Data, Data, Everywhere: Overcoming "Information Overload"
In the era of modern agriculture, farmers have the capability to manage their farms and operations like never before. Monitors in equipment cabs paired with satellites and in-field sensors are all recording real-time information. They capture anything from field elevation and crop health to planter speed and seed singulation. Decisions can be based on this data and implemented through means such as variable-rate seeding and fertility prescriptions. This data provides a wealth of knowledge over multiple crop seasons.
However, for many farmers trying to adopt modern agriculture concepts and practices, a bounty of data can become a very real and challenging problem of “information overload.” Not only can this data be difficult to interpret, but the time it takes to study is just not feasible for most farmers. Throughout my career, I have consulted with many farmers about how to optimize data for their operations. Oftentimes, I find that farmers become overwhelmed upon learning about the amount of useful data they collected over previous seasons.
At that point, most are already wanting to throw in the towel, and how can anyone blame them? Farmers have many more things to worry about such as budgets, crop acres, operators and weather. Farmers are simply drowning in their own data.
What is the path forward for a farmer wanting to use data to optimize farming practices?
- Establish a “base camp” before conquering the mountain. The easiest and most important step is to assess the data from previous seasons and the equipment capabilities. This provides a starting point for decision making.
- Don’t guess, test! Step two begins at the soil level--soil testing provides invaluable data specific to the farmer’s field. What good is putting time, labor and finances into a crop if you don’t know the nutrient needs? The best way to gain the most knowledge of soil nutrient variability is through grid-sampling. If recent soil tests do not exist (age of tests more than three years), I recommend obtaining a two-and-half to five-acre grid-based soil test to capture as much nutrient and soil variability in the fields.
- Once soil test results are available, fertilizer recommendations should be established through variable-rate prescriptions and the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship:
- Right Source: Choosing the right source for nutrient demands ensures there is an adequate number of essential nutrients based on the characteristics of specific products. For example, a liquid application may be more suitable than a dry application due to immediate nutrient availability.
- Right Rate: Applying the right rate in different field areas to achieve a desired yield goal efficiently places the necessary amount of fertilizer in the right places.
- Right Time: The right timing of fertilizer applications can be optimized after determining the soil texture present in the field.
- Right Place: The right placement of the nutrients needed allows a plant to develop properly and realize its potential yield.
- Choose the correct varieties to plant based on existing soil types and textures. For example, a farmer wouldn’t plant a “race horse” corn variety in heavy clay soil because its performance is limited by stresses. These include pooling water and hardening of soils. Some fields may have enough soil variability where multiple varieties can be planted. If your planter can plant multiple hybrids or plant using a variable-rate seeding prescription, it could further optimize your crop production and increase your return on investment.
- Proactively monitor crops through tissue sampling. Getting ahead of a nutrient deficiency before it manifests into visible symptoms can offset measurable yield losses. Plants need necessary nutrient levels before critical growth stages. If corn is deficient in nutrients, it will begin to cannibalize itself. Tissue sampling should be performed seven to ten days before the critical growth stage. Ideally, take two tissue samples during the vegetative stage and two during the reproductive stage. In a proactive approach, one tissue sample covers 20 acres. Therefore, one sampling event may need three to five actual samples per field depending on acreage. Making a foliar application to correct any nutrient deficiency is critical for off-setting yield losses.
- Collect good yield data. If you don’t have a yield monitor, break your farms down individually when weighing the resulting grain. You can take this further by totaling the grain from each field. Utilizing a yield monitor provides even more insight into how the crop performed across many acres by geo-referencing every yield value collected. Yield data is the ultimate indicator of field performance. I like to tell farmers to look at yield maps as revenue maps. Green areas are where you made the most money and red areas are where you made the least or even lost money. Yield data can be analyzed to make sound agronomic decisions for the next growing season. Questions like “why did areas of my fields not perform as well as others?” and “what can I do about it going forward?” can be answered.
Now that “base camp” is established, you can begin conquering the mountain. Repeating the previous steps each year builds your bank of knowledge. Gradually adding in more data from new technologies continues the optimization process while not breaking the bank. Remember, technology and data are completely worthless unless they are used to make and implement decisions. Consult with your trusted agronomic advisor to help you analyze and interpret all the data you collect to ensure you are getting the most return on your investment.
Jonathan Hall serves as Pinnacle Agriculture’s Precision Agriculture Specialist. Since joining Pinnacle in 2012, Jonathan has worked closely with our retail locations and farmers to implement new technologies and management practices to maximize yields. He also works directly with research and development to evaluate new seed varieties and products to optimize their performance on our farmers’ acres.