Precision Agriculture: A Smaller Approach to Big Data

Rather than breaking things down into smaller, bite-sized pieces that are easily digested, we’ve learned to over-indulge in data, quickly leading us to become bloated with un-actionable results.

Big data is one of the most buzzed-about concepts in our industry. Rarely do we read a newsletter, attend a conference, or make it through our Twitter feed without encountering the topic of big data.

It seems there’s no shortage of the amount of data and the type of data that can be collected. But with big data comes bigger responsibility for agronomists, service providers, and other trusted advisors to show value from it. Growers are being inundated with data and, for many, it’s too overwhelming for its own good. After all, the benefits that data can provide will go unused if growers aren’t sure what to do with it – or worse, even how to start looking at it.

The most important thing to keep in mind when beginning to farm for data is that big data is nothing more than a collection of small datasets – and, the process is nothing new.

Background on Big Data

Believe it or not, the approach to using big data in crop production today more closely compares to horse-drawn plows and hand seeding than it does to the great era of mechanized agriculture. The very decision-making process we got away from in the interest of covering more acres via motorized farm machinery has actually come back around as we enter the digital age, and it is our job to get it back on track.

Consider all the decisions that go into planting a field today. Using a variety of new technologies, we can manipulate the weight displacement and down pressure of the planter, the planting depth, the spacing, and the fertilizer being applied (both in its rates and in its placement) to give each seed the ideal situation to maximize its potential. Not only that, we can even vary the method by which the seed makes its initial contact with the soil, via a host of motorized delivery components.

In addition to all of these mechanical manipulations, there is still the decision of which hybrid or variety gets planted in the first place – and we can vary that as well. Our ancestors followed the exact same methodology as they perfectly placed their seeds in the furrow, one at a time.

Converting this process to the digital age takes nothing more than simply logging what was done and evaluating what took place – but this is also where the big data problems begin for growers.

Why Big Becomes Too Big

If you made a single spreadsheet entry, recording everything taking place with a planter every time a seed went into the ground, think of how big that would become – how each small observation exponentially grows into a large, invaluable dataset.

Taking it a step further, think about just the seed variety variable alone. If there are two different varieties intended to plant within a single field, the dataset on an 80-acre soybean field, planted at a rate of 140,000 seeds per acre, would feature 11.2 million rows of data. A simple “Variety A, Variety B” variable alone may seem pretty elementary when it comes to statistics, but it sure adds up in a hurry, especially when the other variables are added.

Of course, in the real-world, we do not have time to make 11 million decisions for each of our growers, and most of them have more than just 80 acres to focus on. Likewise, one perfect selection of a given variety planted at the same depth at a uniform down pressure may give the average grower a positive return on their investment across the farm, or field, in the majority of situations.

In both of these cases, it’s easy to see why the adoption of big data on the farm can become both daunting and seemingly lacking in value.

Data Usage Missteps

So how has the experience with big data gone so wrong? In many cases, it is because the grower is being encouraged to convert an entire farming operation over at once, leading to a poor experience. Nobody warns them about the intense amount of background effort that is required to ensure that every layer of data is synched up to perfectly harmonize the operation.

For the big data collective as a whole, the false advertisement that a large dataset is the only way to go and that all users will find its value collectively has led many to the feeling of leaving a buffet with a full belly, but less than satisfied. Rather than breaking things down into smaller, bite-sized pieces that are easily digested, we’ve learned to over-indulge in data, quickly leading us to become bloated with un-actionable results.

This is related to another problem: the fact that we have been trained to believe that every morsel of data has value, and to not collect it is a sin. This is simply not true. Not every record in that yield monitor will lead you to the promise of 400-bushel corn, and certainly not if it is only preserved in printed form.

So where do we go from here?

Making Big Data Actionable by Taking It Small

The very way we lost our growers’ attention when encouraging them to adopt a big data mindset is how we can bring them back. Rather than thinking about big data as only being a part of some collective pool or aggregate that growers may become lost in, use the information gleaned from one field, or even one zone alone, to inspire and challenge them to re-engage them in the process of collecting and using their farm data.

Prior to encouraging a grower to scale up the data collection process to cover an entire operation, I encourage you to start them out in small doses, and scale up from there. Take it one parcel or zone at a time, where success and failure can be more easily measured and tracked, and where a failure or error does not put the entire operation at risk. Also, try breaking field operations into separate, smaller job files to reduce your risk in losing an entire dataset.

Big data has the potential to change the entire horizon of agriculture in the future, but don’t become so wrapped up in the “big” picture that you forget to bring your growers along for the ride. Remember, the concept of what we are trying to accomplish is nothing new, just the mechanization and digitization are.

It is important to be transparent to your growers throughout the process, and to help them see the value in collecting good datasets, no matter how small they may seem. Small datasets can have great results and even greater returns when we go big.

Leave a Reply

4 comments on “Precision Agriculture: A Smaller Approach to Big Data

  1. I enjoyed your take on this piece and largely agree with your approach to taking small data steps to solve the big data puzzle. I would add that what the industry needs is not just data, but relevance. Every field has some micro-climate and so it behaves and grows differently. The trick is to find the right size zone to manage. Then we need the right diagnostics with deep field resolution to understand what actions to take, particularly in-season when growers can have some control over input variables.

