Precision ag maps — what went wrong?

Farm Forum: Pretty Maps or Useful Insights? Mapping offers new ways of seeing fields, but making it profitable is the trick

The agronomic community has generated layer upon layer of precision agriculture data maps for 20 years. But fewer than five percent of farmers make profitable use of their field maps.

“What went wrong?” That’s a question Aaron Breimer often asks himself. Breimer is general manager at Veritas Farm Business Management in Chatham, Ont.

He posed the question during the on-line Farm Forum audience Nov. 9. He surmises that field maps represent another classic case of science rushing ahead to solve problems that don’t yet exist.

“Going back to the very beginning of mapping, data collection and precision ag, we see that industry came up with a whole big pile of solutions to problems without even knowing the farmer’s problems. We never asked them. We should have gone to farmers first and asked what keeps them awake at night, and then attacked those problems first.

“Today, is all that data intimidating? That might have been the main deterrent 10 years ago, but today we have new platforms allowing you to work with your data layers yourself if you’re so inclined. However, they’re incredibly complex unless you work with them every day. It becomes very frustrating and time-consuming, sitting there trying to remember which button do you press to access a certain map.

“So yes, that can be a hurdle. That’s why we’re seeing such a move by farmers to rely on their trusted partners within the industry. These partners run the platforms for them,” Breimer said in a phone interview.

When asked if there might be situations where a fertilizer rate is over-sold or a crop protection application applied needlessly, Breimer said farmers are too clever to let things like that slip by. Plus every province has an agrologist institute to enforce ethical behaviour.

“If something isn’t quite right, farmers are able to sniff it out in a heartbeat. I sit on the Ontario CCA board. We all sign an ethics agreement. Anyone who breaks that agreement should be run out of the business. There must be total trust in the farmer-CCA relationship.

“Plus, there’s protection built into this new technology. Every recommendation, every script becomes validated. The CCA has to prove to the client that the script makes money, that it’s financially sound.”

Maps talk — Breimer had a recent example of how data maps result in better decisions. One of his clients operates two large corn planters, one outfitted since new with hydraulic downforce while the other has only the standard spring downforce system. Both planters came off the production line at the same time, so they were identical except for downforce.

The farmer bought the hydraulic downforce option because the fall-cultivated corn fields left his sandy soils too soft. The planters would sink into the soil, thus destroying any semblance of good seed placement. He thought hydraulic downforce might mitigate the problem. If it helped, he would equip the other planter with hydraulic downforce.

Breimer and his client ran a field-scale trial with the same tractor, same corn variety, same planting day. The two fields were as close to identical as possible in the real world.

“When the data came back that year, we had expected to see the biggest response from the side with the sandy lighter brown soils. But surprise, there was no difference. The hydraulic downforce had zero yield increase over the conventional spring planter. It was a wash.

“But on the side with the heavy soil, the hydraulic downforce planter gave us a seven bushel per acre yield benefit over the standard spring planter. That’s the exact opposite of what we expected.

“So then, using bare ground imagery, we were able to quantify the different soil types on his farm. We mathematically identified which areas were eroded clay, a nice loam or sandy. When we graphed it out, we saw that hydraulic downforce works best on heavier ground.”

On heavier soils, the planter with spring downforce yielded 165.42 bu. of corn per acre. The planter with hydraulic downforce yielded 172.01 bu. of corn per acre, for a 6.59 bu. benefit.

On lighter soils, the planter with spring downforce yielded 180.03 bu. of corn per acre. But the hydraulic downforce planter yielded only 179.70 bu., for a third of a bushel penalty.

Breimer put that information into a series of maps and graphs depicting that the machine with hydraulic downforce is best suited to planting on heavier soils, while the spring machine works best on lighter soils.

“So the planter with hydraulic downforce is used on the heavy land. The one without hydraulic downforce is used on the lighter land.

“It’s a good example that maps are more than pretty pictures. On this farm, they help depict a seven-bu. yield benefit with hydraulics. And the maps also saved the expense of installing hydraulics on the planter that didn’t need them.”

Farm Forum is a Glacier FarmMedia event.

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