The following insights and opinions come courtesy of Sam Eathington, chief scientist with The Climate Corporation.
Ask any producer what really keeps them up at night and they’ll tell you it’s uncertainty. Uncertainty of the markets, the weather, and what’s at work in their fields.
Field variability is one of the biggest (and oldest) headaches for farmers, and it’s not hard to understand why. From one part of the field to the next, there can be wide swings on the yield monitor when it comes to harvest.
While some of the root causes of field variability are clear - like soil type or water movement - other factors remain elusive. Was it the weather? Was it how and when fertilizer was applied? Should I have introduced a new hybrid in part of the field?
What has been lacking in the effort to optimize variability isn’t farming know-how, intention or elbow grease, it’s data-driven insight. And for the first time in the history of farming, digital tools are revealing the invisible, micro levers available to make the most effective farm management decisions not only on every field, but at the sub-field level too.
How do we know? Our science team recently crunched the data from tens of millions of acres across 15 states between 2014 and 2016. When is comes to grain yield variability, a typical corn or soybean field can sway roughly 20-25 percent from the mean yield. That means for a typical 200 bu/ac corn field, farmers can commonly see a yield range of 175 to 225 bu/ac - and that’s not even taking into account much higher ranges from fields with more variability or with changes in harvesting conditions.
But the real key we found in this analysis is that grain yield variability tends to stay flat year over year; rarely shifting more than four percent. In other words, variability isn’t variable - it’s consistent - which means it’s manageable. That’s key because it highlights the opportunity for field data and science-driven insights to unlock unrealized production and profitability for farmers.
Sensors, artificial intelligence, and advanced imagery technologies are transforming our understanding of the land right before our eyes. Like Dorothy walking into the technicolor world of Oz for the first time, farmers across the country are experiencing this shift right now running real-time data in their cabs.
But how do we get from early adoption to industry transformation when it comes to the digitization of agriculture? It starts with offering producers more valuable insights to help them actively manage their operations. And while extreme weather conditions will always trump the best-laid plans, the management decisions a farmer makes can have a big impact on yield potential - accounting for as much as 70 percent of variability, according to one University of Illinois study. By unpacking the incredibly complex environment at play in every field, farmers can make management decisions with never-before-seen clarity and enhanced confidence.
In the coming years and decades, we will experience the most dramatic shift in agricultural production and productivity of my lifetime. It will transform food production and farm management. And it will be made possible by micro decisions on seeds, inputs and agronomic practices - all powered by data.
There’s only one kind of field that precision agriculture cannot help: the field that is equally fantastic everywhere… a field that, in my decades of research and farming, I have yet to encounter.