The concept of cloud computing isn’t new to business, but it’s moving into agriculture in a big way. And for 2014, farmers will find they have a number of convenient and valuable ways to work with the data they create on their operations. In this issue, we start a conversation about data and data management that will continue in different ways throughout the year.

Taking advantage of cloud computing will require understanding the relation-ships involved, and the features and benefits offered by the different services.

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Farmers are moving toward these services because information collected from field tasks is more valuable when it can be easily shared with trusted providers who can offer insight, prescription maps and more. The key is understanding the benefits of the services you choose to work with and the return for your operation.

Data value

“This data is valuable to companies,” says Adam Gittins, general manager, HTS Ag. “You want to know what kind of relationship you’re entering with these services.”

He cautions growers to read privacy statements and terms of use for any service, so you at least know what’s going on. Many companies offering services are aggregating data, without personal information, to enhance decision-making for the future. It means using the raw data you collect to create models and analyses, but your original data is still intact on the service and waiting for you to use.

The aggregated, or anonymized, data has value to not only the company, but also farmer-customers using the service. “There’s a lot of value, and farmers shouldn’t just give it away,” he says.

Gittins’ company works closely with Ag Leader, whose new AgFiniti services allow you to store information in a data cloud and share as needed. Ag Leader has said it will not touch a farmer’s data, and that’s part of its privacy policy.

Luke James, Ag Leader software manager, notes that the company “respects and values the growers being independent and allowing them to do whatever they want with their information. We encourage growers to read the terms of service and what the data will be used for when they sign up.”

In essence, some services act as data stores that allow you to move information from field to cloud for easier access for yourself or others. Raven Slingshot has been offering this kind of service for four years, and Paul Welbig, general manager of the company’s Austin Technology Center, says they have not gotten into the business of aggregating information. However, users of Slingshot can pass their information on to others that do. “We think there’s tremendous value to [aggregating information] for the future, but we have to log more data and more relevant data; then start doing some intelligence around that.” In essence, the industry is in its infancy, and the true value of that information is yet to be determined.

The value proposition in sharing data may in fact be easy access to more useful information for your farm simply by taking part in the services.

Trimble’s Connected Farm approach to data management was a leader in cloud data use as well, and last fall creation of the new dashboard for displaying that information helped farmers see more benefits of cloud access to information. “Light bulbs went on with growers,” says Mike Martinez, Trimble marketing director.

“The system shows what work activity has been completed in the field. And when the job is completed, it is transmitted to the Connected Farm system. Farmers can also do the logistics of deciding what equipment should be deployed across the farm to finish faster, too.”

Martinez notes that Trimble is also not aggregating information on its own, but knows that farmers pass along data files to other services (using the industry-standard “shape” file) where that work can be done. “We’re providing those trusted advisers the tools they need to provide better service to their clients.”

Aggregating, or anonymizing, data

Just what is aggregated data? Take seed company information. You plant a specific hybrid on your field in a specific location, and record the yield. If you work with a seed company that aggregates data, and you opt in, your hybrid, location and yield data would be pulled together with others’ information to create a bigger map of that hybrid’s performance.

You don’t need a cloud data service to do that. In fact, whenever you share data, with or without the cloud, it can be collected and used by third parties (depending on their privacy policies). And the idea isn’t uncommon. Farm business management associations have been taking financial data and creating benchmarking tools for years that help farmers manage their businesses.

“We have a long history of working with farm data,” says Joe Foresman, director of services, DuPont Pioneer. “We’ve been building farm yield maps for more than 10 years with information from 12 million acres at harvest and another 8 million at planting.”

The company’s Field360 program is one where farmers can submit their data to DuPont Pioneer to have custom yield maps created. In some cases, farmers work with Pioneer to run “treatment analysis” on crop inputs to determine input performance on their farm. Field360, the company’s cloud-based service, also allows farmers to move, store and share data more easily.

Gather enough aggregated information matched to general soil type, weather and yield information, and a company has better performance information for that specific hybrid in a number of situations.

During a recent talk, Michael Boehlje, Purdue University ag economist, commented: “Data without aggregation is just data.” He notes that a single farm’s annual data is just one set and not enough information to make any conclusions.

“A farmer who has only his own information only has one observation per year, and may not have the controls to separate out the [range of] variables that explain that yield,” Boehlje noted. “One of the ways to make that data more useful is to have multiple sets of observations to separate the [variables] that explain yield differences.”

The key is seeing the big picture and having better decision-making information for choosing hybrids in the future. Of course, that information is valuable to companies as well, since aggregated performance data is like a giant yield trial that can be more accurate than small plot work.

