In the Technology In Ag study released in 2012, yield monitors had the second highest adoption rate among precision ag tools, second only to GPS guidance systems. This high adoption rate, largely driven by today’s OEM machines equipped from the factory with yield monitors, confirms the importance of monitors to many growers. “They realize that it is near impossible to know if agronomic performance is improving if there is no year-to-year benchmark comparison,” says Sam Worley, product marketing specialist with yield monitor pioneer Ag Leader.
But getting a handle on prepping and operating the monitors still poses problems for many current and would-be users. How do growers set up systems effectively, generating real information?
Data Gathering Steps
Capturing good data is a process. Steve Cubbage, president and owner of precision ag firm Record Harvest, suggests the first step: Plan and prepare before going to the field, before planting. Iron dealers, retailers or independent consultants — or a combination of all three — can help with this. They can start with a very basic “kitchen table” discussion about what good data looks like.
A key part of that planning process is naming farms and fields consistently, in a way that will be used exactly the same in every precision display on a farm. “No more random naming of fields ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ or ‘1,’ 2,’ ‘3.’ No more randomly naming seed varieties with generic names like ‘corn’ or ‘soybeans,’” emphasizes Cubbage.
He says one of most important things his team does is something called “Precision Prep” or “Monitor Prep.”
“Before the season even starts we program every display on the farm with a standardized template that includes proper names of farms and fields, GIS field boundaries and a personalized picklist of seed varieties to choose from,” he describes. “That way at the end of the season everyone is on the same page instead of having to go back and sort everyone’s dirty laundry when it comes to data. It is better to start out right then to try and make it right after the train wreck.”
After pre-season work comes calibration, a task that’s not exactly simple, admits Cubbage. “It takes focus, dedication, commitment and time to calibrate yield monitor systems.”
But “getting a proper calibration is still the most important thing in capturing yield data,” says Ag Leader’s Worley.
To properly calibrate, Ag Leader recommends running four to six calibration loads to get multiple data points and an accurate read of highs and lows, to produce the most accurate results across all flow rates. Following this calibration procedure ensures the yield monitor will provide a year’s worth of accurate, quality data to act on. “Why skimp on a few calibration loads in the fall only to base your whole year’s report card on marginal data?” Worley suggests.
He notes that with four to six weight calibrations, Ag Leader’s yield monitor can be dialed in to be within 2% accuracy across all loads, and many users have reported even better results.
Cubbage says companies are working to make the calibration process simpler. For instance, Precision Planting says its new entry into the yield monitor market only needs one calibration per crop vs. the four or five required of current systems.
But he does admit, “I’m not sure that if a guy who won’t do three or four calibrations will even do one.” Cubbage has found that yield monitors (field-installed or OEM out of the factory) on combines that are covering most of the country’s acres “are horribly underutilized and the need for calibration is not taken seriously.”
Accuracy is the most important aspect of yield data so growers need to consider the variables that go into capturing it, says Brian Sorbe, director of sales, Americas at Topcon Precision Ag. The type of sensors a manufacturer employs, sampling frequency, integrity of the calibration, grain test weight, machine roll compensation and sensor maintenance are only a few of many factors that affect overall accuracy of the data and yield monitor outputs.
Data Captured Where?
Cubbage says growers should make sure to save their original or raw data after downloading it. “Do not give your data away first,” says Cubbage. “Always keep your original data either in your own computer or cloud account.”
Ag Leader’s AgFiniti cloud-based data management platform has improved data capture and made it more accessible, says Worley. With AgFiniti, yield data collected in the cab can easily be stored in the cloud, ensuring it won’t be lost and making it accessible when and where users need it.
John Deere’s JDLink technology is another example of cloud storage of yield data.
Cubbage believes going wireless is the latest, greatest improvement to yield monitors to come along in years. Why? “Because even though yield monitors have been around since the 1990s, the reality is that most yield data never made it back to the office. Most yield data suffered the same fate as do socks in your dryer. It just disappears.
“Wireless data transfer will grow the amount of actionable yield data exponentially over the next few years. It is a big deal,” he says.
Currently, growers are using this valuable data for analysis to improve year-to-year agronomics and take their yield maps to the field on their tablet during crop scouting. Or they overlay yield over planting maps to look for trends, notes Worley. Other growers appreciate the on-the-go yield indication right from the display in the cab, allowing the ability to make quick decisions for the upcoming season such as which variety to early order or anhydrous rates for fall application.
There’s a “potential disrupter” now arriving on the market that’s the result of what is created when a device combines ISOBUS reading technology with wireless technology, Cubbage adds. The two companies currently “attacking” this space are Farmobile and 640 Labs, which was purchased last December by Monsanto.
Both Farmobile and 640 utilize technology that generically plugs into the onboard nerve center of farm vehicles and can capture all sensor information — including yield data — and transmit it wirelessly back to a grower’s account in the cloud and even show it real-time on his mobile device.
“If this can be done successfully it could have traditional precision hardware manufacturers shaking in their boots. Who would I need a $4,500 yield monitor display?” Cubbage points out. “Instead I can use a $300 Android tablet.”
This technology certainly will make capturing data almost seamless, so finally it will be easier and cheaper and more and more growers will start using yield monitors, he believes.
“Operating a yield monitor should not be that hard; however, it is perceived as hard by many people who are afraid to really understand it, or they just view it as in-field entertainment with no real long-term value,” says Cubbage.
The precision industry has done a poor job of educating/training producers in how to operate and program precision displays to capture useful data, he believes. The proof? “Look at the issues Monsanto had when the company first rolled out its FieldScripts program,” he says. “To participate in the program, a grower had to provide three ‘good years’ of yield data to his Monsanto seed representative. Given the fact that yield monitors had been around for 20 years, and they would be dealing with some of the most progressive and elite growers, Monsanto assumed growers easily had such data archived.
“But even the best growers had a hard time stringing together three good years of data,” Cubbage points out.
“The simple and honest fact is that most iron dealers really don’t have a vested interest in whether your yield monitor collects good data or not. As long as that combine picks corn, their primary job is done. Knowing how to change varieties or calibrate — well, that’s something you can figure out on your own,” he says. “The precision hardware industry has done a terrible job in educating and training producers in how to operate and program their precision displays in order to capture good data.”
This year saw the entry of a new player into the yield monitor market, Topcon Precision Ag. The company introduced its YieldTrakk family of solutions, which Sorbe says has “some noteworthy improvements” to the technology that will give OEM yield monitors and aftermarket competition a run for their money. He credits the team at RDS (Topcon purchased Digi-Star/RDS this year), which has 15 years experience in yield monitors — and which he notes has created some of the “bedrock” technology used in most modern units.
YieldTrakk is designed to provide operators with real-time data collection that includes monitoring and mapping of yield and moisture and cut rate, as well as the total weight of crop during a harvest. Coupled with cloud-based data transfer systems, yield data can be automatically transferred from the combine back to the office.