Anyone can collect data, but it takes effort to turn it into knowledge. You may have 10 years’ worth of “as applied” or “as planted” data, by field. But if it’s still on the card and you haven’t adjusted your fertility, planting population or other data accordingly, you haven’t benefited. Let’s talk about turning your information into profits.

Technology provides us with all sorts of data about our farms that was previously unavailable; the real question is what we do with that data. Some technologies’ benefits resemble a hybrid car, and some resemble an exercise treadmill. With a hybrid car you benefit the minute you use it by saving fuel. The exercise treadmill requires some effort on your part to provide a benefit or return on investment.

Auto-steering provides immediate benefits by reducing your fatigue and standardizing your rows. But the data you collect while planting, soil testing or harvesting is more like the treadmill; if you don’t do anything with it, you haven’t benefited.

New wireless technologies can help automate the information transfer step. Think about the potential for data to stream off a combine directly to a crop consultant who analyzes it and provides recommendations that increase yields by 20 bu./acre in your poor-producing areas. This is added return onto your investment in wireless technology. By beaming your data directly to someone who streamlines your operation from it, you’ve increased your profitability.

That’s the difference between data and knowledge. It’s a change in philosophy. Because we only have so much time in a day, we don’t always get around to fully using every bell and whistle on our information systems.

We may have recorded more variables than ever before about our fields, nutrient program, hybrid placement and field populations, but are we finding the time to crunch that information for maximum benefit?

Ditch the wires

A wireless link can make the difference between actually taking advantage of what your data can tell you rather than simply producing colorful maps each year.

In any industry you see some level of specialization. As growers’ time becomes more valuable, they might focus on daily management tasks; yet they’d still want to benefit from data analysis’ reduction in field variability. But if you’re not a veteran GIS software analyst, it might make more sense to send your data to a specialist to analyze your soil maps and aerial images. A wireless link harnesses this opportunity to provide beneficial management changes.

Or, you may have complete mastery of your technology, but after being away from it since last harvest, it’s harder to remember it all.

Wireless communications can play out in other ways on the farm. Remote sensors in grain bins monitor your grain quality while you’re off site. As farms get larger and grain storage becomes more remote, they alert you when things go awry. Less obvious applications include monitoring biomass moisture content intended for cellulosic ethanol feedstocks.

Or, as government and insurance reporting evolves, harvest data may stream directly from your cab to an insurance agent or government reporting agency.

Telemetry has been around in agriculture for over 10 years, but it was slow to take off because it’s hard to justify the cost for just the basic telemetry package. One of the more obvious applications has been access to remote help when your tractor breaks down. But who wants to think about his tractor breaking down?

Other benefits from wireless technology may be in the form of improved responsiveness from your local custom applicator; there’s less misapplication now that they have universal access to your application maps and less opportunity to lose your maps. Telemetry and remote tracking replace their daily scheduling meetings.

Where you’ve got continuously operating reference station (CORS) technologies available and cell modems in cabs, we see more growers taking advantage of wireless. In Iowa, the number of CORS users increased from 113 to 247 in 2009. In 2010, there were more than 3,000 hours of CORS RTK time used in Iowa, meaning in-field wireless links on vehicles. That’s spread across 50-60 active users.

Growers who use data can receive a higher rate of return by making better management decisions. After all, doing the same thing day after day, year after year and expecting better results, is the definition of crazy.

What is CORS?

Continuously operating reference station (CORS) is a survey-grade GPS receiver at a known geographic location that continuously collects 3D positioning data. CORS data can support real-time kinematic (RTK) applications, meaning that the station provides continuous correction data to roving GPS receivers with internet-accessible capabilities.

 CORS provides accurate, repeatable positions, permitting you to return to the exact same locations every time. RTK also delivers excellent high-fidelity elevation data, making it valuable for installing tile lines or managing drainage.

CORS is available free of charge in 16 states (you still pay for cell service). Coordinated by the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it provides Global Navigation Satellite System measurements. Besides farmers, CORS users include local, state and federal government; transportation; construction; emergency management; Homeland Security, surveyors; education; and natural resource staff.

 

What is Next?

If we examine the past 10 years’ productivity gains, they’ve resulted from improved genetics, disease and pest control and drought tolerance. Eventually, though, these technologies’ yield curve evens out and we look for the source of agriculture’s next productivity gains.

We’re trending away from seeing a new widget every year. There is only so much that automation can do to improve our return on investment. Producers need to consider how to use precision-ag knowledge to continue to grow yields.

Because RTK technology improves both drainage and input management, there are synergies between technologies that improve sustainability and profitability. One doesn’t need to be at the expense of the other. Swath-control technologies that accommodate drainage buffers along field edges can both reduce expense and deliver environmental benefits. Similarly, active crop sensing to optimize fertilizer timing and placement can spare nitrate leaching and nitrogen expense.

We still see growth in active crop sensing, but there aren’t many other silver bullets to automate.

If you want to be a top producer 10 years from now, you’ll need to optimize top genetics within your environment. You can’t keep climbing the yield curve without improving your management decisions.That begins with benchmarking your operation’s data and fully translating what it can tell you.

 

February 2011