Data Farming Brings Actionable Intelligence to Field, New Management Challenges

Kim Woods
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Henderson Farms put two John Deere 1795 planters out into its north Alabama fields this spring mounting RTK guidance systems. "When you're pulling the planter on a drawbar with a pin, and the GPS unit is centered over the tractor, you get some planter drift," said Stuart Sanderson, who farms in partnership with his uncle, Mike Henderson, Mike's son, Chad, and Jackson, Chad's son.

Their purpose is to have the planter communicate with the tractor. Essentially, the planter takes over guidance to control drift. "It gives you absolute straight rows," Sanderson said. "We want every plant to be the same distance apart in the row and equal distance from row to row." There is a 10 to 15% reduction in ear quality from the effects of drift.

That Henderson Farms was able to execute its corn-management fine-tuning is due to the RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) units, aerial photography by drones that recorded the narrow rows and careful record-keeping.

MAKE IT ACTIONABLE

Agriculture in 2019 America is about data -- data collection, analytics and actionable uses. "The biggest challenge we have is not the data itself," Sanderson said, "but it is managing, analyzing and reacting to data with real-time feedback. Can you address the anomalies you see in the field [in season]?" Sanderson believes he can, and the drone might be one tool that makes it possible. Last summer, Sanderson flight-tested the Quantix drone system from AeroVironment.

"Within a few minutes of its landing, I'm looking at data," he said. "Within a few more minutes, I can make changes to our irrigation system, whether it be adding more nitrogen or micros, or back the pressure down where it looks like nitrogen may have leached." Some analysts put the agricultural drone market at $1 billion within five years.

Digital analysis is not new to agriculture. John Deere recently celebrated 25 years of precision agriculture -- yield documentation was its beginning. What is changing is the ability to wirelessly pull an immense pile of data points from a farming operation, analyze it and act upon it, all with the power of a handheld tablet or cellphone.

"It's been like watching a [growing] wave in the ocean," said Leo Bose, Case IH AFS (Advanced Farming Systems) marketing manager. "Five years ago, we began to see this craving for data. [Farmers] wanted to see where machines are in the field. Now, they want to look at yield data, as-planted data, as-harvested data, and make correlations between those [measures] and inputs."

Data can discover inefficiencies, for example, finding mismatches between labor and field operations. "If I have three or four combines out in the field, I know I have three or four operators with different skill levels. AFS Connect looks at that to provide a deeper level of information about them," Bose said.

END GOAL IS REPLICATION

Yield is not an end goal in and of itself. Profit per acre and replication of outcome are the brass ring.

"This technology only works for those who can make use of it -- those who can deal with a huge amount of information and analyze it to make better farm-management decisions," said Terry Griffin, ag economist at Kansas State University. "Our studies indicate that only about 15% of farmers are capturing that value." Griffin bases his estimate on annual reports from 660 farmers who participate in the Kansas Farm Management Association.

Matt Danner farms in western Iowa, near Templeton. He collects reams of data. "We're so data rich, and yet, we're so information poor," he said. "We plant the same hybrid across several farms in dozens of different moisture levels, different heat unit, planting dates, elevations, and then we collect the various yields and test weights," he said. "Tell me something about all that. Tell me five things about that hybrid in those varied conditions that I can use next year."

Danner hunts for more refined data that's clean of garbage from the field. "Do we need more granularity in what we already have, or do we need smaller bits of clean data still not collected today to create a better picture? Maybe the missing link is still missing."

Alex Purdy, head of John Deere Labs, in San Francisco, said digital tools when connected with smart equipment and well-designed analytics will bring greater profitability and sustainability to farmers. But, there are hurdles, he adds. "How do we get customers connected? How do we make sure data comes off a piece of equipment? But, more importantly, how do we make sure that intelligence gets back onto a piece of equipment? How do we automate an experience?" Purdy points to artificial intelligence (AI). "AI will transform agriculture," he said.

TECHNOLOGY LAUNCHED

Case IH said its new model-year 2020 AFS Connect Magnum series tractor represents the manufacturer's largest technology launch in 10 years. The AFS Connect Magnum is purpose-built for digital interactivity.

The AFS Connect Magnum wirelessly sends and receives farm, fleet and agronomic data. Operator and manager can converse to make live, in-field adjustments.

Of note is the pair of cameras mounted in front and back on the Magnum. Today, they provide a live image of space around the Magnum. Tomorrow, cameras might push images back through the Cloud to distant managers who interpret ongoing field operations by clod size, who use imaging to decipher plant health or who use cameras to operate the tractor remotely.

"These are the options for which we have to create capabilities we don't have to today," Bose said. "But, the [cameras may] allow us to bring technologies into the AFS Connect Magnum that are the eyes in the air and the eyes on the ground."

