When producers like Doug Dreyer of Ottertail, MN, prepare to investigate a field following a summer rainstorm, they pull on their boots. But what equips Dreyer to wade through the flood of data generated by his operation?
Chemical applications, seed variety and planting rates, weather, soil fertility and tillage information intermingles on the spreadsheet with the loan rate for that new planter in the shed. Site-specific management tools, with their fascinating layers of information, are gaining favor. Soon, the rivers of data merge to become a torrent.
“Taking all of this information and making a definitive decision from it is extremely difficult,” says Keith Morris, Information Systems Manager at Purdue's Site Specific Management Center (www.purdue.edu/ssmc). “We're trying to take these biological systems and cram them into rows and columns and spreadsheets. When all those individual cells start interacting, it gets pretty complicated.”
The solution to this data overload, however, is being eagerly pursued. A number of industries, all with online capabilities, offer a range of help for making sense of it all.
Feel The Power
For Dreyer, trading in his cumbersome “old notebook method” for mPower3 — a data management service that simplifies the integration of crop, weather and site-specific data with crop and pest models — was the answer.
MPower3 (www.mpower3.com) sales and marketing director Adrienna Hines believes the service can provide an edge during this time of low commodity prices.
“How can a producer do better with what they currently have?” asks Hines. “This can help them make decisions such as laying tile this year to increase productivity over the next four years.”
On Dreyer's contract seed bean acres, mPower3 software documents critical production information. “We can provide a printout of everything that we did and when, right to the day,” says Dreyer. This assures a consistent and reliable product for the buyer, and accountability and better profile of inputs for the producer.
“We can track costs a lot better, too,” says Dreyer. “We spend less on inputs, and it makes you think twice before you spend that extra $5-10 an acre.”
Operated within Windows Explorer, mPower3's new field management launch — xPress — can run off-line. Producers and their service providers can trace all elements of production and even benchmark against aggregated regional data. Combined with their site-specific weather feature, which reports on weather, disease and pest conditions in pinpointed areas, mPower3 can provide crop models for very specific areas.
“We have some ag chemical retailers that use it in their business alone to determine when to spray,” says Hines. “We have a spray index and wind speed forecast built into it. Their business can live and die by wind speeds during the season.”
Like many other data management companies, mPower3 has found that outside entities such as consultants, dealers, co-ops and contractors have proved the best vehicle for delivery.
This can be a beneficial arrangement, Morris says. “If a consultant or a coop can tell the producer the benefits and downfalls and they can come to an arrangement, there's a lot of potential there,” he says.
How Deep Is The Data Pool?
A new data warehousing service, called iNQUIRE, was launched this spring, but represents several years of field data. Crop Quest (www.cropquest.com) a crop consulting company with 1.2 million acres in the four-state area of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, developed iNQUIRE to geo-reference information professionally gathered by their team of 80 agronomists.
“One of the most difficult things for farmers to get a grasp of is making valid decisions quickly enough,” says Crop Quest president Ron O'Hanlon. “Data pooling takes a part of the experience from one single farm and combines it with the experience from other farmers throughout a geographic area.” For example, a producer could compare how hybrids, which are introduced too rapidly to keep up with, respond under certain scenarios before considering them.
O'Hanlon, who walks fields with producers weekly, sees precision data as an increasingly valuable commodity. “As new precision ag equipment is being sold, it raises the demand for precision information,” he says. “Which, in turn, makes this precision data more valuable and useable to the farmers themselves.”
Keeping It In Perspective
But even with all the high-tech data analysis at our fingertips, it's important not to forget where the buck stops — with the producer himself, says Purdue's Morris. He'll still need a professional consultant who will get out and walk fields with him.
“We can look at all these pretty maps and highlight those low areas in a field, and there may be several. But it may not be the same calls for the low areas,” he notes. “Even with all of that data, you can't take the farmer aspect out of it. He still has to make that decision because he knows those fields better than anyone else.”
5-Year Prediction: How will these services fit into the farming picture?
If the EPA came calling at your front door asking questions about chemical and fertilizer input history and other associated environmental factors, would you feel threatened?
Handing them a printout or a disk with that information without hesitation might make you feel a bit more at ease.
“The environment, by far, is the force that will drive (information services) in the long run,” says Keith Morris, Information Systems Manager at Purdue's Site Specific Management Center. “Proper documentation gives (farmers) a record of what has been done in the past, and its not just on an envelope in the front of a truck.”
Morris believes the need for trained agronomists available to farmers also will grow with increased use of these services. “I think the agronomist will have to come to the forefront and take a bigger role in deciphering the data,” he adds. “Right now we have consultants jumping all over the country, but I think it will become a service that is regionalized.”