It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where precision ag is headed, but without question, the current is phenomenally fast. A new information-packed report from Context Network offers a look ahead for farmers and the entire ag industry. Looking beyond the hardware tools on ag machinery and monitoring equipment, the report details a turn toward data integration—a shift from precision ag to decision ag.
The 2015 Context Network Precision Agriculture Multi-Client Report is composed of a series of in-depth farmer and ag retailer interviews, along with industry expert insights and global and regional market estimates.
“In 2013, growers talked about specific usage—maybe auto-steer or variable planting,” says Kip Pendleton, a senior associate who helped produce a similar report for Context Network in 2013. “In 2015, they talk about everything as an integrated system and no longer focus on a particular item. They look at a system as a whole that either saves money or increases yield.”
Farming has entered a period when data collection and storage are headed toward synchronization. Computer processing power enables extensive data 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.
“Most precision ag payback has been found in efficiency returns and lowering costs,” says Kevin Monk, senior associate, Context Network. “However, with data management and analysis, the focus is going to switch back to improving yields. How to increase yields alongside lowering costs will be the big precision question, especially during a downtime for ag.”
The 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, but the price could drop below $10,000 by 2020. However, the annual services a farmer has to buy will increase in the next five years, and probably not on a per-acre basis—more like a flat annual charge for data connectivity and analytics.
One of the biggest surprises from the 2015 report was people went from not using decision support systems to trying different ones, Monk says. “It’s evident farmers are trying to find the best fit for their operation,” he adds.
The 2015 report also points toward standardization for precision ag. The differentiator will center on how farmers 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.
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.
Pendleton believes data validation might pass through phases. Manufacturers and machinery groups will initially use their own data clearinghouses, followed by cooperative clearinghouses that might evolve into a final conglomerate.
“Pick your partners wisely, but don’t be afraid of the progression from precision ag to decision ag,” Pendleton says. “The farmers who have most adopted are getting the most return. Farmers reported a $6 average per acre return in 2013, and now over 50% are looking at a more than $11 per acre boost from precision ag. They are integrating data, field tools and machinery tools and asking what it all means.”