Think Data First: Perfect Makes Perfect

There are some out there who would have you believe that practice simply makes perfect. That same group would also probably still say that 90% of being successful in life is just showing up.

Over the years these common thoughts have mostly been debunked. As most of us now realize, practicing doing something in an incorrect manner a whole bunch of times isn’t going to help anybody. Hence legendary Green Bay Packers patriarch Vince Lombardi’s famous quote: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

I doubt Lombardi at the time envisioned that quote being applied to the quirky world of yield monitors, NDVI sensors and variable-rate planters, but the same can be said for managing data in precision agriculture. A grower can harvest the same field in the same manner with the same uncalibrated yield monitor collecting false data every fall, and things will always be far from perfect. That grower unfortunately is just not going to have useful data at the end of the day.
“Precision ag is not perfect,” explains Mike Griffel, Sim­plot Grower Solutions (SGS), precision ag manager – Eastern Idaho. “There are cases where we’re just not seeing what we want to see — that’s why we have to make sure our data is clean, and that’s where data management comes in.
“This whole Big Data concept in agriculture — it’s a huge challenge,” he continues. “I like to say it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. There’s just so much data that either isn’t being collected or it’s being collected incorrectly. And there’s no magic algorithm or sensor out there yet that’s going to make this easy.”
Griffel, who manages about 130,000 acres annually for 40 to 50 growers with varying levels of precision adoption, says that about a year ago Simplot, having noticed the disconnect between how growers were looking at data (as a secondary concern) and how the industry as a whole wanted the growers to embrace data (top of mind), began emphasizing more accurate data collection.
“We just started encouraging our growers to be more diligent with the whole data collection process — calibrating equipment as needed, making sure systems are all performing correctly during harvest — because this data has immense value,” Griffel says. “In a perfect world when we are looking at a field with production issues — if we can look at grid soil sample data going back 10 years we can find correlations in the data — that really helps the agronomist, the advisor and the farmer.”
Griffel works with a grower about 30 miles north of Idaho Falls, ID, Terry Wilcox, who he says is already doing things the right way. Wilcox is always thinking data first on his several thousand acre operation where he grows potatoes, hay, wheat and barley, according to Griffel.
“We’ve done quite a bit of soil mapping on Terry’s farm in the last few years, and this last year we really started to work with his yield data,” recalls Griffel. “This year we are imaging the entire farm with satellites. They’ve been dabbling in a lot of different things in the last three to five years.”
Griffel also shared that Wilcox has additional manpower he can deploy in his everyday battle with data: the farm manager.
“On a national scale farms are consolidating and becoming much larger,” he says. “Farm managers are making a lot of the important day-to-day decisions on the farm, interacting with a lot of data. These farm managers are key to good data collection.”
Brandon Vining, a CCA crop advisor, SGS, is one of the main farm managers that advises Wilcox. Vining agrees with Griffel, saying Wilcox is a natural fit for a case-study on using multiple layers of data in precision agriculture.
“I think Terry is on the right path by gathering multiple layers of data and trying to see trends before making any decisions,” said Vining via e-mail. “Every decision we make needs to be based on data. We need to collect and evaluate multiple levels of data in order to make the best decision we can. In my opinion there cannot be enough data gathered before making any decisions. Then, the most important part is the evaluation of the decisions, and ultimately did this generate a ROI for the farm?”
According to Wilcox himself, some of that ROI stuff is still up in the air. “We’re accumulating and managing the data, and now we need to learn how to make it work so we can really start seeing the gains in return-on-investment, lower input usage, etc.,” he says.
Finding more ROI in the coming years shouldn’t be that difficult though, as Griffel says variable rate fertilizer applications have opened the team’s eyes to even more ways to vary inputs in the field.
“The next level (for Wilcox) is going to be modifying his planting equipment so we can do variable rate seeding,” says Griffel. “Folks in this industry are always talking about the 4Rs; that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with technology. Whether it be seed, nutrients or planting populations, we want that right rate and the right source at the right time.”
Vinning, in his hands-on farm manager role, recalls a practice from last year that helped Wilcox find some ROI.
“One decision that comes to mind is last year we decided to plant cover crops in the fall and limit tillage until the following spring. We planted the cover crops in the fall of 2013 and we collected zone samples that same fall and variable-rate fertilized based on those results. Then in the spring we resampled the zones and again variable rate fertilized in the spring.
“Throughout the 2014 growing season we tissue and soil sampled the crop and collected data on irrigation events on water monitoring systems. We also monitored the crop with Simplot Satellite imagery, and all irrigation and fertility events were based on all of this data. All crop tillage and planting passes where done with autosteer and mapped. Terry’s comment at the end of all of this was this was one of the best crops we had ever grown.”
Wilcox’s operation being located smack dab in the middle of the hottest of potato growing hotspots, the Eastern Idaho region, traceability and sustainability remain big drivers of precision adoption among growers.
“The Wal-Marts, the CostCos and the SYSCOS of the world, they source tons of potatoes a year out of this region, and they are placing an increased demand on the growers to prove they are producing the crop in a sustainable manner,” says Griffel. “Wal-Mart wants to know how much nitrogen you used, how much water went on and what production practices were used throughout the season, on the crops they buy. This isn’t going to stop anytime soon either, and precision ag promises to play a huge role in helping these growers document what they are doing throughout the year.”

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