Data warehouses help farmers make decisions

For any technologically adept farmer, data management and storage has become a prime concern. And the data that gets generated not only is mountainous - often it resides in computers off the farm.

Take today's high-tech farmer, who routinely tracks maintenance tasks, inventory, equipment costs, yield monitor information, chemical and fertilizer applications, hybrid selections, seeding rates, tillage passes and grain storage information. Throw financial records into the mix and that's quite a load of data to handle.

But relevant data also is being compiled by his crop consultant, custom applicator, fertilizer and chemical dealer, banker, accountant and local and regional elevators. At best, compiling all this data and using it for decision-making is daunting. But realistically, it's just about impossible.

That's what makes data warehouses an important tool. They serve as a pooling point for all that pertinent data, and they store it in a manner that allows farmers to apply it to their operations.

"The average person simply can't integrate all those different systems," says Scott Dyer, director of the farm-to-table program at VantagePoint (vantagepoint.com), a state-of-the-art data warehousing company. "There are a series of disparate systems out there that don't communicate with each other. We want to integrate the information system into a single account where the farmer can view all relevant information. So we pool all that data, house it at a single source, and offer a secure, backed-up system."

With VantagePoint's service, for example, a farmer can go online, select one of his fields, and overlay a series of "information maps" that could include precipitation, soil type, yield, fertility, hybrid selection and chemical application.

"We want to link all the different layers so that information can be used for decision-making," Dyer says. "If you can't link it and analyze it, it's not inf ormation - it's just data.

"The farmer also can selectively display his information to any number of clients, and that's another way to add value to data."

Another data warehouse, mPower3 (mpower3.com), features the farmer's production data but integrates it with several other information bases. The company's Web site includes pest models that factor in weather, crop location and farming practices to predict insect outbreaks throughout the growing season. Crop growth models include corn, wheat and soybeans; a real-time hail alert system derived from weather tracking; and high-resolution aerial imaging.

"When we began five years ago, no one was looking at information as an asset," says Scott Charbo, president of mPower3. "But consider a single spray application. To the farmer, it's a cost measure and an efficacy measure. And if each application is stored historically and analyzed over time it becomes a decision-making tool.

"But it's also a consultant's tool. And it can be used as a verification tool as well, if that information is important to a processor or grain merchant. We want the farmer to be able to take all the information and move it across the spectrum. The farmer can make better production decisions. And he also can make that information available to other parties for his benefit if he so chooses."