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Finding the Value in Your Data

Your data has value. You keep hearing that statement, as companies offer up software solutions to help you realize its usefulness. Yet, reaping benefits from the information being collected is still an elusive proposition for many.

According to Douglas Hackney, president of Enterprise Group, Ltd., it’s because few operations can implement and, more importantly, sustain a complete and successful farm-management information software (FMIS) system. 

“Farmers lack the data true believer’s zeal required to personally put any time or energy into producing reliable data,” he says. “Data requires initial population, which is challenging enough. It also requires ongoing changes, maintenance, and corrections FOREVER.”

If no one can demonstrate what you get in return for manually entering all of that data required to populate and maintain the system, it quickly adds up to a nonviable value proposition. “Until your mortgage payment depends on the system being populated, maintained, and utilized, it will never provide value,” says Hackney.

This is why data quality, says Joe Luck, has been and continues to be a challenge. “Many farmers have had bad experiences when reviewing data and decided not to continue their efforts,” says the University of Nebraska Extension specialist.

“It’s very difficult to motivate people to maintain data and systems over time,” Hackney says. “Inaccurate data populating the system leads to inaccurate, misleading results, which leads to farmers either not using or abandoning the FMIS altogether.” In order to maintain a system’s accuracy and use, Hackney believes there must be resources dedicated to and accountable for the data.

“That’s a challenge for most ag operations,” he says.

Without this baseline data that quantifies each process on the farm, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to measure the effectiveness or profitability of any practice or technology.

automatic input is necessary

For any system to be successful, Hackney is convinced the human element must be removed from the equation. “You can’t trust any data created and maintained by human hands,” he says. “At a minimum, you must have automated capture and population of all data associated with executing a crop plan. If you are relying on humans running the right app on their mobile phone every time or humans making entries on a virtual terminal every time, you should give up now.”

Partial data, he explains, is the same as no data. Inaccurate data is worse than no data. “Inaccurate data is what you get from humans,” Hackney says. “When it comes to data, you can’t trust the humans.”

Lisa Prassack agrees. “We cannot ask farmers to enter data by hand,” says the founder of Prassack Advisors, LLC. “If we are to achieve high-quality data and ensure adoption of new systems, we need to automate the data-collection process. In order for that to happen, a business process must first be documented, repeatable, and scalable, which all adds up to process rigor,” says Hackney. “Most resource planning, implementation, and operational aspects of ag processes do not meet that hurdle.”

Another issue, Luck points out, is cost. “The software generally costs money, which can sometimes be a turnoff,” he says. “If farmers choose to allow someone else to analyze their data, there’s a cost for that, as well. The FMIS system needs to be affordable.”

A plug-and-play nice mind-set

Serious commitment to data integrity and the value that insight provides aren’t issues Jared Hagert faces. Rather, it’s the lack of a plug-and-play nice mind-set that presents a challenge for the North Dakota farmer. 

“We live in a world cluttered with solutions. Yet, those solutions don’t talk to one another, which is a problem with my multicolored machinery lineup,” he says.

There is a plethora of FMIS point solutions that address a single, often tiny, aspect of an operation, notes Hackney. However, they don’t work well with each other.

“The resulting data is not integrated, and custom data integration solutions are required to build a meaningful, valuable, overall view of the data from these systems,” Hackney says.

Rahul Singh agrees. The MarketsandMarkets research analyst says, “There is no industry standard when it comes to data management. The challenge is to standardize the data-management systems throughout the industry to gain uniformity of operations.”

“All of the dominant ag brands are interested in only one thing: vendor lock-in,” says Hackney. “This is not good for farmers.”

It’s really about competitors having the willingness to sit down and put certain issues to the side and focus on what’s important for ag right now, says Hagert. “I realize everyone has a profit center. For ag to move forward, though, we need to discover what can and can’t be changed within some of these systems to make them more standardized.”

While there are efforts in place to develop standards, progress has been slow. 

“Until there is significant, sustained investment in building out initiatives like the Open Ag Data Alliance (OADA), the major brands that have zero upside in this happening will retain the headlock on overall ag innovation. When OADA – or some other nonvendor-controlled solution – reaches a tipping point of capability, the rapid innovation and segment disruption that technology is capable of can take effect in ag,” says Hackney.

“If we are to succeed as an industry, which will primarily be judged by our ability to positively impact farmers’ lives, then we must rally around data standards and a platform that allows seamless connectivity between systems,” says Matt Waits, SST Software CEO. “Today, farmers and agronomists are faced with incompatible systems that require redundant data entry. This will not work! Future success demands that farmers have one set of data that they remain in control of and that can be used by many software solutions.”

market potential

By 2022, a recent MarketsandMarkets report projects the FMIS business will generate more than $4 billion a year. While there are established players in the industry like Ag Leader, Climate Corporation, John Deere, SST, and Trimble, newcomers such as Conservis, Farmers Edge, and Granular are working to claim their stake in the space.

