Reifsteck: What Precision Ag Needs

Illinois farmer John Reifsteck has been working with precision technology for about as long as it started becoming commercially viable in the mid-1990s. In fact, he was a speaker at the InfoAg Conference in 1995 when everyone who attended wanted to know how the convergence of inexpensive computer processing, global positioning and the World Wide Web was going to revolutionize American agriculture.

Ten years later, he presented at the 2005 InfoAg Confer­ence to share his successes, disillusionments and desires for ag technology and his farm, and many of his key points were still valid. And in 2013, while Reifsteck gives a nod to advancements in technology, there are still many difficulties and challenges for growers when it comes to precision agriculture.

We caught up with Reifsteck recently after giving a talk to a group of agriculture professionals on the topic of precision ag adoption: What works, and what continues to elude the industry.

Data-To-Knowledge Disconnect

“We have the technology that allows us to control stuff — fertilizer, seed — and we can do that very well,” says Reifsteck. “But we are gathering a lot of information that we are not able to move over to knowledge yet. That is going very slow and in my opinion, it is a little frustrating.”

Most farmers he comes in contact with are not getting the information out of their technology equipment, and Reifsteck admits that he struggles to get what he needs. “I am chastising the industry a little bit about this, about why is it so difficult to get questions answered,” says Reifsteck. “I am convinced the technology is there to do it.”

“The industry spends a lot of time and effort looking at doing more stuff and collecting more information, but the industry “cannot easily answer some basic questions that farmers have,” asserts Reifsteck. “How did this variety compare to other varieties, how did the nitrogen tillage we did work?  We can get a lot of these answers, but it is still really complicated to do it.

“If I want a trial on nitrogen my fields, why are our systems not capable of setting up a trial?” he continues, “pushing the information to the correct monitors or controllers for each field operation and, after harvest, be able to show me the entire season’s trial data and the result? I don’t see us getting any closer to this.”

Beyond this, Reifsteck says that there are questions that growers don’t know enough to even ask yet based on the data. “We have all sorts of information being collected, from direction of travel to speed, weather data and planter settings,” he says. “What are we doing about mining this big data to extract knowledge out of it? That’s why precision is so frustrating — because we’ve not made a lot of progress on that front.”

The Complexity-Integration Disconnect

Electronics are getting more complex, and making what used to be pretty straightforward operations much more involved. As capabilities are added, ease of use has not followed.

“Back in the day, the planter monitor only told you that seeds were dropping. The next monitor told you the population, and the next allowed you to do variable-rate (VR). That was followed by VR of multiple varieties, then VR on-the-go. We’re piling on capabilities but we’re not making it easier to use.”

The lack of integration and increasing complexity are a problem not only for farmers experienced with the technology, but for the “tech-savvy” next generation that is beginning to take the helm of large farming operations.

“The farmers coming online now are experienced technology users, but not how farmers are forced to use technology today,” says Reifsteck. “They grew up using technology that worked, that was integrated, and performed tasks with desired results. I hear it talking to people who are servicing equipment — that they are getting calls from growers who ‘don’t like the technology’ but they want to be able to use it.”

Looking outside of agriculture, he sees examples where companies have successfully wrestled the complexity of technology to the ground to give its customers a useful and productive experience. “I’m a big fan of Apple,” says Reifsteck. “What they can do is package the system and allow people to get out what they need. We don’t have that structure in agriculture, and we need it. Farmers want to know what time it is, not how to build a clock.”

“I know companies are working on those things, but as of now this is a barrier to implementation. And the more barriers we have, the fewer number of farmers we have to engage in precision adoption, which means the data set is not as rich as it should be. We will not get the rich data set until precision gets to be so easy that anybody can do it and feel like they gain clear benefits.”

Data Movement Difficulties

Another issue is data-sharing and movement, which is still very complicated, says Reifsteck.

“In the end, we must have seamless connection between all the devices — the desktop, the cab, the mobile device that’s on my belt — all have to be able to work together,” he says. “When you add complexity to that process, you start losing grower interest in the process. Time is no longer productive. We need an integrated systems approach, that somebody who looks over this system we have in ag and says, ‘This is how we are going to solve this problem.’ The devices are a way to get the work done, they do not stand alone.”

Charging Ahead Despite The Challenges

Reifsteck says that he is as optimistic as he has ever been about technology in agriculture, and is continuing to adjust and adopt. When it comes to new technology purchases, he’s looking for the most open structure he can find so that he is able to innovate as he comes across technologies he wants to add on.

His most recent monitor purchase, two Trimble units, was based on its ability to more effectively move data with his machine configuations, and to hook into the CenterPoint RTX network for an RTK signal. A couple of years ago, he got caught in the middle of a dispute between two operators who could not agree on a tower sharing arrangement, which resulted in no RTK service in some of his fields — an unforgivable transgression in our GPS-driven ag industry.

He’s concerned about the continuing competitive state of precision, and whether the industry can find common ground without going through a costly competitive war for business before we get to the other side.

Manufacturers want to make decisions that provide them a competitive advantage, and industry standards would put that at risk. “Who would risk it all and step out of the pack if you could lose customers in the process?” says Reifsteck. “If you’re a major manufacture you want to lock things in.”

Reifsteck wonders if the drive toward more compatibility might come from an outside source looking to make a significant investment in agriculture. Or could the data issue be a place were academia finds a role?

“Academia has huge expertise in computation,” says Reifsteck. “They run systems computers and they are efficient at mining data.”

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5 comments on “Reifsteck: What Precision Ag Needs

  1. John is not alone in his frustration. Indeed, precision ag technology has come a long way since that first InfoAg in 1995, where he was our token "Cyberfarmer". But we have still avoided solving one of the most important parts of the whole system….the integration and interpretation of all the data we continue to collect. I still get excited about how all of the technology helps us do a better job of managing crop production and collecting data to guide better-informed decisions. And we have made a lot of progress on those fronts. But for John and other early Cyberfarmers, we have failed to develop the power that is within those data for really understanding our production systems and making the most use out of the information—to turn it into "knowledge", as John says.

  2. John is not alone in his frustration. Indeed, precision ag technology has come a long way since that first InfoAg in 1995, where he was our token "Cyberfarmer". But we have still avoided solving one of the most important parts of the whole system….the integration and interpretation of all the data we continue to collect. I still get excited about how all of the technology helps us do a better job of managing crop production and collecting data to guide better-informed decisions. And we have made a lot of progress on those fronts. But for John and other early Cyberfarmers, we have failed to develop the power that is within those data for really understanding our production systems and making the most use out of the information—to turn it into "knowledge", as John says.

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