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Big Data offers advantages to your farm

By: Shankar Das PAg., Regional Farm Business Management Specialist

Farmers often use data to make informed management decisions. For example, conventional soil fertility data is used to know more about the fertility status of a soil for judicious fertilizer applications. The use of variable rate technology is a refinement to the existing fertilizer application management. However, these conventional data tools are not your only option. Big Data, is a relatively new data collection, analysis and management tool and is being promoted by the big data firms to help farmers improve efficiency, productivity and profitability.

Big Data is a collection of large and complex data sets which, at this time, can only be analyzed using sophisticated data processing tools and analytics by the big data firms. They can create and offer sensible and useful information to the farmers.

Experts say there are many sources where a farm can capture data, such as, from soil (e.g. soil map), seeding (e.g. seed depth, population density), emergence, scouting, weather, harvest, marketing, etc.

What are the advantages of Big Data? The underlying assumption behind Big Data is that more and precise information improves efficiency, productivity, and profitability and enhances competitiveness.  Data can help build a knowledge base for a farm, and knowledge is power.

For example, prior to seeding, Big Data can be used to decide which crops to plant where and when. Combining this information with soil moisture data and weather data (predictions), a modern seeder with appropriate sensors, can then vary the amounts of fertilizer to be used in different sections of a field. Also, the built-in software in the same seeder will be able to instruct a farmer to plant a certain type of seed in one corner of a field and a different seed type in another for optimum yield.

During harvest, a modern yield monitor can capture yield data points every few seconds. For example, a combine running for eight hours will be able to capture close to 14,500 data points over that time period if it collects data every two seconds. One big data firm says its sensors for harvesting equipment can generate several gigabytes of data per acre. If the data firms can provide farmers a way to utilize those sets of data, it could transform the efficiency, productivity, profitability and competitiveness of a farm.

On a broader perspective, Big Data can test varieties of seeds and types of fertilizers across hundreds of fields, soils, and climates. This macro-data can be useful to develop better field-specific variety recommendations for the producers based on different productivity zones.

These are just few examples that illustrate the power of Big Data.

However, at this time producers (farm managers) cannot analyze the data themselves simply because of the enormous amount and complexity of the data. Sophisticated tools may be required for analysis which will be able to extract sensible information. The big data firms such as John Deere, Monsanto, DuPont, Trimble, and Farmers Edge have been developing tools to collect, aggregate and analyze data in real time. Notably, new startup firms like Farmers Business Network (FBN) are already working with farmers (e.g. innovators and early adaptors) in the US.  Indicating farmers see the potential of Big Data and relying on big data firms for extracting real value.

Nevertheless, most farmers take time to know and adopt new technologies, and Big Data is no exception. Also, questions such as who owns the data, who profits off the analytics and how secure the services are, remain.

Yet, in a low-margin, high risk business like farming, Big Data offers promise and can have a significant effect on profitability.  It is probably a good idea to explore these new tools and technologies while times are relatively good.

For more information, contact Shankar Das (306-867-5577), Regional Farm Business Management Specialist, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Outlook Regional Office, Outlook, SK.

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