From the soil that brings seeds to life to the grain bin that tucks away the harvest, technology helps the Knuths keep a real-time pulse on their Mead, Neb., operation. This time of year, Angela Knuth’s goal is to use the data they’ve collected and analytical software to visually show which acres are making a profit and why and vice versa.
Getting to the point where data is collected, organized and visually presented in such a way it’s seamless and meaningful is still a work in progress for Knuth, who farms with her husband, Kerry, and two sons. But minding the digital side of farming and pairing hardware and software to help with the heavy lifting enables the family to bring data full circle.
“We’re set up to wirelessly stream machine and agronomic data in real-time and data from in-field moisture sensors every 30 minutes into the office to put it all together to make decisions,” Knuth explains. “Those decisions include timing fertilizer applications and triggering irrigation based on weather models, moisture sensor readings and growth stage. End-of-season or multiseason ROI reporting on a piece of equipment or profit and loss by zone based on input investment is also possible.”
Because data is generated differently across hardware sources and equipment brands, it’s a challenge to get data out of the cab and assembled in a standardized format to share or use in decision-making software. The sheer number of software options coupled with the different requirements of data based on different parts of the business makes the process all the more daunting.
Andrew Meyers, vice president of product at Granular, recommends first establishing a baseline for why you want to collect data. “At the basic level, data can be used to glean insights and confirm production practices. That requires keeping a daily pulse on your operation, which includes plants per acre, weather, moisture and yields,” he says. “For more advanced users, data can also be used to make specific calculations, such as variable-rate prescriptions, and really big decisions, such as crop mix, machinery purchases and cash rent price capacity.”
It’s also a good idea to determine if you want help making agronomic or financial decisions or both. “Do you want to increase bushels per acre? Do you want to do more with less or make more money on certain fields?” says Pat Christie, founder of Conservis. “Software is tailored to help with specific agronomic or economic decisions, so prioritizing what data is important to you will help you get a handle on the collection process and narrow down software options.”
This time of year, data can be a powerful tool to optimize hybrid and variety selections.
“Farmers are leaving as much as 10 bu. to 30 bu. per acre on the table by not planting the best hybrid at the best rate and managing from there,” says Noah Freeman, digital ag manager for AgReliant Genetics’ Advantage Acre platform. “Layers of field data paired with help from a seed rep can help capture those extra bushels.”
The Knuths have been collecting data for two decades—the bigger challenge for them has been getting it in a shape and form that’s usable. “For us, it started with addressing a real concern or need and working backward to find the technology to help us,” Knuth says.
Some of their initial questions included: Can we extract unaltered agronomic and machine data from the cab? Can we collect the same data from a mixed equipment fleet? Is that data in a standard format so it can be imported into management software?
The Knuths use a plug-in cellular device that collects real-time agronomic and machine data from their mixed fleet. The raw data is beamed to the cloud, aggregated in a uniform format and then sent to their management software. Real time gives the Knuth’s visibility via smartphone, and uniform data, extracted before it’s processed by in-cab equipment monitors, makes their data interoperable.
To help bridge the gap between collection and organization, Jason Tatge, co-founder and CEO of Farmobile, emphasizes the importance of farmers owning and having access to an interoperable data set that is uniform, portable and defined by field boundaries. “That’s part of a digital dirt to database strategy that results in a rich yet realistic data set that allows opportunities for advance analytics,” he says.
For Canadian farmer Jay Kinnaird using technology that automatically captures, integrates and processes all sources of data into one platform is also key because he runs five equipment brands with six types of monitors.
“Using a platform that standardizes data regardless of source ensures the accuracy and usability of the data and makes organization effortless once the collection process is established,” says Kinnaird, who is also head of technical product management for Farmers Edge.
Once hardware and software is set up to work together, organization is really “plug and play,” echoes Jason Engstrom, senior program manager, IoT with Topcon Positioning Systems. “At that point, farmers can embrace the data generated during planting, growing and harvest seasons to prep, plan and put to use.”
