became standard fare. Precision ag is approaching the same point of redundancy. “Precision ag will morph into the norm that everyone uses in their fields,” Pendleton explains. “Precision ag and decision ag are addictive, and the more you know, the more you want. The more you know, the more you use.”
For more information on the full report, contact Kip Pendleton at 612.859.6021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.