Big ag data, a catch phrase describing the aggregation and analysis of the vast stores of digital information generated by farmers, will fuel the next advancement in their productivity, experts say.

Drones flying over farm fields recording high resolution images and field sensors providing real-time information on crop nutrients and conditions are among high tech tools likely to become commonplace in an era of big ag data.

Data aggregation and analysis, calculated to improve farmers’ yields and productivity, “is the next big frontier in agriculture,” said Aaron Putze, Iowa Soybean Association spokesman.

“I have heard big ag data compared with the biotech revolution. I would like to think it will be that important to farmers. I think it is something pretty powerful,” said Ken O’Brien, a manager with DuPont Pioneer’s Encirca Services, which uses data to help farmers make more informed decisions.

“It’s fascinating to think about the power of it, the ability to do square meter farming,” said Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, who sees both promise and pitfalls in big ag data.

Data has been the core concept of precision agriculture since the mid-1990s. But the recent surge in both application and interest has been driven by the strengthening of data infrastructure, said Matt Darr, Iowa State University associate professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering.

The cost of data storage has declined dramatically, “and phones now have more processing power than personal computers in the mid-1990s,” Darr said.

The leading application for big ag data — prescriptive planting — merges soil, climate and seed corn data with farmers’ production records — a service with the potential to increase grain yields by as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who also farms in northwest Iowa, said he sees the potential for substantial productivity gains.

“Logically, the more information at your disposal, the more likely you are to figure a better way to do things. We are talking about new tools with real potential for increasing return on investment,” Northey said.

Darr, who is often asked about big ag data’s return on investment, advises farmers not to get hung up on returns expressed in dollars or bushels per acre, which can vary from year to year, depending most notably upon the weather. He says to take the long view.

“You have to use it over time to make it work for you,” he said.

A farmer who typically gets 40 crops to perfect his craft may accumulate, with data-driven decision making, 50 crops’ worth of wisdom and experience, Darr said.

Data-driven precision farming systems — developed most prominently by St. Louis, Mo.-headquartered Monsanto, which did not respond to interview requests for this story, and DuPont Pioneer of Johnston — tell farmers which seeds to plant and how to cultivate them in specific plots of land.

DuPont Pioneer’s suite of data and technology services, called Encirca, will help farmers more efficiently use seed, fertilizer and water, according to DuPont Pioneer’s O’Brien.

DuPont Pioneer is collaborating with John Deere to incorporate its wireless data transfer services, he said.

“Farmers collect data on almost every pass over the field — planting data, tillage data, spraying records. We’re trying to help them use it in real time rather than after the fact,” he said.

Monsanto’s FieldScripts services, available this year in Iowa and three other states, combine a subsidiary’s soil and weather data with its own hybrid seed yield data to specify which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.

In 2012, Monsanto bought Precision Planting, which makes seed drills that, when loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, all varied according to the weather.

The information farmers have been gathering, especially with yield monitors in their combines, translates into knowledge that can help farmers make decisions that “potentially make us more profitable,” Iowa Farm Bureau’s Hill said.

“But who gets that information — the farmer or the provider? Will they be prescribing what best suits their interests or those of the farmer?”

Without adequate safeguards, big ag data holds the potential for misappropriation and abuse, Hill said.

In response, Farm Bureau has drafted a code of conduct asserting that farmers own and control their data.

“Farmers want portability so they can move data to a competitor and the ability to revoke a company’s use of it if it is abused,” Hill said.

Companies selling ag data services acknowledge farmers’ concerns in their policy and marketing statements, “but their contracts don’t make that explicit,” Hill said.

As a farmer, Hill said he makes decisions based on his own experience and expertise, supplemented with his own data.

“That’s how I produce value as a manager,” he said.

Hill said he worries that the proliferation of ag data will erode the advantages that top producers have developed over generations.

“Does the data enable you or ultimately replace you?” Hill wonders.

“There is absolutely real concern about data privacy, That’s the world we live in today,” ISU’s Marr said

Northey noted that farmers have legitimate concerns.

“My production data would be valuable to a neighbor who wanted to rent or buy land I am farming,” Northey said.

DuPont Pioneer’s O’Brien said his company does not so much aggregate information as work with the data of individual farmers.

“We have worked for decades with customers’ confidential information. We take data privacy very seriously,” he said.

©2014 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)