Is data the next disruptive force in the world food supply?

This is the first of a two-part column that deals with data use in agriculture. The second part will appear next week.

Disruptive technology is a buzzword that is frequently thrown around in the high tech world these days.

It is technology that helps create a new market and eventually disrupts an existing market, displacing earlier technology.

Agriculture has depended on technology for growth in productivity. Previous disruptive technologies include the world’s first seed drill in 1733 and the first reaper and self polishing steel plow in 1937.

These innovations allowed farmers to plow, plant and harvest in a fraction of the time that was needed before their implementation. Agricultural productivity soared.

The replacement of horse power with tractor power was another disruptive technology.

By the start of the 20th century, giant steam engines allowed for large tracts of land to be farmed. Gas powered tractors with rubber tires followed, and by the 1940s, tractors outnumbered horses in North America. By 1960, rubber tired tractors had all but replaced horses.

The post-Second World War era also saw the development of a pair of disruptive technologies.

Facilities built to produce explosives for the war were converted to produce nitrogen fertilizers for agricultural use. Other nutrients were explored and a variety of fertilizer products were introduced.

At the same time, synthetic pesticides were developed and introduced to control weed, insect and fungal pests.

Crop breeding has been the latest disruptive technology to improve yields.

With his colleagues, Norman Borlaug, an American scientist working in Mexico, used those tools in the 1960s to breed new wheat varieties that had higher yield potential and were more responsive to inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation water.

In the late 1980s, the first genetically modified crops were introduced. In just 10 years, GM crops dominated corn, soybean, cotton and canola acres in North America.

The reliance on technology to increase food production and do it using highly sustainable practices has never been greater, considering that the world will add another two billion people by 2050.

So what will be the next disruptive technology to revolutionize agriculture?

Today’s ag technology buzz is centered around methods to collect, transfer and analyze reams of weather, farm and field information, commonly called big data.

Farmers are using myriad layers of information to write a prescription for every field operation on every field. The data is loaded into the computerized systems that operate drills, applicators and irrigation pivots to precisely apply the type and amount of inputs across a field.

The ultimate goal is to maximize the productivity of every acre in every field, while optimizing the use of inputs and natural resources.

The potential payoff is huge.

Precision ag technology is expected to contribute 30 percent of the crop production growth required to feed the world by 2050, says John Fulton, a bio-systems engineer with Auburn University.

“It is necessary for company partnerships as big data solutions develop in ag,” he said.

“A machinery manufacturer does not have the agronomy expertise, but they are a main driver in data being generated on equipment. They have to partner with companies that have different expertise.”

Creating management zones based on satellite imagery, yield maps, soil fertility samples and soil types allows farmers to vary seeding, fertility and irrigation rates and pesticide applications.

Modern technology allows information from tractors, drills, sprayers and combines to be automatically transferred to tablets such as iPads or stored on a cloud-based drive.

Seed and fertilizer data flows wirelessly from the monitors to tablets and the cloud. The same is true with pesticide applications.

Yield data is transferred from combines to iPads, to farm managers and agronomists during harvest, and analysis of the results and future seeding plans begins.

Other information, including fuel consumption and slippage, allows the efficiencies of different pieces of equipment to be analyzed. A manager is able to log into any piece of equipment at any point in these operations, see what is occurring in real time and make adjustments to equipment operations.

Weather is another integral piece of data that can be tracked and stored. As all farmers know, it is the real driver when it comes to crop growth, yield and quality.

In-field weather stations can track precipitation, temperatures and wind in real time and cumulatively. The information enables farmers to react to weather events at field level or in smaller increments. It allows for precise crop staging as modelling programs integrate emergence dates, weather data and varietal information.

The use of big data on the farm may include the development of sustainability reports by field. This information could include variable rate nitrogen applications and fuel use, which when combined can create a carbon footprint for a specific field or crop. As well, pesticide use can be tracked and a yield map developed.

Concerns include data ownership and equipment compatibility.

Ownership is a critical component. There is no question that growers can benefit by participating in regional analyses. Simple, statistical comparisons can make farmers aware of the best varieties and hybrids to plant and when to plant them, as well as a selection of other favourable practices for their farming enterprises.

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