Opinion: Benchmarking in Precision Agriculture is Big Statistics

Benchmarking has become a buzzword in precision agriculture recently and before we get too excited with all of the profound insight it’s going to bestow upon us, let’s take a step back and really look at where this benchmarking stuff comes from, what it’s based on, and how it’s impacting the precision ag space.

The first step for these companies that offer benchmarking is to gather a lot of data from a lot of growers and before long they’ve got some Big Data to work with. With this Big Data pool, they can make comparisons of farms with similar hybrids planted on similar soil types. From there a grower can compare how he is yielding compared to his peers farming the same type of soil and planting similar seed.

I didn’t know what to make of this “benchmarking”, so a colleague of mine and I decided to test it out to see if there was something to this. My colleague’s dad farms a few hundred acres and collects yield data, but does nothing with it. And by nothing, I mean he doesn’t calibrate his monitor or even unload the data off his card.

This spring his dad’s card had filled up and he needed to free up some space so his monitor would continue to function. So Instead of erasing the multiple years of uncalibrated, low quality yield data we decided to use it to test out a leading company in the precision ag benchmarking space.

My colleague submitted several years’ worth of his dad’s data. A brief time later, we got a lengthy report back that showed how his dad’s farm stacked up to his neighbors in the same county and a bunch of other pages of fancy graphs which included:

• Yield distribution
• Yield by soil type
• Yield by elevation
• Cumulative rainfall and GDUs during the growing season
• Average rainfall and soil moisture by week
• Daily air temperature
• Evapotranspiration
• Soil temperature at the beginning of the season

These graphs didn’t really seem necessarily useful for specific improvements a grower could make to his operation, but they sure were fancy! The reports also went on to tell us that my colleague’s farm was below the bottom 25% of farms in our county in terms of yield. As someone who looks at a lot of yield data from our county, that did not sit well with me.

Another thing that did not sit well with me was that we didn’t get a single comment from this leading benchmarking company about the poor quality of the yield data. Take a look for yourself at one of the yield maps we submitted:

Notice not only the missing endrows but also the interesting yield ranges in the key.

Most people would be concerned about this, but as a precision ag professional, I know that benchmarking relies heavily on some really advanced data science methods I refer to as Big Statistics (BS for short) to fill in the gaps on highly questionable data like what we submitted.

We went back and looked at the data that this benchmarking company made those fancy graphs from. We determined that it was not fluff like we originally thought, but rather it was BS. So I guess one could say that benchmarking in precision ag doesn’t really work without the heavy use of BS.

In all seriousness, if I valued the idea of benchmarking and wanted to build out a benchmarking database, I would look at more than just yield and soil maps to “benchmark” my farm. In fact, step 1 might be to update the soil maps (that were drawn by hand decades ago) to something collected with sensors (like I wrote about before here) such as Veris data or even ERU layers. Next, I would collect and consider other data layers and variables besides yield such as:

• Soil test data
• As applied data for crop nutrients and lime
• Planting dates
• Seeding rates
• Crop rotation
• Tillage system
• Weather
• Slope and drainage
• Chemical programs
• Profitability (I’m told this is kinda important)

But I could see how a company could overlook those factors in their rush to the market place. Being fancy is really important in precision ag, however being first out of the gate is top dog.

But what about being accurate and effective? Nahhh, nobody cares about that, especially when your product is fancy looking AND first!

Ok, I’ll put down my cup of Haterade now and I’ll state that I’m not against innovative technology. I am just heavily in favor of good, solid science in any technology I associate myself with, no matter how impressive the smoke and mirrors are of technologies that don’t meet that standard.

What concerns me most is that this benchmarking nonsense is going to fall flat on its face once growers figure out what’s going on when it fails to deliver anything of sustenance. This only leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and damages the progress that the good advanced analytic programs have made. This will make our industry take a few steps backwards at a time when we should be taking several leaps forward.

So, thank you for that, benchmarking. Thanks a lot…

And when a company that promotes advanced analytics like benchmarking as their bread and butter and then starts wholesaling chemicals and other farm-related products at rock bottom prices, you have to wonder what their real motives are. Since this arm of their business is so far out in left field from their roots in benchmarking, I’m going to have to cover what it means for the industry in another article.

