By Ben Potter and Mike Wilson
Learning to manage ag data was the central focus of our second annual Ag Data Conference, held in late November at Coralville, Iowa. A good crowd heard university and industry experts, company officials and farmers give tips on precision technology, field maps and better ways to manage data. Attendees were treated to hands-on demonstrations in the Tech Zone, an indoor arena where company reps showcased data collection and management technology along with unmanned aerial vehicles.
John Fulton, an ag engineer with The Ohio State University, urged growers to come up with a data strategy for their operation. He says farmers should always ask (and answer) several questions before adoption new ag technology. Start by defining an objective or goal, with an estimated date of completion, he suggests. Questions worth asking, according to Fulton:
· What digital tools am I already using, and what tools do I plan to use?
· Who will I share data with?
· How am I defining success?
· Do I have an internal plan to store, share and secure data?
It may also help to develop an evaluation plan, Fulton adds. “If you’re not evaluating, how do you know if there’s an ROI to what you’re executing?”
It also pays to learn what happens when terminating an agtech service. What happens to your data at that time? What are the terms and conditions? Does the service provider sell or allow access to your data with third parties?
Farmers are no strangers to field variability. But few look at a field like David Muth, vice president of EFC systems. Muth urged growers to treat each section of a field like a small business – one that’s either profitable or not.
“We tend to look at yield instead of looking at the business side of things,” he says. “But the reality is, this is business performance. Fundamentally, we do not run our fields like businesses.”
Muth’s research has indicated between 5% and 20% of farm acres are consistently not profitable, with an additional percentage on top of that that tend to be vulnerable depending on each individual growing season. He says it may help for farmers to sort every portion of every field into one of three categories:
1. Revenue zones. “This is where it makes sense to spend the money to maximize yield,” he says.
2. No-cost zones. This is where farmers struggle to generate revenue no matter what they do, Muth says.
3. Expense-limited zones. “Here’s where you need to calibrate your practices to make that part of the field profitable,” he says.
Most profitable fields have unprofitable pieces. For example, in a case study in Indiana, Muth found that a field that was profitable overall but still had 28% of the field operating at a loss. The trick is to figure out how to minimize the percentage of each field that isn’t generating positive revenue.
Precision agriculture can provide many of those opportunities, Muth says. Calibrating seeding rates, fertility management, repairing or installing tile – they’re all ways farmers can convert unprofitable portions of a field into moneymakers.
Barring that, it may be helpful to look into alternative revenue streams. Muth points to a field in north central Iowa that had a 15-acre portion that was operating at a loss. The farmers squared off that 15 acres and enrolled it into a pollinator habitat program.
“They moved from 19% unprofitable to 3% unprofitable, and they didn’t do anything to increase yield,” Muth says. “They also cut erosion by one-third and nitrogen leaching by one-half, too.”
Pushing your limits
Chad Colby, general manager at Central Illinois Ag and founder of Colby AgTech, believes technology will evolve and become easier for farmers to manage.
“Now we’re more connected than ever,” he told attendees. “Future technology will push your limits. Hold on.”
Colby gave the audience a glimpse into the future. Ford is building self-driving cars without steering wheels, brakes or gas pedals. Tesla’s Model 3 will incorporate a solar roof technology. One-third of all long-haul trucks will be semi-autonomous by 2025.
Ag is also going to see some amazing changes, he added. Weed-It, a Dutch company will launch a spraying system that uses cameras to detect and spray only weeds in each field. It could reduce chemical costs by 90%, says Colby. “Instead of the nozzle continuously spraying herbicide, each specific nozzle only delivers product when a camera in front of the nozzle detects an actual weed.
“We have a few issues to work out before it gets to the states, but it’s coming,” he says.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are also going to become more common in agriculture he predicts.
“The interesting thing about unmanned aerial systems today, is I can push a couple buttons and we’re flying – it’s reliable, safe and easy,” he says. “I can produce field maps at the tailgate of my truck just five minutes after flying. I don’t understand why more people aren’t doing it.”