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Big/Farm data and Precision Agriculture

By Shankar Das, PAg, Regional Farm Business Management Specialist, Outlook

July 2017

The world population is projected to increase to more than 9 billion by 2050. It is estimated that agriculture will have to increase its production by more than 70 per cent  to meet the needs of this growing population. There will be several challenges. This has to be accomplished on the same or less land area, under changing climatic conditions, and with minimum environmental impact in order to achieve technical, economic and environmental benefits for the society

Experts believe that precision agriculture (PA), a relatively new concept, may be a part of the solution to achieve those goals. PA promotes site-specific application of inputs – use of the right input, at the right amount, in the right place, at the right timing and in the right manner in order to secure more production with minimal environmental impact.

Western Canadian producers are slowly adopting precision agriculture practices. With the use of a global positioning system (GPS) to track the location of equipment in the field, producers can apply the necessary input, such as fertilizer, in the precise amount needed and only where it is needed. This has benefits for the producer’s bottom line, as well as for the environment.

For PA to happen, producers need to determine how much variability exists in their fields, where does that variability come from and what causes that variability. These variabilities can be quantified, collected and analyzed in the form of layers of data. Experts emphasize that while we need technologies such as machines and sensors, the data and algorithms (a set of rules for problem-solving) are essential and integral to create layers of data maps such as yield data, soil nutrient data, moisture data and other factors for developing predictive models and prescriptions for PA to happen.

Modern farm machinery with its advanced technologies (for example, GPS and sensor in a combine to collect yield data) can accurately and economically collect both spatial and temporal data of a crop field.

The Climate Corp, John Deere, FarmersEdge, BASF, The Farmers Business Network, IPNI and many other industry players are involved in utilizing farm data for the benefits mentioned above.

While we frequently talk about data and PA in relation to fields and crops, we often forget or neglect to talk about the importance of data for livestock production and management. The use of data for precision feeding to reduce the cost of production and using data and technology, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), for remote sensing in order to manage herds’ health and welfare is also increasingly receiving popularity.

Data is an invaluable resource, as it provides objective and unbiased information which generates knowledge for a farm. The experts on Big Data are watchful and often say that those who own the data can exert some control on farms and farmers. Farmers would say that they and their farms produce the data, and therefore, own the data or at least decide who should own the data.

However, many questions need to be addressed on this issue. Do farmers know what data is important to them? Do they know how to collect data? How would they use the data for PA in their farms? How would data help them in management decisions? What does a farm data management strategy and plan look like to meet management needs now and into the future? Would it be prudent to share data with others, and if so, who and under what conditions?

For more information, please contact Shankar Das, Regional Farm Business Management Specialist, at 306-867-5577 or the Agriculture Knowledge Center at 1-866-457-2377.

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