Stay tuned…

Leave a Reply

7 comments on “Opinion: Benchmarking in Precision Agriculture is Big Statistics

  1. What’s that saying….Garbage in Garbage out? Without someone overseeing and cleaning cleaning the data the results of bench marking are worse than worthless because it leads you in a false direction. Be careful who you trust to work with your data

  2. it seems you failed to mention one important fact; roughly how many acres in his benchmarked area was available for use. Granted, these companies dont release this information but it can be relatively easy to determine if you are a precision agronomist in your area and know the Big Data company. For example, our county is the second largest county in the nation in acres for this particular company with nearly 100,000 acres of annual data. Is Benchmarking in this area significantly more valuable than in an area that only has nominal acre? Of course! Originally I had the same concern, soils maps are too general, yield data is not highly valuable unless cleaned first; but once you start looking at Mega Data, things become more clear and valuable. I think the key here is not Big Data but Mega data that is sufficient enough in your area.
    By looking at your first 2 commentors, it appears that ‘head in the sand” is the only solution. “Garbage in, garbage out” only applies to totally worthless data. Your fathers data wasnt totally worthless! One must keep in mind that the people that are running these Big Data companies came from companies such as Amazon and Google and understand these concepts well, AND, their venture capitalists do also or they wouldnt be throwing 10’s of millions of dollars around without thoroughly understanding it.
    But like I told one of my clients that was leary, ignore it all for the next 5-10 years without trying to understand and glean anything from it and in 5-10 years, you will just be that much farther behind than the others.

    1. Kim, have you considered that you might be the one with your “head in the sand” about this benchmarking issue? Just because someone came from Amazon or Google it doesn’t mean they know analytics, but it might mean that they have some ideas on marketing. Check out my take on the situation here:


  3. Furthermore, having been collecting clients yield data and developing management zones for over twenty years, the mountains of data had become useless until these Big Data companies began to appear. Are they perfect, far from it! But what better solutions are there now? One needs to start somewhere in order to refine a product rather than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”!

    1. I agree that big data can be useful in the right context, mainly with respect to the different factors I outlines in the article and not just 2 or 3 factors that probably don’t tell the complete story.

