The first wave of precision agriculture began with the yield monitor and the promise of improved productivity from a better understanding of the relationship between soils, fertility, genetics and yield. Despite that promise, first-wave profits have been largely generated by hardware that steers tractors and turns planter row units and sprayer sections off and on.

That’s about to change. Not that navigation systems, swath-control and other automation technologies are going by the wayside. But in the future, precision profits will be dominated by decisions driven by data collected by yield monitors and multifunction tractor displays, not by savings from row shut-offs.

“In the past 10 years, we have picked the low-hanging fruit to improve farming efficiency and control costs,” says Matt Darr, a precision agriculture specialist at Iowa State University. “But the writing is on the wall. You can only make so much money by saving money. Long term, it is more production that leads to enhanced profits. Spatial information is a big factor in what is needed to achieve that.”

Spatial information boils down to data, and lots of it. But it will require special savvy to turn megabytes of precision data into information that drives profitable decisions.

 

Data use trends

A recent USDA report hinted at the disconnect between the ability to gather precision ag data and putting it to use. The report, “On the Doorstep of the Information Age,” pointed out that yield monitors were used on 40 to 45% of corn and soybean acres in 2005-06. However, GPS maps were used on only about a quarter of corn acres and a sixth of soybean acres across the Corn Belt. And variable-rate technologies were used on only about 16% of corn and 12% of soybean acres.

Steve Cubbage, a precision ag consultant, says it’s little wonder that use of precision ag data has lagged behind the use of yield monitors and GPS navigation systems. “This idea that you could go out and harvest corn and everything would be on your monitor and magic would happen when you brought it into the PC just wasn’t true,” he says. “It turned out to be a lot harder than that.”

 

New precision services

Precision ag consultants, ag retail agronomists, seed companies and others have been gearing up to market services that help turn precision ag data into profitable decisions.

Software companies also have updated their crop data management products to help farmers make better use of the data they gather.

“The process of collecting good data is getting easier than it used to be,” says Scott Nusbaum, product manager for Farm Works, which markets its software as a do-it-yourself tool for farmers as well as consultants and ag retailers. “More farmers are collecting and using data, whether they are handling everything themselves or working with a consultant.”

Cubbage recently expanded his western Missouri consulting firm, Record Harvest (www.recordharvest.com), to establish a new precision ag data management service called Prime Meridian (www.primemeridiandata.com). The focus is on providing data storage and management solutions through ag retailers, as well as directly with farmers.

“Farmers need someone to be a data traffic cop,” Cubbage says. “We gather fertility information from the co-op and planting and yield monitor data in one location, so whoever may need it in the future can get access.”

Crop consultants and ag retail agronomists also are retooling their efforts to help farmers harvest more value from precision data. “We are experiencing a major paradigm shift: crop consultants are becoming data managers,” says Jeremy Wilson with Crop Information Management Services (www.cropims.com).

Based in southern Illinois, the company began offering an integrated information management and crop consulting service in 2004. Fees range from $3 to $10/acre and up, depending on crop scouting and data management needs. A Cadillac program includes scouting, monitor setup to assure clean data collection, plus analysis of planting and harvest data to develop crop removal fertilizer recommendations and planting recommendations based on performance by specific soil types and environments.

“It can be difficult to convince someone to pay somebody to manage their data,” Wilson says. “The ‘aha’ moment often comes with variety tracking and better hybrid and variety selection.”