I've taken dives into the world of digital farming -- how you all are collecting data, analyzing it and making it actionable. As you know well, your equipment and drones and satellites overhead are generating reams of data (do we use the word "reams" for lots of data, anymore?) Anyway ... we took a data dive this spring after the National Farm Machinery Show.
It was apparent that equipment manufacturers at the February show wanted to talk auto-track, command centers, digital displays and smart sensors more than engines, hydraulic systems and rear hitch configurations. It's not hard to see by the press releases that show up in my email that every manufacturer is busy unlocking the value of data -- and selling resulting solutions to you.
My DTN colleague Todd Neeley wrote an article, Data Revolution's Human Touch for our March 2019 issue of Progressive Farmer. He talked with Indiana farmer Brandon Bell. Bell believes production agriculture may be over collecting data. "There are definitely guys out there who will spend as much time on data as anything. We're 25% planning and using the information. But, 75% of the time you gotta work and make it happen."
You can read Todd's piece in the March 2019 digital issue of Progressive Farmer here:
I wrote a story for our April 2019 issue of Progressive Farmer called "Connect." See that article here:
For it I talked to Stuart Sanderson, of Henderson Farms in north Alabama. "The biggest challenge we have is not the data itself," said Sanderson. "But it is managing, analyzing and reacting to data with real-time feedback. Can you address the anomalies you see in the field [in season]?" Sanderson believes he can.
Sanderson, who farms with his uncle, Mike Henderson, Mike's son, Chad, and Jackson, Chad's son, added a new wrinkle to their planting program. Henderson Farms mounted RTK guidance systems to a pair of John Deere 1795 planters. "When you're pulling the planter on a drawbar with a pin, and the GPS unit is centered over the tractor, you get some planter drift," said Sanderson. There is a 10% to 15% reduction in ear quality from the effects of drift, he found. The planter essentially takes over guidance from the tractor to control drift. "It gives you absolute straight rows," Sanderson said. Henderson Farms was able to execute this management fine-tuning because of drone flights that detected "too-narrow" rows.
Agriculture in 2019 America is about data. The market for aerial data collection by drones alone could pass $1 billion within five years.
Digital analysis is not new to agriculture. John Deere recently celebrated 25 years of precision agriculture -- yield documentation was its beginning. What is changing is the ability to wirelessly pull an immense pile of data points from a farming operation, analyze it and act upon it, all by the power of a hand-held tablet or cell phone. "It's been like watching a [growing] wave in the ocean," said Leo Bose, Case IH AFS Marketing Manager. "Five years ago we began to see this craving for data. [Farmers] wanted to see where machines are in the field. Now they want to look at yield data, as-planted data, as-harvested data, and make correlations between those [measures] and inputs."
Data allows managers to discover inefficiencies. For example, unraveling mismatches between labor skills and field functions. "If I have three or four combines out in the field, I know I have three or four operators with different skill levels. AFS Connect looks at that to provide a deeper level of information about [their efficiencies]," Bose said.
Yield, per se, is not an end goal in data farming. Profit per acre and replication of outcome is the brass ring.
"This technology only works for those who can make use of it -- those who can deal with a huge amount of information and analyze it to make better farm management decisions," Terry Griffin, ag economist at Kansas State University told one of our contributing writers, Larry Reichenberger. "Our studies indicate that only about 15% of farmers are capturing that value."
Matt Danner farms in western Iowa. He collects reams of data (there's that word, again). "We're so data rich, and yet, we're so information poor," he said. "We plant the same hybrid across several farms in dozens of different moisture levels, different heat unit, planting dates, elevations, and then we collect the various yields and test weights," he said. "Tell me something about all that. Tell me five things about that hybrid in those varied conditions that I can use next year."
Danner hunts for refined data, clean of garbage. "Do we need more granularity in what we already have, or do we need smaller bits of clean data still not collected today to create a better picture? Maybe the missing link is still missing."
One yawning gap in data farming is poor, rural broadband. Cell phone companies are getting ready to launch the unlimited potential of the 5G revolution, while many rural areas would be happy to have 4G or even 3G service.
Alex Purdy, head of John Deere Labs in San Francisco, believes digital tools connected with smart equipment and analytics will bring greater profitability and sustainability to farmers. There are hurdles, he added. "How do we get customers connected? How do we make sure data comes off a piece of equipment? But, more importantly, how do we make sure that intelligence gets back onto a piece of equipment. How do we automate an experience?"
Purdy said artificial intelligence will transform agriculture.
Case-IH states its new model year 2020 AFS Connect Magnum series tractor represents the manufacturer's largest technology launch in 10 years. The AFS Connect Magnum is purpose-built for digital interactivity. Of note are the cameras mounted front and back on the Magnum. Today, they provide a live image of space around the Magnum. Tomorrow cameras might push images back to distant managers who interpret ongoing field operations by clod size, who use imaging to decipher plant health or who use cameras to operate tractors remotely.
"These are the options for which we have to create capabilities we don't have to today," said Bose. "But the [cameras may] allow us to bring technologies into the AFS Connect Magnum that are the eyes in the air and the eyes on the ground."
In its partnerships with 100 connected software companies, Deere looks to connect customers with digital built by non-Deere developers. "How they [can] build solutions that help [farmers] go from good farmers to great farmers through the data and integration that's possible in this digital ag ecosystem?" asked Kayla Reynolds of John Deere Intelligence Solutions Group.
"Analysis and decision making is what people think about when it comes to data. Why do I get the data?" said Jeremy Leifker, John Deere Operations Center, Solutions Manager. "Can you imagine what could be done to affect the yield outcome with better information a month after planting, [how] things could be affected to produce a better outcome?"
Jamie Blythe, of Town Creek, Alabama, is looking for rifle shots -- data that generate savings or income in real time. Blythe uses AgDNA to act on variables. Was planting speed too high? Seed populations too low? She uses AgDNA to understand how five years of yield data will improve the outcome of the 2019 crop. "I want to analyze yields and make the planting decisions" in a time and in space that allows the data to be useful, she said.
Jonathan Riley, Fuse Product Marketing Manager with AGCO Corporation, said producers can control the data flood by asking the right questions. "I can give you 30 columns of data on an Excel spreadsheet, and it's not going to give you anything," said Riley. "So, is it big data or right data? Will a system give you a single big answer or a series of answers that, step-by-step, leads to a solution?"
Jeremy Leifker, John Deere Operations Center, Solutions Manager, offered this vision for the near future.
"When our machine comes to the field, it knows what it should be doing, the operator hits the go button and it executes. That's the path we're on."
Dan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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