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Big Data For Agriculture Worth the Risk

Despite the negatives, GPS-powered precision agriculture technology has transformed crop production into data that can be fine tuned, increasing production.

(TNS) -- They call it “big data” because, well heck, it’s big — a Grand Canyon full of bytes of information from farms all over the country, combined to be analysed and used to generate anything and everything from best seeding prescriptions in a specific environment to weather impact on soil nutrient availability.

It’s the grand scale version of a farmer using data generated in his fields to make management decisions.

Speaking at the recent Wildcat Extension District Agronomy Night in Independence, Kan., Kansas State University’s Terry Griffin laid out the implications of big data for agriculture.

The cropping systems economist explained that “the value of data lies in it’s use, not in it’s possession.”

He offered an analogy using The Weather Channel, pointing out multiple people utilize the information without diminishing the value of that information to any single individual.

But big data is not without controversy, Griffin said. Objections to the technology focus on information ending up in the wrong hands and range from data pirates gaining an unfair futures market advantage to regulatory agencies or other groups using farmers’ data against them.

And there is always the possibility of the data being hacked and altered.

“If data has value, it’s not a question of ‘if’ it will be hacked but, rather, ‘when,’” Griffin said.

Despite the negatives, GPS-powered precision agriculture technology has created the opportunity to transform crop production into bits and bytes that can be analysed — and the more data, the more accurate the analysis can be, Griffin noted.

He said the big data concept still is a long way from maturity and its current value to farmers is somewhat limited but when it does mature, the implications for agriculture will be wide-ranging and profound.

“Eventually, as big data does mature, it will even have an effect on farmland values — with data-rich farms being worth more,” he said. “That will also include broadband connectivity. Data is more difficult to upload than it is to download so property with greater broadband activity will be worth more.”

Obviously, only a tiny fraction farmers now participate and, more bothersome, not all information is “good data.”

Big corporate agriculture is, however, jumping on the bandwagon. Seed and equipment companies — and others — are making significant investments in big data, Griffin said.

Monsanto, for example, spent roughly $1 billion to acquire Climate Corp., a big data firm that uses farm-generated information to offer a suite of decision-making support tools.

Griffin said although the current cost vs. benefit ratio for utilizing big data is unclear, it is clear that as more and more farmers participate the value will rise.

“Data has value only if it’s used,” he said. “You may have several years of yield monitor data but it’s worthless until it’s utilized to make better decisions on your farm.”

Grid soil sampling

Brian Arnall, Oklahoma State University precision nutrient management, told a large crowd of farmers that grid sampling can pay both in terms of saving money on inputs as well as increasing bushels per acre.

Acknowledging that any type of soil sampling is far better than nothing, Arnall said, “You can do a great job of composite sampling but it’s still an average of field areas that are both high and low — typically, you’re going to under-apply half and under-apply half.”

The Wyandotte native pointed out that correctly applying lime is particularly important. In addition to yield impact, he said, several herbicides are pH sensitive and the over- and under-application can even result in areas where chemicals break down too quickly and cause carryover problems in the same field, treated at the same rate.

Grid sampling, however, enables the producer to be more precise and efficient.

The question for many producers, Arnall said, is where to begin a grid sampling program.

“Grid sampling has the potential for economic advantage in any field,” he said, adding that, frequently, it’s the medium productivity field that pays off quickest.

On poor ground, Arnall said, other limitations may come into play.

“You may apply what the soil needs but because of a low water table or shallow clay pan or other reasons, the soil may not be capable of taking advantage of what you apply,” he said.

Grids that are 2.5 acres in size are most common but 5- or 10-acre grids are better than composite assessments.

“Maybe you’ll want to try 5 acres and work your way down as you see the value,” he said. Arnall suggests at least 10 samples per 2.5-acre grid. He also suggested producers select applicators with quality equipment.

Asked by a farmer in the crowd if using variable rate technology for several years will result in uniform yields across fields, Arnall answered, “No, because there will always be variance in the soil but it is a real opportunity to get the most from the inputs you use.”

©2016 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.