Many players see that opportunity to provide your farm with better information. Over at Monsanto, FieldScripts, which was piloted in 2013, is moving forward in 2014. “We can analyze farm data to build better ‘scripts’ today and for farmers in the future,” says Dave Rylander, FieldScripts launch lead, Monsanto.

Rylander says there’s a lot of talk about this data aggregation and data privacy. He wants farmers to have a clear understanding of the benefits offered. “They ask, ‘Will you aggregate or use my data to help build other FieldScripts?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, and we learn from this data,’ ” he notes. “We’ve learned from all the experiences on FieldScripts and learned what to look at in their data to build a better prescription for the future.”

In fact, Rylander says that for 2014 farmers that participate and want to take part may be asked to share more information. The idea is that over time this aggregated information will help Monsanto make better prescriptions. Those are goals for other providers that aggregate as well.

From the machine

Another example is machine data. Aggregating performance data across a field inventory of working machines has a tremendous benefit for companies and can help improve future designs. Farmers who use JDLink, for example, would be able to access information about their own machines, but John Deere also has access to the aggregated information — if the farmer opts in.

Chis Batdorf, product marketing manager, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, notes that the company has created a website — johndeere.com/trust — that defines the data and privacy agreements in key detail. “The core principles around data at John Deere are that there is value in the data for the customer and the company. We’re very transparent about what we will and will not do with the data. And the customer will have choices, and the customer controls the direction of the data.”

No matter how much a company tests a machine or works to gather information, it would be difficult to get the universe of data available from these new telemetry tools on the market from major players. How does a specific model work in high temperatures under load? Would the machine perform the same at a lower rpm, saving fuel and adding to engine life?

These same services would also allow your local dealer to know how your machine is performing at any given time.

Over at AGCO, the Fuse strategy can capture machine information, but only if the farmer opts in, says Jason O’Flanagan, senior marketing specialist, North America. “Right now we offer limited data transfer capabilities, but machine data collection is widely available. This is an opt-in service for us to look at the data. The data belongs to the customer, even if it’s on our server,” he says.

AGCO’s main focus is that machine data. “The data we would like to see is engine temperature, spikes in oil pressure, and [to] monitor machines to improve design,” he says. “We’re not really in the yield and harvest data capture service.”

To opt in, or not

Having access to your data from the machine as it comes out of the field is more than handy; it’s also more likely that you’ll put that information to use. Waiting until winter to move yield maps from combine to the office computer takes time. Having that information available right away as the combine leaves the field offers advantages.

An example commonly used is the ability to harvest a field and have combine yield data transmitted immediately to the cloud, where a farmer can pass it on to an agronomist for a fall-fertilizer prescription — without pulling a data card or thumb drive from the monitor and taking it to the office. The agronomist can efficiently send that prescription back to the cloud, where the applicator can pull it down and roll in for fall fertilizer very soon after the combine leaves. In this farming game of inches, time-critical tasks like fall and spring work would be enhanced with these kinds of data services.

The key is understanding the features and benefits offered. “These services will be a reality for a lot of people,” says HTS Ag’s Adam Gittins, who has a long history in the information technologies business. “The benefits [of the services offered] are worth the trade-offs. It’s an individual decision. The key is being informed and realize what’s going on.”

He notes that policies change over time. “In the information technologies space, we’ve seen where free is no longer free. Guess what? They still have your data; you have to be aware of what’s going on. Rules change for the future, and you may have to pay to get to your data.”

He’s talking beyond basic subscription fees for the service. The key to remember is that you essentially have all your data. It’s in the combine or tractor, and that should be stored somewhere for safe-keeping, too.

The recent breach at Target and Neiman Marcus opened a lot of people’s eyes to data privacy worries. Farmers who have long collected information on yield and prescription product use worry about what they have and its value to others. But Steve Sonka, emeritus professor of agricultural strategy, University of Illinois, has a different take on that idea: “We worry about breaches, and I might lose sleep over credit card numbers. You have to figure out where you might be damaged. But if somebody has my yield map, what are they going to do with it and how are they going to harm me? If they’re sophisticated enough to steal a yield map, they’ll do something else that will make them more money.”

Putting farm information to better use has merit. Sonka thinks that the simple tasks like faster prescription maps would be the first step, but he sees it going beyond that: “Immediacy will drive other things, but I would suggest those will turn out to have less value. The ability to look across many operations, and gain insights and translate that information for use in our own operations will have the greater long-run value.”