Putting big data on your digital dashboard

The problem for farmers isn’t a lack of information; the major challenge is retrieving data from the cloud as it’s needed

Farmers use an ever-expanding database, covering their soil, inputs, growing season, harvest conditions, storage and markets. Pulling it all together in a meaningful and accessible format is a Herculean challenge.

Formula One engineers got a grip on the problem years ago by incorporating data manipulation and controls into the steering wheel. The buttons, display screens and flashing lights on the steering wheel provide the vital link between driver, car and the moving mountain of real time digital data that is required to extract top performance at 200 m.p.h.

Silicon Valley engineers employ the data dashboard concept to quickly retrieve information from the cloud and consolidate it into a single location in a useful real time format so users can make decisions and push the right buttons. This follows the general trend already established by professional managers of agricultural data and farmers.

Some professional ag data managers have driven the concept to the point where they feel comfortable saying their system presents all relevant information to the grower in one spot. That’s the farmer’s data dashboard.

Once you log on, your device can quickly bring information from any of the sources you typically use, mainly in Excel files. Any information that’s been input is right there on one screen — anytime, anywhere.

Nutrien is one of the leaders in the trend to give farmers better access to their data. In April, the company launched Ag Solutions, a new digital platform that will enhance its agronomic services to farmers. The news release says the platform will serve as a digital hub so the company’s customers can manage their own unique agronomic and business needs.

Nutrien, formally Agrium and PotashCorp, is the world’s largest provider of crop inputs and services. As such, it depends on an efficient flow of data between itself and its customers.

The new digital platform will be integrated with Echelon precision ag to enable customers to interact with agronomists and field service representatives. The new customer portal will create the only omni-channel network across North American agriculture. It will eventually include digital agronomic services to provide data-driven advice and e-commerce capabilities.

The Ag Solutions digital platform has already undergone beta testing in North American markets, and growers say they appreciate the ease of use. Nutrien vice-president Richard Downey said similar services have been available in the past from a number of companies, but Ag Solutions is a giant step forward.

“Precision agriculture is our Echilon platform that brings together a lot of the data,” he said.

“Our new digital platform goes beyond that. It gives you one portal for all your precision ag, your field management, plus all your marketing and business transactions. You can order products, order services, pay for things or interact with your agronomist.

“You access Ag Solutions with any phone, tablet, laptop or any other kind of device that has connection. I personally don’t use the term data dashboard, but there are a lot of data dashboards in the Echilon platform.”

SourceTrace from Massachusetts is another major supplier of ag inputs. It services 500,000 farmers in 21 countries in South America, Africa and Asia. The SourceTrace mandate is to enable farm groups, agribusiness, government and non-governmental organizations to work with a large number of small farmers to improve farming practices in these areas.

“Much of farmers’ success depends on how they use data,” said SourceTrace chief executive officer Venkat Maroju.

“The farm area is geo-referenced to include plot sizes and perimeter. We can do this easily with our mobile application device.”

The Source Trace website shows the main steps in crop seeding that are digitally documented and made available in a data dash format on a farmer’s hand-held device.

  • electronically document pre-seeding and post-seeding information including soil texture and area seeded
  • track input costs such as seed, fertilizer and crop protection product
  • record soil health status and store soil test reports
  • estimate yield

Maroju said this same level of detail is used during harvest and in planning for the next season.

“SourceTrace performs remote sensing to gather weather and climatic information for analytics based on geo-spatial data. This lets us warn farmers of possible insect or disease outbreaks. We can have two-way communications with our clients using hand held devices to advise them,” he said.

“Our partners provide satellite data to show us atmospheric factors. We use NDVI data to monitor plant health and advise on fertilizer and pesticide applications.”

Many aspects of the SourceTrace digital two-way communication between company and customer are similar to those of Nutrien. In fact, SourceTrace may be a step or two ahead of Nutrien because it helps the farmer sell his crop and use the company’s electronic systems to track the money for the farmer. The system also lets the farmer pay for inputs.

Maroju said that for small third-world farmers, a simple hand-held digital communications device is a significant tool in their quest to be profitable and self-sufficient.

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