“Thinking differently about precision ag data has been an evolutionary process,” says Steve Cubbage,” Nevada, Mo. “I think it was those first yield maps that I created as a farmer back in the mid-1990s. I want to dig deeper for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.
“At the end of a season every farmer looks back and reflects on what they could have done better. That's what a yield map is – a reflection of every agronomic and management decision you (along with Mother Nature) made throughout the growing season.
“I knew a yield map only shows you a result – not the cause,” Cubbage says. “That's why I wanted the information on my fields from my fertilizer dealer. That's why I now want seed variety and population recorded. That's why I want aerial imagery and topographical information showing where my field doesn't drain. I can’t manage my farm better without good data that all comes together in one place to add value at the grower level.
“You only get maybe 40 or 50 harvests in a lifetime. Failing to collect all the information you can in this day and age is only selling yourself and your farm's future short.”
Your farm data represent dollars spent and dollars to be made. Spinning them into gold is the challenge. Farmers 50 years ago knew every field like the back of their hands, no doubt better. With bigger farms and more fields, truly knowing a field is more likely done through data. However, with grid sampling, yield monitoring, variable-rate seeding and fertilizer applications, crop histories and more, data can overwhelm even the most analytical farmer ever.
“I don't think some of my customers even realize the amount of data being collected," says Ryan Meister, Servi-Tech Crop Consulting and Agronomic Services. "With some precision-planting software, we can capture rates, down pressure and singulation and look at related yields. We can show that where we get the best singulation, we get the best yields and evaluate the impact of down pressure on yields."
John Kobza, Bellwood, Neb., appreciates information. However, while he likes reports, he has no interest in working the data. Even just making sense out of all the reports can become a real challenge, he admitted, though it is getting better. In recent years, key pieces of data have moved from paper and the desktop computer to the smartphone. Now Kobza has made the complete transition with all of his records and reports stored on an iPad as part of a new program being tested by Servi-Tech. This is actually the second step in a program that started with expanded use of smartphones.
"The transition from paper to smartphone was great," says Kobza. "I have three years of yield data for each farm stored on the smartphone. I can look back and see projected yields, what it was the most recent year and what it was in the past."
This is the first year Kobza has been working with the iPad. Meister now downloads recommendations and other data directly to the iPad. "We are testing iPads as a convenience for our customers versus paper and digital reports," says Meister. "With an iPad, they can look at reports with their fertilizer dealer or crop insurance agent without running back to the office for a three-ring binder."
"Everything is at my fingertips, says Kobza. "I now have reports that are much more detailed than anything on paper and always there with me. The visual aspect of having everything at my fingertips is part of it. I can pull up Google Earth to see how the surrounding area relates to a farm or a field."
As much as he appreciates his iPad and smartphone, it is his relationship with Meister that Kobza appreciates most. Meister handles the data, providing the reports Kobza wants to see, previously on paper, that are now downloaded automatically to the iPad.
"He brings up the data, and we analyze it and discuss it before writing up a prescription," says Kobza. "I value his input and visit with him more often than I do my banker or accountant. We probably talk twice a week through the season about what he is seeing in the fields and to discuss irrigation scheduling."
This year the discussions took on extra importance as crop prices increased. Kobza applied more chemicals than in other years; with $2/bu. corn, you're not going to spray a marginal field, but with $8 corn you do everything you can to get that last 2 bu. of economic return.
Getting the most out of every acre was why Steve Cubbage, Nevada, Mo., encouraged his dad to get a yield monitor in 1995, the same year their retailer began offering grid sampling. Within a few years, Cubbage was asking why he couldn't get yield and fertility maps merged. When he ran across SST software (SSToolbox)in 1997, he merged maps and pulled reports to identify yield constraints. He recognized that other farmers needed the same information and started a precision-ag consulting business, Prime Meridian, to get farmers, their suppliers and the data on the same page, digitally speaking. That effort is making a quantum leap with wireless transmission of data and the advent of the cloud. It soon expanded into hardware, including precision-planting equipment. However, data management remains his passion, and he sees that need expanding geometrically.
"Today we've opened Pandora's Box of data with remote sensing, field sensors and weather data," says Cubbage, who’s still involved with the family farm. "Anything that takes place as a management practice can be recorded electronically. That onslaught of data has many farmers a little glassy-eyed, like deer in the headlights."
Cubbage likens the situation to the tax code, asking how many farmers do their own taxes. He faulted the grower support industry for not doing a good job laying out a plan and process for utilizing information in an effective way.
"With automatic flow of information from machine and data source to the cloud, as professional advisors we can become proactive, not reactive. We can see the screen in the field and load prescription maps if the operator is having problems; all from our computers."
However, those same advances potentially create new barriers to information movement and access. Cubbage compares farmers’ data-information-related investments to investing in multiple funds without knowing about each one or having an investor advisor to offer information.
He worries that industry is still too shortsighted and proprietary, as individual entities or brands set up online data storage lock boxes. He compares it to having to go to five different banks to withdraw money. "We can only hope they don't try to keep data hostage," he says. "Farmers need to be more proactive in understanding the value of data, demand access to it and commonality in platforms. So much innovation can take place."