Thinking “Data First”

rhylanderThis week I spent a couple of days at the Michigan AgriBusiness Association conference in Lansing, and gave a breezy update on unmanned aerial systems. I was also able to catch a few presentations, including one by Dave Rhylander, one of Monsanto’s key leads on the FieldScripts program.

We (along with many of you) have been following the evolution of FieldScripts pretty closely over the past two years, and paid particular attention to how data was coming in after harvest.  Dave shed some light on the findings during the talk, and with me one-on-one afterward.

The biggest conclusion was one that no one would accuse of being rocket science: the recommendations Monsanto provided through FieldScripts were only as good as the data that went into the recommendation. Where robust data history existed, the FieldScripts recommendations provided measurable yield increases in the 4 to 8 bushel range.

To this end, Monsanto is adjusting the data requirements going into 2014. Participants in FieldScripts will be required to have at least three years of yield data, and in two of those years the corn yield will have had to exceed 120 bu/a. Soil sample data must have been collected on or after September 1, 2009, at a grid resolution of 3 acres or less, and to a depth of zero to 6 inches of zero to 8 inches. Measurements on specific soil nutrients and organic matter will also be required, and west of the Mississippi River, an electrical conductivity test will be a part of the testing regimen.

And after the talk, Dave reiterated what he said during the session: If you don’t have three years of data meeting their requirements, you won’t be ALLOWED to participate in FieldScripts. “Yes, that means if you started this year, the soonest you could get in on Fieldscripts is 2017,” he restated emphatically.

You do have to respect the fact that they’re not going to take your money if they’re not confident in the process working for you. But what this, and movements on other fronts in agriculture, should tell us all is, if you’re not fully engaged in collecting good, useful field data, you are at best putting yourself at a disadvantage, and at worst, in danger of being left behind.

Last fall we completed a special report on sustainability, and I was surprised at how many initiatives, led by broadly supported program Field To Market, are gaining traction within the food production channel. What virtually all of them have in common is the need for field information to verify practices and/or to show continuous improvement. Collecting good data is at the heart of it all.

The difficulty is that to collect good data, you need to be thinking about it right up front. When the spring breaks and the fields are ready for planting is not the moment to think about what equipment you’re going to use to gather planting data. When the sun is high and the corn is dry is not the time to think about yield data. Taking the time to understand the equipment, calibrate, check connections, and possibly strategize with an outside consultant or your precision equipment dealer well before it’s “go time” will be time well spent.

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