Data comes to life when the various layers can be organized in such a way you can validate a yield map with satellite imagery, management practices, weather, pests, etc., to help recognize the whole story. Compound one year with several years and you have data that can help you estimate your costs to produce the next crop.
“The key is putting data in one connected platform in the context of other data layers so you can begin to generate rich, valuable insights to make more informed operating decisions or gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening in your fields, says Mike Stern, CEO, The Climate Corporation. “Make it real time, make it digital and make it simple to use.”
There can be a lot of hype when it comes to the value of data—maybe a bit too much these days, cautions Jesse Vollmar, co-founder and CEO at FarmLogs. “Don’t lose sight of how data can lead to incremental improvements. Using software to do simple things like knowing your cost of production and building a marketing plan can actually make farmers a lot more money than analyzing data,” he says.
Don’t neglect the importance of local knowledge—your boots-on-the-ground experiences or that of employees, an agronomist and/or a retailer, adds Jason Little, director of sales with Agrible. “Agronomy is far too local to rely on a digital tool that doesn’t integrate a local knowledge base and experience.”
“Every company out there can tell you what happened,” Little says. “A few companies can tell you what is happening, almost in real time, and others can tell you what is going to happen—a predict, confirm and decide approach.”
Although it is not the magic bullet to all the industry’s ills, technology has been one of the primary drivers of efficiency for decades, says Steve Cubbage, precision ag consultant and owner of Record Harvest. Continued strategic investment in technology and information services even in down times is essential to coming out of the tunnel on the other end.
Before you head to the field in 2018, step back and see where precision technology could enhance efficiency and profitability on your operation. Take time to do what Cubbage calls a “precision profile.” Are you doing a good job of collecting data or even collecting data at all. Do you have the hardware to record what you do in the field? Are you using software or the right precision services to bring it all together?
Take advantage the free version or a trial of a software product to build your confidence and get your feet wet.
“Ask for a test drive of a program and request a trial of the mobile app and web-based platform,” suggests Brian Stark, marketing communications manager at Trimble Inc. “Watch video tutorials and learn what you can about the tech support team because knowing help is there when you need it is invaluable.”
At the end of the day, hardware and software technology exists to collect and organize data to allow the farmer to implement greater efficiency. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure, though,” Cubbage notes.
The Value of Big Data
The significance of big data, and the resulting value, seems a bit more manageable if you break it down into four components: data, information, knowledge and wisdom, says Jason Little, director of sales with Agrible. “Data is a point, information is data with context, knowledge is information with purpose and wisdom is knowledge coupled with experience,” he says. “For example, data is acknowledging you have something in your hand. Information helps you identify it as a tomato. Knowledge tells you it’s a fruit. Wisdom is knowing you don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad.”
The difference between data and information is that information is created or obtained from data by putting it into context, which is where technology can speed up the process. The difference between information and knowledge is the purpose—the actionable information used to make a decision. Wisdom pulls it all together by coupling knowledge and human experience to reap the value of big data.
How the Cloud is Changing Data Management
This wealth of information collected from various sensors, monitors and satellites can be wirelessly uploaded to the cloud where it’s stored and processed in a timely matter to allow producers to take action faster than ever. However, data privacy and security remains one of the biggest concerns for farmers.
“We hear a lot of farmers saying they’re not sure if they want their data on the cloud,” says Brian Stark, marketing communications manager at Trimble Inc. “The cloud allows farmers to see and record data via a smartphone, sync data with a desktop and online portal and share data easier with trusted advisers.”
Mead, Neb., farmer Angela Knuth has transitioned from desktop to cloud-based management, but she’s still mindful about losing control of her data.
Some companies aggregate data, which is “needed and useful for analytics,” and a company or two sell data, she says. “Farmers need to be aware of a company’s intentions and maintain control of their data, which includes the choice to sell and be paid for their data.”
When evaluating software options, Knuth encourages fellow farmers to visit the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator (www.agdatatransparent.com). “Look for companies that have been approved to use the Ag Data Transparent seal and follow the privacy and security principles for farm data,” she says.