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Dance with data

03/04/2013 @ 11:14am

Flash back to 1986. It's the first year Gary Petersohn begins gathering yield data on his Tingley, Iowa, fields. Flash forward to 2012. He's surrounded by the multitude of facts and statistics the technology has been stockpiling. With no clear idea on what steps to take to effectively interpret the information, he has danced around the very data that has the potential to help him save on inputs and increase yields.

“I have a lot of maps and they're fun to look at, but I never plugged the data into anything that really made any sense,” he admits. “I'm old enough that I'm a little challenged on some of the technology, and I need help.”

Petersohn isn't alone.

Set the mood

So you don't get tripped up on the details of the data, you need to have the right mind-set. “I think the stumbling block is the technology passed farmers at a high rate of speed,” says Mike Fugate, Precision Services Manager, Barker Implement. “This funky little tool comes in a chunk of iron you buy and you're in a hurry. You learn enough to run it or do the job of combining or planting, and you don't have time to do the rest. The technology overwhelms you.”

Now that you have had the technology for two, five, or 10 years, you're being told there's a lot of knowledge in the data that's being collected. Yet, you get tripped up when it comes to making actionable decisions based on the data.

“Once you capture the data, how do you dissect it and make a prescription or an analysis of it?” asks Fugate. “With today's high land costs, high equipment costs, and high input costs, every acre – every bushel – counts, and you don't know how to get your hands and head around it.”

According to Matt Darr, a precision ag specialist with Iowa State University, there is another limiting factor.

“It's only been a few years since we've had some sort of standardized data formats across the industry,” he says. “If you've got mixed fleets of products, you can now bring that data together. Ten years ago that wasn't the case, and it was more difficult to read all of those products in.”

Yet, Darr agrees with Fugate that the bigger hurdle is the detailed examination of the data itself.

“The data analysis piece requires some analysis of spatial data and applying agronomy to that, which is a specialty,” he notes. “It's not something you are naturally trained in. I think anyone who uses computer software can appreciate the fact that if you only use it once a year for a few weeks, it's not going to be a very easy process.”

Choose your partner

In the past, you typically turned to your input suppliers for advice on how to transfer the collected data into actionable items. “I think 75% of the time farmers will ask their input supplier questions such as: ‘What input do I buy? How much do I buy? What do I buy? Where do I put it?’ ” says Dave Shields, agronomy and retail sales manager, Farmers Cooperative in Afton, Iowa. “Hopefully, the supplier is asking questions, as well, such as: ‘Does it pay to do this? Does it not pay? What did it pay?’ ”

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