The farm data overload needs a fix

Ag tech event shows future of farming is data driven — but 'we're not there yet'

Jay Bruggencate has a bit of a bone to pick with the ag-tech industry.

“We’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into smart equipment that knows what it’s doing but can’t talk to each other,” said the Lacombe-area farmer at the recent AgSmart event at Olds College.

“There’s so much data now available to us on many, many different platforms — all the way from your grain company’s platform and your accounting software to the bin monitoring software you use.

“But all the data in the world doesn’t matter if it’s not easy to disseminate to make better decisions.”

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Big data has been hailed as the future of agriculture for nearly a decade, and it’s easy to see why. As margins become razor thin and land prices skyrocket, farmers need to do more with less — maximizing every inch of rain every pound of fertilizer and every single seed — to make a profit.

But at this point, farmers have picked the low-hanging fruit. Now, they’re looking for smaller tweaks that, when added up, can lead to big savings on the balance sheet.

“It’s all about being more profitable. It’s about maximizing the products that we’re using and being more efficient with our time and resources,” said Marvin Talsma, product marketing manager at the Climate Corporation.

“Everything we’re doing is trying to make the next crop better. We’re trying to learn along the way and tweak things, whether it’s a fertility rate, seeding rate, seed placement, or water management.

“We’re trying to improve, but without knowing what we’re doing, it’s hard to evaluate and make those decisions.”

That’s where data comes in — and the average farm collects a lot of it. Yield maps, soil moisture probes, variable-rate technology, drones, and GPS all generate data.

But as Bruggencate points out, whether that data is useful is another question altogether.

“That data needs to be usable,” said Talsma, one of the speakers at AgSmart, an event designed in part to give farmers a better sense of the practicality of new ag technology.

“Every plant in that field is a potential data point. So how can we use that plant to change what we’re doing in the field?”

Making it pay off

That’s one of the biggest challenges on Holly Johansen’s farm.

“Technology on the family farm has really become a decision-making tool — you can literally be making on-the-spot management decisions from anywhere in the world,” the Wetaskiwin-area farmer said during her visit to AgSmart.

“On our farm, lots of the pinch points we have will be corrected by technology. But how do we turn yield mapping into profitability mapping?”

There are no easy answers for that yet.

As new technologies come online, new platforms are also introduced into the mix — and these platforms don’t always play nice together.

“If you’re running all green, it works fine, but we’ve got a rainbow farm, and those things don’t always mesh,” said Bruggencate.

“There are just too many platforms needed to access too many different pieces of data out there. So the challenge to industry is to get some platforms and some co-ordination with this.”

Bruggencate invested in Climate FieldView (the platform created by Climate Corporation) a few years ago, and so far, “it’s fairly colour blind,” he said.

“We’re seeing progress on that front, but that’s an area that really needs to be worked on with all the different platforms and tech companies.”

Airdrie-area farmer Larry Woolliams was so discouraged by the lack of co-operation between the platforms he was using that he decided to build his own.

“I couldn’t find anything that really fit our needs, so we’ve started to build our own platform,” said Woolliams, who launched Crop Boss earlier this year with three business partners.

“Not everything fits together, so we wanted to customize a platform to work for everybody. We wanted to try and build something that would play well with other programs and make it more universal to fill this gap.”

Crop Boss was designed to replace the myriad spreadsheets and software Woolliams was using to make his farming decisions. The tool itself tracks everything from daily production to finances in a more integrated way, allowing farmers to make better decisions more quickly and easily.

“If you’re doing stuff real time, it’s going to save you days — if not weeks — of sitting in front of a computer trying to dissect all this stuff,” he said.

“If we can make this stuff connect so that it all talks, it’s going to be big on the savings. It will give you time to focus on other avenues in your organization, grow your business, and spend time with your family.”

Data-driven decisions

Using Crop Boss, Woolliams was able to go paperless last year, and this spring, the tool was launched for other producers.

“This is still relatively new, but it’s the wave of the future,” he said. “All of this stuff needs to talk. It needs to be universal. There’s a whole other side to this coming that’s going to take ag to a whole new level.”

Talsma agrees.

“We believe that this digital ag space is the next breakthrough in agriculture. It’s going to get us to that next step in our performance,” he said. “And in some cases, it’s not on the horizon — it’s here today.”

Climate FieldView is one example, he said. As a relatively well-integrated platform, Climate FieldView has focused on building partnerships with companies to make it easier to move data from platform to platform.

Talsma likens it to professional hockey players watching post-game tapes of their performance to see what they can improve on — but farmers only get one game a year, so they have to make it count.

“We have one chance to put a crop in the ground the right way at the right time. The end of the year is when we look at our playbook,” he said.

“These digital pieces give us the opportunity to watch game film as the game is progressing.”

As a result, on-farm data is more useful and usable than ever before, despite the platform limitations. Farmers no longer need binders full of yield maps or financial records that sit on a shelf and gather dust, he said.

“With these digital tools, you can carry around years of information on your smartphone and access it anywhere in the world.”

Targeted prescriptions

And things like artificial intelligence and machine learning are edging agriculture ever closer to a day where the right platform could make targeted prescriptions for a given farm.

“If the computer knows my crop rotation history, the hybrids I’ve grown in the past, their susceptibility to different diseases, the soil type I’m on, and the weather events coming, we can use that,” said Talsma.

“If all that information is in one place, I as a farmer could get a notification that says, ‘Based on everything we know, you need to go out and scout this field for disease.’

“But we’re not there yet. This is where we need to go.”

And we’re getting there, slowly but surely, said Brianna Elliot a “techgronomist” at Olds College Smart Farm.

“I think that’s what the next few years are going to be about — integrating this technology at the field level,” she said.

The college is currently comparing different platforms on the marketplace to see how data is being collected, whether the platforms are able to share data with each other, and how often this data actually comes in a usable form.

“We need to be able to make decisions with this data and see that return on investment,” said Elliot.

“Farmers can get spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data all day long, but what are they going to do with it? And do they have time to do anything with it?

“You need to be able to take that data and use it right now in the field in real time. But some of these technologies have a few hurdles to get over.”

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that’s going to work for everyone, she added.

“In our comparisons, they all have their strong points — it’s just about finding what works for you,” said Elliot.

“I don’t know that there’s one that stands above everything else. You’ve just got to find what works for you on your farm.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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