Need For Speed
Fast and accurate data transfer can help avoid yield-robbing delays.
By Marilyn Cummins
As farms continue to grow in size, farmers not only need efficient equipment to plant more acres in a narrow window, but also need efficient ways to collect and transfer agronomic data from those acres at key times in the season.
Producers who rely on manual transfer of their data for analysis rather than using wireless Internet connections (through a cellular plan) may not get around to moving it until the season is over, says Terry Griffin, a cropping systems economist from Kansas State University, who researches several aspects of big data in agriculture.
“By the time data are manually moved to the analytics, opportunities to adjust management practices are missed, significantly affecting farm profitability, productivity and environmental impact,” Griffin and his co-authors wrote in a recent paper. In addition, they said, real-time communication between farm equipment and online servers isn’t possible, and geospatial data may be lost if it’s not backed up in a timely manner.
In an interview with Performance Agronomy, Griffin says a classic example of a missed opportunity is with early-order seed discounts. “If you want to order the best hybrids, you can’t really wait,” he says, so growers need to get their yield data out of the combine and analyzed quickly against other factors to make that decision.
Gene Stevens, agronomy professor with the University of Missouri-Delta Research Center at Portageville, Missouri, identifies several other bottlenecks that can be profit-robbers if farm operations are delayed due to missing field data or slow transfer of the data.
“Bottlenecks that cause planting delays are the No. 1 issue,” Stevens says. After soil temperatures warm up in spring, farmers need to plant corn as quickly as possible. Slowdowns from waiting for applications of fertilizer and crop-protection products should be avoided. Late-planted corn is most likely to have poor pollination from high temperatures and to suffer water stress from lack of late-summer rainfall.
Another potential bottleneck comes in double-cropping situations, Stevens says. Farmers growing double-crop soybeans with winter wheat are especially challenged.
In his area of southeast Missouri, wheat is harvested in late May or June. If lime or phosphorus and potassium are needed before planting soybean, it must be done quickly, he says, and that calls for fast yield-data transfer so nutrients can be prescribed and applied. Double-crop soybean yields already are usually less than single-crop yields due to later planting dates, so time really counts.
“The faster that wheat can be harvested and the fields replanted in soybean, the more profit a farmer makes per acre,” Stevens says. “The plant has to have time to canopy and get full light interception for best yields.”
Delays in planting can cause significant yield loss. For example, according to the corn and soybean chapters in the Illinois Agronomy Handbook (both written by University of Illinois Crop Science Professor Emerson Nafziger), corn planted in Illinois in late June may reach only 50% of the yield of April-planted corn—that’s a potential loss of $350 an acre (half of 175-bushel-per-acre average yield for the state x $4 per bushel). The drop in soybean yield is not quite as severe, but depending on conditions, studies have shown a drop of 14 bushels per acre between late April and early June plantings—a loss of $130 an acre if soybeans were bringing $9.30 a bushel.
Running Into Bad Weather
Stevens says that with late planting or, in a year like this one, a lot of replanting, “everything gets pushed back. So, if you were planning to get your corn out early and do some land preparation work, or plant a cover crop after a crop like cotton, you may hit bad weather.”
Even if crops are harvested on time, the data also needs to be. Analyzing yield maps right after harvest can point out damage to crops from wet spots in fields, he says. After winter rains start, it’s too late to do earthmoving to improve drainage; but in most years, “the weeks right after corn harvest are dry enough to fix field drainage and compaction problems, as well as to apply lime and potash.”
Lime is best applied in the fall so it has time to neutralize soil acidity during the winter, Stevens says, and because many ag retailers have switched their equipment over in the spring and aren’t offering lime application then.
“Some farmers just look at yields go up and down on their combine monitors while they are driving without saving data, or they fail to transfer it later,” Stevens explains. “They may forget the locations of the lowest yields where they need to make management adjustments.”
Getting yield data to your dealer quickly is especially important in years when yields were either unusually high or low, because that affects crop removal of nutrients, he says. “You would know that from your yield maps, and it could impact how much P and K to put out that fall. In my area, a lot of farmers rush to finish harvest so they can go deer hunting. They need to know their work is not finished until yield data is transferred.”
Ag Retailers Need Fast Data
Echoing several of Stevens’ points, Nathan Rogers, agronomy marketing manager and precision farming coordinator for Christian County FS in Taylorville, Illinois, says saving time in the fall is crucial to get all the acres covered for grower customers.
“Weather can always be a factor,” he says. “We always try to get the growers either fall-applied nitrogen or other fall fertilizer applied as soon as possible. By getting and using data quickly, we can make that happen.”
In the spring, timely data about the field history allows him to help growers place their seeds at the right populations to aim for maximum yield and to level out the yield across the field. After planting, by doing population stand counts and checking the different zones that the prescription called for, Rogers can supply in-season nitrogen as well as as-applied maps for nutrient stewardship, supplemented by aerial imagery.
Working with customers who don’t yet use newer monitors and wireless data transfer means having to run out, put a thumb drive in the customer’s combine monitor, wait for everything to download, he says. “That could take up to 15 minutes a stop, not including driving time to wherever they are,” he adds, plus processing data that might not be clean in terms of boundaries or other imperfections. The process works faster with wireless data, Rogers says, and when fields are already defined in the precision planning platform.
For customers relying solely on soil samples versus yield data, “we used to have to go and submit the soil sample to be pulled, then we’d have to wait three or four days to get the analysis back.” In the meantime, Rogers says, “the guys wouldn’t want to wait before they did the fall tillage, and then we would have to bounce across the ground, you know, that was already chisel-plowed” to custom-apply fall nutrients in less-than-ideal conditions.
Gene Stevens concludes that human nature may be why some of us don’t take full or timely advantage of new technology like big data. “In the electronic age, people take photos with cell phones but often don’t take time to edit them and print the best ones. Likewise, farmers can get busy with other jobs and neglect the data that they collect from their equipment.”