Big doubts about big data

Big data offers layers upon layers and tonnes upon tonnes of valuable information that can cut input costs and boost yields. So why aren’t farmers making better use of it?

Daryle Laycock started collecting GPS-referenced yield data 20 years ago, mainly because experts and informed sources said it would someday be valuable.

Today, it’s all in the trash file. Not that the data was faulty. It was just useless. The two crop consultant companies he has worked with over the years both told him they don’t factor in yield data in making prescription maps.

“All those yield maps. That was a lot of work for nothing. We started doing yield maps way back as soon as that technology was available. But now, the agronomists we hire don’t even look at yield maps,” says Laycock, who farms 5,000 acres with his son at Russell, Man. Their rotation includes beans, peas, oats, barley, wheat and canola. He makes use of the data he collects, but doesn’t do the homework himself.

“The agronomist does the soil testing, infrared maps, satellite images and they make up our variable rate prescription maps. We haven’t got time for all that.

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“I wouldn’t even try to grow oats and barley without variable rate. We want malt barley and we want milling oats. We don’t want them to lodge and we don’t want fertilizer where it shouldn’t be. But I’m not convinced variable rate pays on wheat and canola.”

Laycock adds that his agronomist conducted drone trials on the farm this year to gather more base-line infrared data that will be used in future prescription maps.

Larry Spratt farms 6,000 acres near Melfort, Sask., an area with a half dozen firms offering agronomic consulting services. He collects yield data and as-applied data, but has not yet made the step into variable rate.

“I’ve sat down with all six different companies we have in this area and I’ve done trials on my own farm with most of them. So far, I haven’t seen that I’d get the rate of return I need from variable rate,” explains Spratt.

“This past year was the very best crop I’ve ever had. But for the past 10 years up until 2017, we’ve been drowned out. When I sat down with the agronomists and ran the numbers, it didn’t matter whether I put down 10 pounds of nitrogen or 170 lb., my yield was the same. So why would I do variable rate?”

Spratt says he knows of producers who pay $4 per acre for variable rate prescription maps, but once their crop is in the bin, they don’t bother to sit down to analyze whether it was worth the cost. They take it on blind faith that the system is working.

“We deal with Richardson Pioneer and also an independent dealer. I don’t pay them to walk my fields. I just buy fertilizer and chemical from them. They scout my fields at no charge because scouting is one of the services they provide as part of the package.

“If I hired someone to scout my fields, if I paid an agronomist for that, they’re going to cover their butts by telling me to spray for a wide range of things.

“For example, a lot of guys spray their canola for sclerotinia because that’s what the consultant says. But it still hasn’t been proven to my satisfaction that it’s worthwhile. If you’re paying a guy to scout your canola, chances are he’ll err on the side of caution and tell you to spray.

“I have an ag degree. I like to study my plants. I like to scout my fields. But I always like their second opinion.”

Kevin Dell farms 4,900 acres with his father, Dennis, near Wynyard, Sask. They don’t do variable rate. They have not collected yield data because their combines don’t have the necessary equipment, nor have they accumulated other layers of data. Kevin says there’s a good reason for that.

“We have fairly new equipment, but none of it’s capable of doing variable rate. It’s just not quite new enough,” says Kevin, explaining they would need a new drill, sprayer and combines. Total cost could exceed $2 million.

Dell says he’s delved into the realm of big data and variable rate, and he thinks it can be viable. He expects the farm will be ready in the future, just not the near future. In the past couple years, they’ve started working with a consultant on crop management issues.

“When it comes to variable rate, I think I’m more knowledgeable than my father, but I don’t think variable rate is fully proven yet. We have a few neighbours around here who’ve tried variable rate, but they didn’t see a benefit so they quit. They already had newer equipment, so that cost wasn’t a big factor.”

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