The introduction of programs like Monsanto FieldScripts coming online in 2014 and Field360 from Pioneer is market recognition of the need for a different way to assess variables, to build new decision trees. Data mined from the farming operation as well as public and private research, is aggregated, analyzed and evaluated. The end results are action plans for growers to consider, tweak and follow related to inputs, processes and outputs of their systems and subsystems. Real-time inputs constantly update management plans, refine decisions and capture data for future analysis.

The value of advanced data mining and analytics in agriculture is likely to take a quantum leap forward as even more variables are defined and added to the planning process. Walthall points to the 2012 cropping year where many areas saw yields above expectation. "Even traditional varieties held up pretty well, in some cases due to the way fields were managed and what had been done to maintain soil water-holding capacity," he says.

Water management and soil biology management are intertwined in ways we have never imagined, says Jerry Hatfield, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, USDA-ARS. The laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist also serves on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special committee to evaluate the impact of extreme events on ecosystems.

"If we started surveying fields more closely, we would see a lot more variation than we want to admit," he says. "I believe there are microsite variations within fields created by management decisions that influence how the genetics interact with the environment, and they are magnified by weather extremes."

Hatfield points to the role of organic matter in nutrient cycling and water-holding capacity, noting the tremendous variability in 2012 yields and the correlation between good yields and soil water-holding capacity. Organic matter comes from crop residue broken down through biological activity. Increased biological activity converts more carbon material and, if maintained throughout the growing season, constantly cycles nutrients for crop use.

If we want to improve soils and reduce their variability, we’d begin with how we manage soil biology as part of that complex, Hatfield says. "If we can look at field variation from this perspective, we have some tremendous opportunities to improve management for producers."

While the goal has always been to make all yields uniformly high, realistically it should be to optimize efficiencies within existing field variability, Hatfield adds.

"We need to build the soil up, recognize its variability and adjust inputs accordingly, perhaps even changing the form of the inputs," says Hatfield. "We need to replace the yield monitor with the profit monitor and look at profitability and how we manage for optimum profitability."