Using data to make better decisions on the farm is nothing new.
"Iowa State University Extension got its start in 1910 by loading up experts from Ames on trains and driving out to small towns across the state and talking about corn production," says ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Associate Professor Matt Darr. "When they first sent that train out, there was a lot of discussion on campus about whether anybody really cared to go listen to how to produce corn."
Nowadays, there's a wealth of information available to producers. "Rather than having access to one state specialist on the train rolling through town, we have high resolution imagery, high accuracy weather stations, terabytes of reports on crop production across the country," Darr says. "We're not limited by data, but by our ability to synthesize that information to help us improve production on our farm."
$8 an acre industry
Currently, much of the use of precision agriculture is in guidance systems like swath control and auto-steer due to the strong return on investment. For planting overlap control, it's almost an $8 per acre return on investment. That's not a bad thing, but there's still a lot of untapped opportunity in actual yield data.
That $8 return is equal to about a 1% yield gain in net return to the producer. So why is it hard to find growers investing in actual yield data?
"This is the easy button. If we want $8 an acre, all we have to do is go to a dealership and write a check," Darr notes. "If I bought a yield monitor, I don't get any value in that, not until I invest time in it, not until I make it a part of my strategy of managing acres more intensively."
It isn't about optimization and perfection, but accelerating the natural progression of on-farm decision-making, Darr says.
"It's my hope that a young producer starting today with the use of data can fit 50 years of farming productivity into a 40-year career," he says. "What's the ROI on that?"
Big data on the field level
This natural progression occurs at the individual field level, at times finding out things the operator never knew, Darr says.
"Many times we repeat these types of practices without knowing or being able to quantify the impact they have on our production potential," he says. "Quantifying results is a critical step in impacting change into the ag system."
For example, when Darr collected Normalized Different Vegetation Index imagery of a 120-acre ISU corn field this year at V10, something stood out – linear striping patterns of yield loss indicative of management-related issues. Seventy percent of the field had compaction problems, even after applying manure with a dragline applicator.
"Did that farm manager know that compaction was an issue from his manure application? No," Darr says. "This is a layer of information he never had access to before two years ago. That's big data, that's adding more components to help us strip back and understand the productivity of our operations."
This compaction resulted in a loss of about 15 bushels per acre, or 1,260 bushels from the entire field – about a $5,000 loss, compared to the $240 cost of a high-resolution image of that field.
Potential in aggregate data
Then there's aggregate data, which allows producers to leverage a much larger dataset to improve the power of their own assessment, Darr says. With it, growers can see how their production levels compare to other practices in the region, benchmark their own performance, and maximize productivity from working capital.
Collecting data on the aggregate level has been happening for years. Take for example the Iowa Soybean Association's On-Farm Network, which has conducted more than 2,500 on-farm research trials since 2007.
Last year, the On-Farm Network conducted 100 nitrogen trials. In this time, 87% of nitrogen applications had a positive valued response.
"If I'm a producer on the low end of that 87%, that is data I can take an action on right now," Darr says. "I can take that and say look at the innovation that's happening in the counties around me, and how do I start to tap into that and push what's going on in that space?"
"It's helping to split up, 'where do I have the most opportunity?'" he adds. "Where do I sit versus others in this space? Where I can get the most value and return back to my operation?"
Defining your value
Some key questions when dealing with data are how to protect and maintain ownership of data and how to gain value from it. Darr encourages producers to know what their expectations are.
"I think we walk in with the mindset that this is just going to help me optimize my farm with an easy button," he says. "I think defining your value is looking at where you want to manage opportunities to improve the way we farm – not change, not re-shape what we do and everything you've learned in your career, but how do we change that with the additional opportunity we have today?"
"At the end of the day, this is where we're at. Precision ag right now is an $8 an acre type industry," he adds. "If we do this right by utilizing data and becoming a geospatial data analyst to empower these important decisions, we have real opportunity to walk up this profitability curve."