Case IH's parent company, CNH Industrial, uploaded a video in 2016 that shows sleek autonomous tractors conceived by CNH Industrial's Innovation Team (see ). "We set out to take technology in a different direction that would allow farmers to integrate new technology into existing fleets and give them access to real-time data wherever they are," CNH explained in its video. The driverless tractors were filmed on a farm in Kentucky.

Today, Case IH positions AFS Connect Magnum as a communications hub. "It's AFS. Connect. Magnum," Bose said. "There are three pillars there that bring this together. The connect nomenclature is in the center." In essence, a connected tractor produces information in real time and affecting real-time decisions, he said.

DOING WHAT IT WON'T

In its partnerships with 100 connected software companies, Deere is looking for a total customer solution connecting customers with tools Deere will never build.

"How [can] they build solutions that help [farmers] go from good farmers to great farmers through the data and integration that's possible in this digital ag ecosystem?" asked Kayla Reynolds, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, digital business development manager of Deere's connected partners.

"Analysis and decision-making is what people think about when it comes to data. Why do I get the data?" said Jeremy Leifker, John Deere Operations Center solutions manager. "Can you imagine what could be done to affect the yield outcome with better information a month after planting, [how] things could be affected to produce a better outcome?"

UNDERSTANDING VARIABLES

Jamie Blythe, Town Creek, Alabama, is looking for rifle shots -- data that generates savings or income in real time. Blythe manages her farm by management zones, accounting for varying soil types. No-till and cover crops affect organic matter and fertility across those zones.

Blythe uses AgDNA to act on the variables. Was the planting speed too high? Seed populations too low? She uses AgDNA to interpret test strips to understand how five years of yield data will improve the outcome of the 2019 crop. AgDNA includes functions for record-keeping, equipment, agronomics and finance, and others.

"We want to get better every day, every week," Blythe said. "I want to analyze those yields and make the planting decisions" in a time and in space that allows the data to be useful.

Jonathan Riley, Fuse product marketing manager with AGCO Corp., suggests producers control the data flood by asking the questions that move you toward your goals. "I can give you 30 columns of data on an Excel spreadsheet, and it's not going to give you anything," Riley said. "So, is it big data or right data? Will a system give you a single big answer or a series of answers that, step-by-step, leads to a solution?"

CONTROL COSTS

Knopf Farms, Gypsum, Kansas, works to lift benefit from the data it collects. "Our two biggest input costs are seed and fertilizer, so we're trying to optimize these in order to maximize profits," said the farm's agronomist, Garrett Kennedy. "We're using aerial imagery during the growing season to check on management decisions we make."

Satellite imagery fine-tuned sidedress nitrogen applications. "We had a hot, dry year, so we're tempted to cut back on that nitrogen application; but the imagery indicated that most of the field was doing fine, so we were more comfortable making that additional investment," Kennedy said.

"Ease of interpretation is important," agreed Matt Olson, John Deere product marketing manager. "Customers want to do more with data, with most finding themselves limited on time to do so."

Deere is deliberately moving data management away from the confines and the data-limiting cables of the desktop computer.

"Data used to be an activity reserved for a desktop computer in their office, but that doesn't work anymore," Olson said. "Farm managers are more likely to manage their operation from the seat of a truck, combine, tractor or sprayer than their office." Deere's MyOperations app gives managers a portable option to monitor completed field operations and determine productivity from their seeding, application, harvest and tillage work, he said.

This winter, Deere released a video named Farm Forward With John Deere [see see for the 2012 version]. At just under four minutes, Deere's video proposes a vision of technology where voice, wireless and real-time analysis perform a smooth digital dance.

THE "BOYS"

From a transparent tablet, viewers see weather scans, topographical maps indicating flood zones and drainage patterns. There is a reference to the "boys." The boys are seemingly hovering sprayers that are "working where we can't." And, the video introduces Kate, who is monitoring the farm from an office in an unidentified city. She is "looking at the latest" from her family's agronomist and assures her brother (or maybe her husband) that the newest prescriptions will make Dad "feel better." Agronomic, market and mechanical information move to heads-up displays in equipment. Handheld scanners examine individual corn plants.

Deere's Leifker offers this vision. "When our machine comes to the field, it knows what it should be doing, the operator hits the 'go' button, and it executes. That's the path we're on."

AGCO's Riley foresees technologically advanced farms will soon include a technology manager -- someone who is adept at converting raw data to new dollars.

"This is an exciting time in agriculture," Riley said, "as we find new ways to connect farmers' machines, no matter the color, to do it in a way easy for all to operate."

The 2020 Case IH AFS Connect Magnum is designed to be the central controller of field operations. (Photo courtesy of Case IH)
 

The 2020 Case IH AFS Connect Magnum is designed to be the central controller of field operations. (Photo courtesy of Case IH)