Big data can make a big difference on farms

economic-forecast-headerA recent study about precision agriculture showed that unused data equaled $8.1 billion in unrealized revenue for farmers.

“That’s big data to me,” said David Swain, manager of precision agriculture technology for Southern States Cooperative Inc. “Why did we leave that money in the field?” he asked those attending the 2016 Virginia Grains & Soybean Annual Conference on Feb. 16.

Swain was part of a panel that discussed big data’s impact on farming’s future. Other panelists were Matthew Fleet and Marcus McDonald, integrated solutions employees from James River Equipment.

Fleet and McDonald said they manage about 500 pieces of farm machinery that all collect data.

“It doesn’t cost you anything extra to use the data systems on your equipment, and with the results, the sky’s the limit,” McDonald said.

The information collected by farm equipment used for precision agriculture determines, among other things, how combines are running, what inputs are being added to crop fields and a farm’s production yields. “Every time you turn the key in your equipment, you’re accumulating data,” Fleet said.

While a wealth of information is being collected, he said the decision tools are lagging behind. Decision tools are programs that help farmers decipher and analyze data that’s been gathered. “That’s the next frontier in big data,” Fleet said.

Swain said that, even without decision tools, farmers need precision ag to help balance all the unknown variables of farming such as weather and soil conditions. Farmers are familiar with seed, fertilizer and other chemical inputs and how they affect their operations. “But there are 155 other things that affect crop production,” Swain said. “The data farmers gather will help determine those other factors and help them find solutions.”

He likened using big data to offensive plays in the NFL. “The offense already knows the first 10 plays, but after that they can adjust the game plan,” Swain said. “With crops, you control the normal factors, and then you use big data to help make adjustments.”

Asked where the biggest payoff of using big data occurs, Swain said the most beneficial feature of using big data is being able to determine what areas of a field need inputs and what areas do not.

“Make sure you’re putting products were they belong and not where they don’t.”

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