“In general, there are myriad options out there and more of them all the time,” says Hackney. “Every mom-and-pop, six-store retail chain is building its own. Of course, each small, medium, and large ag brand is doing so, as well. This is typical at this stage of a market segment’s journey down the process automation and data path, but it is supercharged by the pervasive ‘not invented here’ aspect of ag culture. Almost all of these systems will disappear over time – some in the near term, most by the midterm.”

With the multitude of FMIS systems out there, “it’s tough for farmers to pick one to work with. It’s even tougher for training, because you can’t conduct a workshop using six different systems!” says Luck. “Education is key, especially if farmers are going to do this themselves.”

The systems that will survive are those that can deliver what is good for farmers.

“We don’t want farmers to have to do more with data. The goal is for farmers to make better decisions, identify and solve problems, and increase yields or reduce costs to keep them sustainable in the future,” says Prassack.

There are companies attempting to achieve that. In 2013, John Deere opened up its Operations Center platform to software developers. “We believe the collaboration of John Deere tools and different software solutions helps unlock new potential and aids customers in making more informed decisions,” says Jeremy Leifker, manager, product strategy and marketing at John Deere.

Trimble recently consolidated three separate farm-management software products into a single offering called Ag Software. “Bringing together the features and functionality from Farm Works, Connected Farm, and Agri-Data will provide a much more complete software solution for farmers, retailers, and food processors,” says Ben Allen, enterprise solutions manager for Trimble Agriculture.

value proposition clear

As for Hagert, he chose to invest in the Farmers Edge system. “What it comes back to for me is learning about the potential value in the changes I could make – whether it’s a tillage practice or an input decision – to really gain a better understanding of what else can be done,” he says. 

“Farmers Edge gives me soil tests, zones for fertilizer applications and planting, clean data, clear images of fields to make in-season fertility decisions, and a profit map at the end of the year. There is a tremendous amount of value in this system,” continues Hagert.

It’s also about time. “When it comes to data, there’s a lot of heavy lifting in the background that has to happen to get things done. It is very reasonable to pay Farmers Edge less than $4 per acre to do that for me, and it allows me to do other things with that time,” says Hagert.

It’s that ease in execution many farmers are searching for – a useful tool that will help them identify an issue so they can work back to figure out why it occurred and how to fix it.

“The race to the easy button of precision ag data has already begun and will be a market focus for years to come,” says Kaleb Lindquist, Ag Leader product sales specialist. “There also needs to be a greater emphasis on the agronomic tie, because at this point, the hardware side of precision ag has surpassed the agronomic side. When we can accurately tie the agronomics to the technology available, there’s no ceiling we can’t break through in production agriculture.” 

How do you expect to pay for data analysis in the future?

  • 42% annual whole-farm subscription
  • 26% per acre
  • 25% time-based (weekly, monthly, etc.)
  • 8% per field

Source: 2016 Successful Farming Technology in Ag Study

where do you go from here?

As the farm management information software (FMIS) segment continues to evolve, Douglas Hackney, Enterprise Group, Ltd., says farmers should ask the following questions before adopting an FMIS system.

  1. How is the FMIS company funded? “If the FMIS is a small piece of a giant brand, ask how the FMIS product/group is funded,” he explains. “Is it a cost center or a revenue source?”
  2. What are the terms of service? “Farmers need to know who owns and controls the data,” says Hackney. “What happens to the data when or if the company/product/group fails?”
  3. How do you get your data out of the system?
  4. Is the data automatically captured (untouched by human hands) or is it manually entered? “If it’s manually entered, who will enter it? More importantly, who will maintain it?” he asks.
  5. How do you exchange data with people, companies, and services that you need to share your data with? “Learn about how the process is controlled and if that process is secure,” notes Hackney.
  6. Is the data stored in a proprietary system in nonstandard, closed data structures? “If so, ask how you access and use the data with your favorite data tools,” he advises.
  7. Why is the FMIS system free (or essentially free)? “How is the company/product/group making money? Find out if it’s monetizing your data or you,” says Hackney.
  8. Does the FMIS system seamlessly support heterogeneous data sources, including multiple brands of equipment, inputs, etc.? “You’ll want to know if this is done automatically,” he notes.
  9. Can this FMIS system scale as farm operations consolidate? “Does it have the ability to let you easily manage hundreds to thousands of fields?” asks Hackney. 
  10. Can this FMIS present all of your data geospatially? “Learn whether there is a default map view,” he says.
  11. Does the FMIS include an enterprise-scale work order system? “Ask if it can dispatch a map-based work order,” Hackney says.  
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