Data Management Stories
Data ManagementAgriculture Impacts Weather: The Case for Connected Ecosystems
February 15, 2018
It’s fascinating to see how modern technology has helped us increase our agricultural productivity in areas not otherwise suited for Read More
Norris planter
Data ManagementBig Data is a Chicken-or-Egg Scenario on the Farm
February 1, 2018
According to McKinsey, the agricultural sector is the least digitized industry in the U.S., writes Tony Baer on ZDNet.com. Yet, Read More
Business Management2018 Retail Precision Ag Programs: At-A-Glance
February 1, 2018
Deep in the midst off December downtime, we reached out to three retailers well-versed in running a grower-facing precision ag Read More
Data ManagementClimate Corp. Announces CNH Data Sharing Partnership
February 1, 2018
CNH Industrial and The Climate Corporation announced today a new partnership that will extend and develop a portfolio of data Read More
Trending Articles
Industry NewsNFMS 2018: Case IH Talks Autonomous Agriculture, Announces Pilot Program
February 20, 2018
Since the reveal of the autonomous concept vehicle, Case IH has been evolving the technology and further defining automation and Read More
AsiaCloud-based Irrigation Could Double India’s Crop Yield and Halve Water Use
February 12, 2018
A cloud-based, micro-irrigation system tested on a farm in India has cut water use by up to 80%  and doubled Read More
Tools & Smart EquipmentAutonomous Tractors Could Work in Wetter Conditions than Traditional Tractors
February 8, 2018
March 20th is the first day of spring, making spring much closer than even I expected. On the farm I Read More
AmericasPrecision Farming Companies to Watch in 2018 (OPINION)
January 17, 2018
My friends, as many of you told me repeatedly throughout the last 12 months, 2017 was an interesting year in Read More
Data ManagementPrecision Ag Hardware and Software: A Little Off-Season Maintenance Goes A Long Way
January 11, 2018
All service technicians have heard this line. Most often when spring makes its anticipated return to our lives. It is Read More
Service ProvidersAnez Consulting: Focus On Fertility
January 9, 2018
Central Minnesota features variability aplenty when it comes to soil characteristics and topography, from flat, black expanses rich in organic Read More
Latest News
Events12 Groundbreaking AgTech Startups Selected to Pitch at …
February 22, 2018
AgLaunch is bringing its Startup Station pitch event back to the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show for a second time Read More
Industry NewsDeere Garners Ag Data Transparency Certification
February 22, 2018
John Deere announces it has received the American Farm Bureau Ag Data Transparent (ADT) certification, which verifies to producers that Read More
Sentera drone
DronesSentera Launches Micro Gimbal Upgrade for DJI Phantom 4…
February 22, 2018
Sentera today announced the availability of a Micro Gimbal upgrade for Sentera Single sensors mounted on the popular DJI Phantom Read More
AmericasNFMS 2018: Precision Farming, Ag Tech Developments from…
February 21, 2018
Last week’s annual National Farm Machinery Show (NFMS) in Louisville, KY, was this author’s first experience attending the mid-winter Midwest Read More
Specialty CropsMaximize the Benefit of New Farm Technology
February 21, 2018
We have access to technology and information as never before. Working with vineyards in Virginia, I see examples of growers Read More
Industry NewsCropMetrics Names New CEO
February 20, 2018
CropMetrics, a leader in smart irrigation services in the U.S., and developer of the Virtual Optimizer software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, has Read More
Specialty CropsHow Wireless Technology Found its Way to a Central Cali…
February 20, 2018
At first glance, the story of Fybr isn’t an unusual one: a technology company looks toward U.S. agriculture as a Read More
AmericasAg Tech News: Mavrx Opens Satellite Platform to Entire …
February 20, 2018
The team at San Francisco, CA-based Mavrx has announced an initiative to increase access to advanced decision support tools in Read More
Industry NewsNFMS 2018: Case IH Talks Autonomous Agriculture, Announ…
February 20, 2018
Since the reveal of the autonomous concept vehicle, Case IH has been evolving the technology and further defining automation and Read More
Sensors/IoTWhy Are Service Providers Slow to Adopt Crop Sensors fo…
February 20, 2018
Recently, we have seen important discussions about key aspects of precision agriculture. One of these articles, about the value in Read More
Industry NewsUnderstory Patents Solid State Weather Sensor
February 16, 2018
Understory today announced that it received a patent for its mechanical strain-based weather sensor, a key component in its weather Read More
Retailer Grower
Business ManagementAgriculture and Technology: Industry Progress Lies in C…
February 16, 2018
Water is essential for agriculture. While this may seem obvious, nowhere is it more apparent than the Sonoran Desert of Read More
Industry NewsAgtegra Cooperative Pledges $500,000 to SDSU Precision …
February 15, 2018
Agtegra Cooperative, Aberdeen, SD, today in Pierre announced a $500,000 donation to South Dakota State University for the Precision Agriculture Read More
Ag Retailer and Grower WinField United
Business ManagementThe Importance of Teamwork for Successful Precision Ag …
February 15, 2018
Interdependency is defined as the quality or condition of being mutually reliant on each other. I’m not a huge sports Read More
Data ManagementAgriculture Impacts Weather: The Case for Connected Eco…
February 15, 2018
It’s fascinating to see how modern technology has helped us increase our agricultural productivity in areas not otherwise suited for Read More
Adapt-N VRT
Decision Support SoftwareDTN Partners with Adapt-N to Provide Weather and Nitrog…
February 14, 2018
DTN has announced a partnership today at the National Farm Machinery Show with Agronomic Technology Corp (ATC), a Yara International Read More
Corn close up
Imagery/SensingSyngenta Acquires Satellite Imagery Provider FarmShots
February 14, 2018
Syngenta has acquired FarmShots, Inc., a North Carolina-based innovator of high-resolution satellite imagery that detects plant health by analyzing absorbed Read More
Tools & Smart EquipmentMachine Learning: The Secret Sauce of Precision Agricul…
February 13, 2018
With the development of agricultural technologies, crop and plant diseases have been advancing as well, causing degradation of both quality Read More