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How Big Data Can Mean Better Profit-Focused Decisions

Dec 14, 2016

Farmers make a minimum of 50 key decisions per cropping season. The question is: what information are they using to make those decisions, and is that information reliable? Because today’s reality is that farming is as much a science as it is an art, and good science depends on good data.

 

You’ve probably heard the term “big data” before, but what exactly does that mean on the farm? How do you get it and how do you use it for maximum value? Can big data help you make better decisions that lead to a better bottom line? Absolutely. Because almost everything on the farm, from soil fertility to seeding rates to harvest dates to rainfall to temperature and more – all of it comes down to numbers. And numbers are data. And the better your data, the better your decisions.

 

That’s important because in crop production, decisions can have a cascading effect – mistakes can build on one another, but so can successes. Seed too light, for example, and weed control could become more expensive than you’d budgeted for. Achieve an optimal seeding rate and maybe you won’t need another herbicide application this season.

 

Of course, Mother Nature plays a big role on the farm, so not everything is within your control. But for the things that are, accurate, reliable data can ensure you make the best decisions for the crop, work more productively and gain a competitive advantage.

 

We asked four Farmers Edge growers to talk about how big data lead to better decisions on their farms.

 


Field-Centric Weather Data Saves Harvest

 

At the beginning of October, George had 200 acres of soybeans left to harvest on the family’s farm. He knew they could get it done that day, but with those 200 acres split between two fields about 15 miles apart, and his FarmCommand forecast predicting a chance of rain at 3:00 pm that day, the rush was on.

 

With only an hour of work left to go in the first field, the rain came – right on time at 3:00 pm. It would have been easy enough, he says, to just assume it was also raining in the second field and call off harvest for the day. But he checked FarmCommand™ on his phone and saw that the weather station nearest to that field showed the shower had missed it. He decided to make the 45-minute move to the second field and continue his harvest.

 

“The importance of having that accurate data at my finger tips can’t be underrated,” he says. “Our goal is to have harvest finished by Thanksgiving because you never know when winter is going to hit after that. We’d have missed that goal without having this field-centric weather data in FarmCommand.”

 

It’s a great demonstration of how having the right data does lead to better decisions; decisions that can save time and money across the entire farm operation.

 


Weather Station Alerts

 

Precision Tech Sales Specialist Jesse Petit in Saskatchewan helped a customer reduce the running time on his bin fans by setting up an alert system using the weather station just outside the customer’s yard.

 

The farmer had high moisture barley in his bins and he was using the relative humidity (RH) reading from that nearby weather station to decide when to turn the fans on and off.

 

The data was reliable and it was a good system except for one drawback – the grower had to constantly check the RH throughout the day to see if he needed to act. It was an added frustration during a busy harvest season and, with a default approach of better safe than sorry, the fans were running more often that he would have liked.

 

The solution Petit devised was a dual alert system that would essentially do the checking for this grower. The first alert is a text letting him know when RH is greater than 60% so he can shut his fans down. The second alert sends a text when RH falls below 55%, and he turns his fans back on.

 

The system means this grower can get on with his daily tasks without the nagging worry of having to constantly monitor the weather station data himself. He just has to respond to the alerts when he gets them. The result is more efficient grain drying and lower energy bills, with a lot less hassle.

 


Saving Costs and Growing Returns

 

A grower who crops 5,500 acres near Birtle, Manitoba worked with Farmers Edge to develop VRT prescriptions for his entire farm. Soil tests revealed that one field in particular had high residual N present, while the remaining fields did not.

 

Consequently, a low rate of N was applied to that field and the farmer went ahead and seeded it with wheat as he’d planned. Higher rates of N were applied to the other fields, seeded with wheat and canola.

 

Come harvest, this grower saw similar wheat yields right across the farm, which means the low-applied N field produced the same great yield as the high-applied N fields. It’s a clear indicator that pushing fertilizer rates when you don’t have to results only in higher input costs, rather than higher yields.

 

That’s important because N is one of those inputs that growers often apply in an “as usual” way, knowing that putting down a bit too much likely won’t harm the crop and believing that more is better anyway.

 

In fact, by trusting the data and using it to make an informed fertilizer decision, this Farmers Edge customer saved $35/acre on that one wheat field through lower fertilizer costs. And he achieved that saving without sacrificing one bushel of yield.

 


Your Decisions Are Only as Good as the Data Used to Drive Them

 

Here’s a cautionary tale about trusting your gut instincts. They’re not always right, and they can lead to costly decisions.

 

In this case, Jeff, a grower with over 3000 acres, was given a VRT prescription for 1,500 acres of wheat he planned to grow over multiple fields. On some fields, he followed the prescription and the wheat stood up well and yielded 83 bu/ac.

 

He had a feeling the other fields might have low nutrient levels and, without checking the soil tests, he bumped the recommended fertility rates by an average of 15 lb. at a cost of $7/ac. On those fields the crop lodged and the yield dropped by 3 bu./ac. compared to the standing crop. Not only that, the lodging led to disease and harvestability problems, both of which cost this grower in reduced quality, added dockage and longer harvest time.

 

In the end, the data showed that this grower lost over $30 per acre on those fields where he’d bumped the fertilizer against the Farmers Edge recommendation.

 

It’s a tough situation, but one that demonstrates the enormous value of having accurate, up-to-the-minute data to guide decision-making on the farm. It’s said that knowledge is power. In farming, accurate data is money in the bank.