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Are farmers drowning in data?

Precision farming data can help identify problems, target treatments and boost productivity, but how do farmers turn it into something useful?

Sean Stanford doesn’t have a degree in computer science. He isn’t set up with the latest precision agriculture equipment. In a world where some look at individual rates for each spray nozzle, Stanford still seeds and sprays at a uniform rate. He is not set up for any variable-rate application and sees little value in collecting the data needed for that level of precision agriculture.

At the same time, data is still a driving factor on his 650-acre farm near Magrath, Alta.

Daily satellite maps have been a boon for Stanford, who also owns a custom-spraying business and does not always have time to physically scout his fields. Harvest maps help him spot deficiencies and inform treatment decisions for the following year. He uses a data-management platform that helps him compare variety yields in his area and decide what seed to put in the ground.

“It’s never too late to really start and you don’t have to start with the most intense set of data collection either,” he said. “You can start with just some basic things. You can start with only harvest maps if you want to… it doesn’t have to be as complicated as the whole picture looks from the outside.”

Why it matters: Farmers are increasingly told that data and precision agriculture are keys to increasing productivity and efficiency. But while the list of ways data can be used is growing, the increasing number of tools and services to choose from may seem overwhelming to someone just starting out.

Local companies such as M3 Aerial Productions and ROGA Drone have offered aerial scouting and near-infrared imaging, which measures the health of plants across a field. Vantage Manitoba has pitched LiDAR-based elevation mapping (using the same technology that police use to hand out speeding tickets) to underpin drainage plans. It now has ties to Soil Optix, technology which measures reflected gamma rays to break down the composition, nutrients, available water and other soil traits.

There’s reason to be excited. For some like Stanford, the added data makes for better monitoring and faster response in the field. For others, new data informs variable-rate application, allowing them to cut input costs. The information may help diagnose mystery problems or guide future management based on individual field traits.

But for those unused to working with data or without an expert on call, it may be hard to interpret the long streams of data from these technologies.

The voice of experience

Farmers may first want to look to their neighbours if they are having a hard time wrestling with data, said Sarah Lepp, senior research associate with Niagara College Research and Innovation.

Neighbours who have already used data or hired a consultant may have valuable insight into what worked and what didn’t.

“Ask these people whether they’re getting value out of their consultants,” Lepp said. “What consultants are they working with? Are they working with data on their own? What tools are they using? Even that tiny stepping stone to see what other people are doing will immediately help growers feel a little more comfortable on where to start.”

Niagara College’s Sarah Lepp takes Ag Days attendees through the real-world applications of her Crop Portal, a free data-analysis tool for farmers, researchers and consultants.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Lepp said data agriculture newcomers might want to strongly consider hiring a consultant, although she is willing to offer some suggestions for any producers using her Crop Portal as an entry to data analysis.

“I do suggest talking to a consultant because they know what they’re doing,” she said. “They know where to start. They know how to help. They know what to do with data. For the farmers who have a lot of experience with data and they want to dive in with all these different tools that they can use themselves, great. I wouldn’t recommend that to all growers off the top, because it is overwhelming. There’s a lot to learn and unless you have a ton of time, which most don’t, it’s easy to spin in a whole bunch of different directions and not get anywhere.”

Finding the right platform

For Alberta farmer Stanford, the data-management breakthrough came when he signed on with Farmers Edge, one of several services that promise to aggregate, translate and make data easier to interpret.

He had been wading through his own farm data for over a decade before signing on with the service two years ago.

“I did get some usage out of it, but it was never really something I could tangibly measure,” he said. “I’d been using a certain amount of fertility on a crop and I’d say, ‘Well that worked pretty good; I’ll do the same or try a little bit more fertilizer next year,’ but without having really good records of specifics, especially with the harvest maps and the yield maps, it was hard to make a good judgment of if the crop was actually benefiting that much or not.”

Lori Yarnell, Climate Corporation climate business manager for eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, said choosing the right platform might be critical for getting the most out of data. Producers should first look at ease of use, as an unintuitive platform often translates into an underutilized platform.

“If it’s not easy, the reality is that you’re not going to use it.”

The ability to go “in crop,” overlaying maps and comparing the actual impact of different treatments, should also be critical.

Yarnell used the example of fungicide. Farmers should be able to leave a check strip without fungicide and then be able to use their data platform to overlay yield information with the map to determine if the product actually saved money.

Yarnell advised that first and foremost, producers should get all of their data in one place to make it easier to manage. They must then actually use the data to make decisions which get the most benefit from the time and effort spent collecting the information.

At the same time, she warned not to skimp on the math — it’s not enough to just visualize the data or turn it into colours on a management zone map. She said producers should dig into the numbers behind the maps to get the full benefit of the data.

“(With) these platforms, there’s about 10 things they can do right now. There’s weather and satellite imagery and big-picture yield analysis and small-picture yield analysis and reporting and other analysis pieces. It’s OK to just start with a platform and just find the one that brings value to your farm and start with that. In your first year of using a platform, you don’t have to use every feature,” Yarnell said.

Stanford said that “cherry-picking” of features can make the difference between a worthwhile investment and a waste of time. Producers should consider which tools they will derive actual benefit from, and what specific data needs to be collected for them.

But can they talk to each other?

Lepp said she found that data ownership creates another problem. In designing the Crop Portal, she found the proprietary file type used by some equipment manufacturers complicates efforts to upload, download and share data and analysis.

It’s a red flag that Yarnell also urges producers to be aware of. They should make sure that their chosen platform leaves data ownership in their hands, and data should be easily uploaded, downloaded and shared with others.

“This data shouldn’t just be stuck in one place,” Yarnell said. “You should be able to use it however you wish.”

Like Lepp, Stanford advised starting with questions before signing on with a platform.

He urged producers to contact the various companies, get the details of their service and get any questions answered.

“Sometimes the costs of some of these digital agronomy tools don’t add up to what you’re getting out of them, or sometimes it’s a free tool that you can get, but it doesn’t really give you any benefit at the end of the day,” Stanford said.

“Actually reach out and ask some questions and do some homework on them. It doesn’t cost you anything. You can ask for free demos of how software works or how the data collection works and that’s not going to put you back anything except a little bit of time and a little bit of education you can get out of it.”

Even then, he cautioned, the road does not end with signing on the dotted line.

Farmers should expect to absorb some investment cost in continued learning, even if they don’t purchase equipment outfitted for precision agriculture.

His own experience has been a constant and steep learning curve, Stanford said.

To illustrate the point, he had just returned from a meeting outlining this year’s updates and tools for his chosen platform.

“There’s been way more tools and way more things I could use the data for than I expected to when I signed up.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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