  2. Advising growers to take small data steps to solve the big data puzzle is a good one.

    As a company that provides mechanical equipment that integrates with Precision Ag for data & diagnostics we come across huge lack of in field support to the users.

    However, going back to basics of education & support is also a critical step!

  3. The idea of taking bite sized pieces of big data to continue to define some actionable item is still key to moving forward with PAg. The Big Data, number crunching, correlation matrices producing ‘machine’ is coming, but until that ‘machine’ becomes more manageable, providing agronomic solutions to smaller datasets still allows us to improve upon yield and quality today.

Data Management Stories
Data ManagementMythbusting: Is Weather More Unpredictable Due to a Changing Climate?
October 16, 2018
There are some commonly spoken narratives that are actually false, at least as stated in the exact words used, that Read More
Data ManagementSatellites Key in Providing Agriculture’s Next Generation of Data
September 27, 2018
With a range of extreme-weather events currently playing out across the globe, from floods on the east coast of the Read More
AmericasFarmers Edge Announces New Retail-Facing Precision Ag Platform
September 25, 2018
Farmers Edge announced the launch of a new solution designed exclusively for agricultural professionals to enhance their relationships with customers Read More
Data ManagementRainfall Revisited: Accurate Observations and Beyond
September 18, 2018
As a provider of weather analysis and forecast services to the agricultural industry, one of the most common questions I Read More
Trending Articles
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Mike Gomes, Topcon
October 15, 2018
Mike Gomes of Topcon Precision Agriculture joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, for a discussion of key Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper Library
October 1, 2018
Welcome to the PrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper library! Here you will find free whitepapers and case studies from the PrecisionAg Institute Partners Read More
Sensors/IoTThe Answer to Agriculture’s Daunting Challenges – Soil Sensors
September 20, 2018
According to the United Nations, 9.6 billion people will live on planet Earth by 2050. Feeding these mouths will require Read More
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
Kansas State University
Industry NewsKansas State University, Topcon Form Precision Ag Research Partnership
August 30, 2018
Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture are collaborating to develop tools and systems to advance precision agriculture and support farmers. Read More
Latest News
PrecisionAg Vision Conference
EventsDon’t Fret About the Future – the 2019 VISION Co…
October 22, 2018
If you, like me, have been fortunate to witness what Land O’ Lakes CIO Mike Macrie has called the two Read More
Events‘From Farms to Incubators’ Documentary High…
October 18, 2018
“From Farms to Incubators: Telling the stories of minority women entrepreneurs in agtech in the Salinas Valley and beyond” will Read More
Service ProvidersPutting Agronomic Advice Into Action – A Full-Season Fi…
October 17, 2018
It’s one thing to read, write, or know about helping customers best manage their fields – it’s another to put Read More
Data ManagementMythbusting: Is Weather More Unpredictable Due to a Cha…
October 16, 2018
There are some commonly spoken narratives that are actually false, at least as stated in the exact words used, that Read More
DronesEnhance Your Agriculture Workflow in Less Than 30 Minut…
October 15, 2018
Prunes are European plums with a high sugar content that allows them to dry without fermenting around the pit and Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePartner Profile with Winfield United
October 15, 2018
Joel Wipperfurth of Winfield United discusses ag technology trends and topics during the 2018 InfoAg Conference. Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePartner Profile with Simplot Grower Solutions
October 15, 2018
Allan Fetters of Simplot Grower Solutions discusses ag technology trends and topics across the industry, and within the company, during Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteEncouraging Employees to Think Into the Future is Winni…
October 15, 2018
EFC Systems CEO Ernie Chappell says his company is always looking ahead to understand growers’ future needs. “It’s not just Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePartnership with SDSU is One Way Raven Industries Advan…
October 15, 2018
Raven Industries’ partnership with South Dakota State University allows the company to work closely with students and staff to advance Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Kirk Appleford, Proagrica
October 15, 2018
Kirk Appleford joins Paul Schrimpf at the 2018 InfoAg Conference to talk about current ag trends, and Proagrica’s recent acquisition Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Charlie Magruder, ESRI
October 15, 2018
Charlie Magruder joins Paul Schrimpf for a discussion of current trends in technology that are impacting ESRI, including news from Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Shane Swedlund, Raven Industries
October 15, 2018
Shane Swedlund of Raven Industries joins Paul Schrimpf at the 2018 InfoAg Conference to share some key learnings from the Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Mike Gomes, Topcon
October 15, 2018
Mike Gomes of Topcon Precision Agriculture joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, for a discussion of key Read More
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Ernie Chappell, EFC Systems
October 15, 2018
Ernie Chappell of EFC Systems joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, to talk about topics and trends Read More
Robotics/Labor SaversPrecision Agriculture in Specialty Crops: Labor, Cost S…
October 9, 2018
Agriculture is going through an equivalent of what the computer industry went through in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when Read More
EventsA Crazy 2018 is Why We Need Growing Innovations
October 8, 2018
If you’re here you likely have received a special Meister Media Worldwide code to get $100 off your registration to Read More
AmericasConBAP 2018 Highlights Precision Agriculture in Brazil
October 8, 2018
The Brazilian Congress of Precision Agriculture 2018 (ConBAP 2018) was held October 2-4 in Curitiba, Paraná. Held every two years, Read More
Service ProvidersGar Tootelian: Putting Ag Technology to the Test
October 8, 2018
In California’s Central Valley, a diverse crop market in which Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) are the dominant players when it Read More