How to profit from precision farming data

Hidden in the gross figures for every profitable quarter section are acres that consistently outperform and others that may not be worth the trouble. Devin Dubois aims to give growers the tools to find out which are which.

“Depending on where you are, six percent to 23 percent of seeded acres are unprofitable,” he said, citing research in corn and soybeans in the United States.

“And not just mildly unprofitable — losing more than $100 per acre.”

Dubois is chief executive officer of FieldAlytics, a Saskatchewan firm that provides digital tools to agronomists and input suppliers to help growers manage agricultural production. Data for these tools come from on-field equipment and global information system satellite maps that allow analysis and planning acre-by-acre or in even finer detail.

Precision agriculture is becoming increasingly more sophisticated with equipment manufacturers including ever more sophisticated capabilities as standard equipment. Once downloaded onto a computer, yield data from the combine can be overlaid on a field map together with input data from seeding and spraying equipment, soil testing, in-field moisture sensors and weather records.

Taken together, this information can be extremely valuable to the grower. It can even lead to some counterintuitive recommendations in the quest for fatter margins.

“People have an allergic reaction to this notion and have trouble believing it, because honestly, some of these acres, you would significantly improve your situation if you just did nothing,” Dubois said.

“But people have so much trouble swallowing that notion. ‘You mean, you want me to just, like, not seed it? Just turn off the seeder there?’ Yep. Technically, that would be a better decision.’”

Once they’ve “stopped the bleeding,” Dubois said the next step is to do better with the rest of the field.

Once producers discover the value of their data, they are understandably cautious about who has access.

Dubois said FieldAlytics uses commercial cloud-based servers (in this case, Amazon) to store its data, which offer bank-level security. Users access the system via a user name and password.

Don Campbell has been an agronomist for 25 years and currently works through Western Sales in Rosetown, Sask. The John Deere dealer has six locations in west-central Saskatchewan.

Despite his physical location, Campbell emphasized that he and his colleagues are independent and work on behalf of clients, both out of professional obligation and necessity. For instance, they must be “brand agnostic” because many growers use equipment from different manufacturers, and different farms will perform best with inputs from varied suppliers.

This “grower first” mindset also applies to precision farming data. Campbell said while there are software packages available to growers, most prefer to work with an agrologist like himself both to save time and to get the benefits of expert eyes on their data.

This means the data must leave the physical confines of the farm, but again it is stored and secured on commercial cloud servers. Campbell said this is actually more secure because data on the cloud is secure from hard drive crashes or the theft of a laptop.

“From a standpoint of who sees data, customers have the ability,” he said, whether it’s through the dealer or a standalone system. “There’s the ability for the producer to get in using their user name and whatever password they’ve created.”

Campbell and Dubois emphasize that precision farming data is kept secure, but they also say such data is of limited value to anyone but the grower. Large equipment manufacturers and crop input companies are certainly interested in crop and land data but over large geographical areas. This information is publicly available through satellite imagery, which is already used, for example, by crop insurance.

In those cases, when a commercial entity wants access to a grower’s data, it’s simplest just to ask. Campbell said Western Sales wanted a local example of precision agriculture in action that it could freely publish to show that its systems provided value. It made an arrangement with a local grower that gave five years of access to Western Sales’ software tools and expert agronomists in exchange for five years of data on a half a section of land.

While precision farming data on a specific farm may not be of great interest to large companies, to individual growers it can be very valuable indeed.

Dubois said it’s frustrating that more growers aren’t taking full advantage of the data. It can be applied to all sizes of operations and may actually be more financially attractive to small and medium-sized single-operator operations.

Campbell said the gains possible through data-driven decisions can be deceptively modest but definitely show up on the bottom line.

“All I ever want to do is small, marked increases over time because that’s what’s consistent,” he said.

“We have had some significant benefits over years where we’re looking at over $20 an acre, net, on wheat. That’s significant. I think most people would take that and be very happy with it.”

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