Data has become critical for the agriculture industry. Most tractors and farming equipment are now computers on wheels, collecting tons of data about soil, crops, and machinery. To further illustrate this point, John Deere now employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers. This is so their machines can gather data and that data can be used to help farmers improve. But how do you manage all this data? Managing a pile of data that could fill a grain bin is no easy task especially when you need to be out in the field or in the shop. Here’s how you can make the most of your data.
Who’s using your data?
First, you need to think about how your data will be used. Similarly, you should also consider who you will partner with. For example, as a bank, the data we’re going to find most helpful is anything related to the profitability and efficiency of your operation. Data that helps us understand the status of your operation and whether you can take on more debt, a new loan, purchase new property etc.
Similarly, an agronomist is going to want access to all sorts of map data to understand your soil health including pH, fertility and moisture levels. Your employees may also want access to data, especially those that operate machinery. They will want to know about equipment performance, yield, outputs and overall efficiencies. As you collect data, think about how you and your partners will use it. You may decide you need to collect different data or interpret it another way. Knowing how and who will use it will help guide your data collection process.
Four Vs of Big Data
Data is only numbers if you don’t know how to read it. Data must be compared year-over-year and to other operations. In other words, it must have context. To understand your data, you need to benchmark it, and then use it to discover and address problems, inefficiencies, and target areas for improvement. To make the most of your data, adopt what’s known as the Four Vs of Big Data. These are volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Using the Four Vs will help ensure your data is accurate and useful.
Volume of data is important because you need enough data to compare and identify patterns. For example, knowing the temperature for one day doesn’t tell us much. We need weather data over a long period of time so we can see patterns. As the volume of your data increases, it’s likely to get more complex so being able to sort and filter will be critical. Having yearly weather records can provide you with useful data for nearly every infield decision. For example, having data for average daily temp can help you decide when you’re going to plant, if you need to change seed variety, when to spray and when to apply nitrogen. You’ll be able to better predict your growing degree days and can schedule other activities accordingly.
Next is velocity. You could also think of this as timing. For your data to be relevant it needs to be on time. For example, you may use aerial imagery to provide a range of information, including ground and crop temperatures, crop health, weeds pressure and expected yield. This data isn’t useful if it comes to you a month late. It’s critical to being able to collect timely data but also have it delivered and interpreted. Setting aside a little time each week to look at your data will be more useful than only looking at it once a year.
As technology has advanced, the variety of data you’re able to collect has increased. Previously, if you had a low yield spot, you might not know why. Therefore, having a variety of data points is important because it will allow you to see the whole picture. Having data about ground temperature, moisture levels and nutrients in the soil can help you pinpoint what’s causing issues and then address it. If you don’t have data variety, you won’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.
The final V is veracity, also known as the quality of the data. Making sure your data is accurate is critical if you’re going to use the data to make decisions. This involves making sure your equipment is calibrated correctly. You also need accurate data if you’re using multiple machines to collect your data. If one machine is giving a much different reading than the others, the data is likely not accurate. If your equipment isn’t calibrated, the data could be filled with unexplained anomalies. Another reason you need accurate data? Your data is used for benchmarking and seeing patterns. If you’re collecting a lot of inaccurate data that information is not valuable. Lastly, when you’re comparing data, make sure you’re not comparing apples to oranges. The timing, duration, location, and equipment used for collecting data can cause great variances. When trying to set benchmarks it’s important that you’ve considered potential variables.
Use your Data
If you’ve spent money and time on equipment to collect data for your operation, it would be wasteful not to use it. But using your data is easier said than done as you likely have plenty of other things to be doing. Here are somethings to consider.
When we talk about using data, we mean more than just exporting it to a spreadsheet or just jotting down some notes on pen and paper. Depending on the size of your operation, you may want to invest in software that can help interpret and organize your data. Some companies offer both hardware and software as one product allowing you to integrate your data collection and analytics into one platform. At a minimum, look for patterns in the data so you can set benchmarks. This will help you track and measure your improvements. Some farmers also share their data with their crop consultants so they can interpret. You might not have the time or skillset to analyze your data but either way it’s important to have someone use it. There are lot of tools and resources at your disposable. Talk with your sales specialist and they can help point you in the right direction.
The data that you collect and interpret can help you identify problems and then fix them. To get the most out of your data investment, it should be used to better your operation. For example, the data might reveal that certain parts of your field need more water than others. Or maybe soil nutrient density is greater in certain parts, meaning you can adjust your fertilizer prescription and save money. Using the data to optimize your yields will ensure it’s a worthwhile investment as you can save money on inputs and labor.
Backup your data
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it can be easy to forget to backup your data. Your data is no good if you lose it all and it will be harder to see patterns and set benchmarks. This can be as simple as printing out some of the files or just buying a backup hard drive to download your files to. You’ll be glad you did.
Don’t Forget About Privacy
Data privacy has been a trending topic especially as consumers own more devices that collect personal data. Just as there are concerns with Siri and Alexa, farm equipment has faced similar scrutiny for its ability to collect your data. Farmers should read the terms and conditions so they understand what’s being shared. Remember, all the data you collect allows companies to learn about how you operate your farm. This includes the equipment you use and your inputs. While it’s not necessarily bad to share your data, just be sure to understand how your data is being used by those other than you and your partners. At a minimum, don’t share your data portal login information and when sharing data you should ensure it’s “read only”, meaning other users can’t edit your data.
Your data should be treated like another tool in your shed. Using it effectively can really help your operation run smoother, more efficiently and profitably. You don’t have to spend hours each day analyzing every piece of information. Simply looking for patterns and setting some benchmarks can make a real difference and help you make well informed decisions.