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Getting Better Crop Data and Making It Pay

Jeff Caldwell 06/12/2014 @ 3:24pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

It's a recurring question in today's high-tech farming world: I've got all this data from my fields, now what do I do with it?

Starting to reach farms are a few new tools that take huge steps toward answering this question, some in ways that previously weren't even part of the corn and soybean production lexicon. Some of these new tools are on display at the first-ever Tools of the Future Tour presented by Meredith Agrimedia, Successful Farming magazine, and Agriculture.com. The Tour's first stop was Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Though technology can eliminate the vast majority of the variability that once caused countless headaches for the average crop farmer, there's still one that can't be controlled: Mother Nature. And, as many Corn Belt and Plains farmers can attest, her mood swings – comprising everything from severe drought to monsoonish rains – have done a lot to slash crop output potential in many areas in the last few years.

Jeff Hamlin's technology doesn't get rid of weather variability, but it does help farmers better head off weather-driven crop shortfalls by keeping on top of weather fluctuations and using modeling and monitoring to ultimately make better crop management decisions. Hamlin is director of marketing and agronomic research for Climate Corportation, a San Francisco, California-based weather firm that last fall was acquired by Monsanto.

"We report weather with a kind of granularity and specificity like nowhere else in the industry. It's going beyond conditions. It's location-specific information – how much rain fell, how much of it the soil took up, transpiration, etc.," he says. "There are calculations going on that allow us to know how much rain fell, for example, and all the different factors that influence the decisions to optimize the efficiency of your operation."

Weather and revenue modeling

Climate Corporation offers two versions of Web-based software to track weather conditions and produce decision-making models based on weather variables, Climate Basics and Climate Pro. The latter includes more features and carries a price tag, while the Basics program is free of charge. They both allow you to select individual fields based on USDA FSA maps, add your crop and inputs (the program currently works best for corn, Hamlin says), and track all data points and weather conditions to ultimately yield better decisions.

"Rainfall and weather data are just part of the picture -- a lot of data points are dealing with my crop growth stage. It helps me plan for a lot of things I'm doing, like field workability and corn grain moisture, for example," he says. "The accuracy depends a lot on radar location proximity and other variables. There are different quality controls for short- and long-term data."

One example Hamlin says products like these can contribute to your bottom line is in the fertilizer sector. With Thursday's event coming around nitrogen sidedressing season, it's a pertinent example for the late-spring technology event. And, it shows how well a combination of weather and agronomic data points can help you get more out of your crop input dollars.

"If we sidedress 300 pounds of nitrogen everywhere, the cost likely will outweigh the yield benefit of applying it," he says. "We can calculate the optimal sidedressing date based on crop and weather variables and projected grain market prices."

One step further: Data output like this can be added up to other variables to yield "quantitative data projecting bushels based on cumulative weather data," Hamlin adds.

Looking down the road, Hamlin says the process of collecting the weather and land conditions gleaned by satellites and other high-tech tools will only get easier, and that output will only get richer and more comprehensive.

"Being able to take advantage of that satellite data is going to get cheaper and cheaper," he says. "There are a lot more satellites going up there right now."

Get paid for your data?

A big topic in the whole data sector of agriculture technology in recent years has been data security and safety. Yet technology companies – like Climate Corporation, which Hamlin says has a "comprehensive data privacy policy" – are not only dramatically improving cloud-based and general data security, but also turning that secured data repository into something from which farmers could ultimately make money, says Farmobile's Jason Tatge. The company has just developed a platform- and brand-agnostic data hub that securely collects data from all in-cab crop sensors and monitors, gathers it, and stores it in the "cloud," making it available to you . . . or anyone else to whom you give permission. The whole idea behind it?

"Plug it in, it sends data to the cloud, then makes that data available to customers we have. Every time we have a customer access the data, you can charge a fee. If people say they want data but won't pay enough, you can say no. We're establishing a market for this data," says Tatge. "We want to be this pipe in the cab that sends this data up to the cloud that makes it easy to get from all these different systems. If you want to monetize it, we'll bring buyers to you for the data. It's changing the way people start to think about what the data's really worth."

What's the value of this data? Tatge says that's a common question. But, the evolving food marketplace – and an increasing emphasis on farm-to-table traceability – will likely create more value for data like planting date, crop inputs, and other key variables.

"The birthdate of the crop allows a lot of people to do things, make recommendations, etc. If there's one piece of data you need to be very careful with, it's birthdate of the crop. A lot of things can be determined down the road. That variable is where a lot of value lies right now," he says. "There's a lot of sustainability and accountability for things going into the food system. Getting these records in one place is going to get extremely important in the next few years, and much more important for you."


The Tools of the Future Tour continues in Illinois and Indiana next week. Want to join up? Find out all the information you need here!

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