Getting Started With Data

Agrian’s Jeff Dearborn, chief agronomy officer, has witnessed plenty of once-promising solutions come and go since first cutting his teeth in the precision agriculture industry back in the late 1980s.

“What amazes me now as I look back is that we knew at some point in time that the cost of the technology was going to be wrung-out, or just become really insignificant, in terms of having data collectors or rate controllers or things like that on the equipment,” Dearborn says. “But it took a while longer than we first thought, and guys were always costing the upcharge of buying a field computer, or whatever it may be. Now, it’s part of the equipment right from the factory – its OEM.”

There’s no longer that incremental increase in cost for the hardware to do variable rate or to log data, he says. “It’s just a part of agriculture overall now. Precision Ag is agriculture. Your equipment is going to have this technology in it whether you like it or not.”

So, if the precision equipment is already built in, how do growers begin to really take advantage of it? Dearborn says that the grower just getting started in precision agriculture should first obtain an accurate field boundary map prior to planting.

It’s also important that they do some sort of intensive soil sampling program, so that they know precisely how much N, or potash or phosphate, is available in the soil, he adds.

The next step is to take water into account. Is the land irrigated or non-irrigated? What’s the drainage situation, what’s the land topography and how does the water flow? Is there an area that may be more susceptible to denitrification? How’s the soil compaction?

From there, Dearborn recommends shifting focus to obtaining as much information on general soil and field health, or what he deems “getting the lay of the land.”

“This stuff isn’t really that expensive anymore,” he says “Most of your equipment today – if you have auto steer – has fairly accurate GPS receivers. A lot of them are using real time kinematic (RTK) – which is extremely accurate – you can get a really good elevation map from that. LIDAR data is pretty much freely available, and that can be used for topography as well if you don’t have RTK. And soil sampling is such a routine task today that you can get intensive soil sample data relatively easily.”

Once all the above is completed, then a grower and his retail agronomist or adviser can go about developing a precision agriculture playbook, or plan.

“I’d build my program around what made the most sense economically for my crop mix, and then based off of what I plan to plant in certain locations in my field, I’d start making seed variety selections,” Dearborn advises. “Then I’d probably sit down with a reputable seed sales rep in the area and determine whether variable rate seeding makes sense for me. In a lot of markets it does, but in some it doesn’t. Variable rate seeding will require a rate controller.”

“I’ve seen some places where variable rate seeding would not be my first choice,” he advises. “In those areas, I would probably try varying nitrogen first, or perhaps lime, depending on my soil tests. That’s why I always stress that soil tests are really important. You need to know not only what your soil types are, but you need to know things like pH – if you’ve got a pH problem that is probably the first thing you need to fix.”

Adviser-Assisted First Foray

An example of a retail precision program being marketed to growers looking to get started in data collection is Steve Cubbage and his Prime Meridian (Nevada, MO) subsidiary Record Harvest’s “Precision First” program, which Cubbage says is unique in that it takes a bundling approach to data management services to try and alleviate grower concerns over just how daunting the process can be at first.

“Precision First is proactive instead of reactive when it comes to data collection,” Cubbage said in a recent email exchange. “It focuses heavily on being prepared before farmer’s go to the field. That means doing a couple of things, first of which is having a “kitchen table” discussion (even if it is a virtual kitchen table discussion) about what their farming operation looks like digitally. What that means is creating a standard template of grower, farm, field hierarchy and field boundaries that can be uploaded pre-season into all a grower’s monitors.”

Seed selection comes next. “We create a pre-season personal picklist of a farmer’s seed varieties that allows them to easily pick while in the field,” Cubbage continued. “We then create a monitor setup file that can be preloaded across all precision displays on the farm. That way everything matches and there’s no “by the seat of your pants” data entry going on in the middle of a job.”

Cubbage, a well-known consultant throughout the precision ag industry, has some additional pointers for growers just diving into data collection for the first time.

“Data management is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “That is why these bundles are usually sold in three or four year service contracts. We don’t want this hop scotch, hot and cold approach to embracing data. It may sound harsh, but are you in or are you out? It’s really as simple as that. Approaching data through the lens of a three to four year time frame, you get a sense of what you need to do at the base level if you’re really going to move to the next level. I think this is where most of the disappointment stems from with growers. They’ve really never stuck with the basic homework and when something new comes out that requires multiple years’ worth of data – they simply don’t have it. These plans directly address this basic issue.”

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