COLUMBUS, Ohio - Technology will be the critical aspect that drives producers to meet the demand of the future. So said Dr. John Fulton, an expert in applying technology to agriculture, to farm media gathered at the annual John Deere new product introduction event here. Fulton, associate professor at Auburn University and Extension specialist in the Biosystems Engineering Department, said agricultural production will need to double by 2050 and, once the math is done, precision ag technology will contribute at least 30 percent to that production growth.
In his remarks, he listed three components that are critical to getting the most from the technology that is so rapidly developing:
*Efficient use of the machinery, or input stewardship;
*Environmental constraints that are being placed on agriculture; and
*Management of all the data that has been collected.
"We have spent 20 years getting technology into our farmers' hands, now we are on the cusp of trying to get that data in a form to best serve our farmers so they can be profitable," Fulton said.
Big data- Fulton referred to the term "Big Data" as the collection of all of the bits of information that have been accumulated by ag technology over the past few years that often seems to be unmanageable. And to add even more information to that pile, ag technology has now arrived at a point where we are talking about a certain amount of information coming from an individual plant.
Using corn as an example, he said ag technology is now looking at each individual seed; how that seed is oriented when it's placed in the ground; how accurately can the producer control the planting depth; how accurately can the producer control each individual row unit on how it might impact that seed; and then following that seed through the growing process.
"We're not to that point today, but that's how we are thinking. Each individual seed has tremendous value to a farmer," he explained. "It used to be I am buying a bag of seed, but today we are talking about buying seed and looking at the cost of each individual seed."
And this is where Big Data comes into play. An acre of corn is capable of producing about 26 megabytes per year, when seed attributes, weather, environmental and soil conditions data are added into the situation.
Big machinery- Another factor that needs to be considered, especially in recent years, is big machinery. Fulton made reference to a 120-foot planter made by Deere that requires a large amount of technology to do the right job. From using guidance systems to plot the track of the planter, to on-board technology that allows each planter unit to place the seed exactly where it is wanted, despite the changes in terrain across the width of the planter.
"This technology is very sophisticated," he said as he showed a video of sons of a Nebraska farm family, ages 11 and 13, who were planting corn with this planter. In fact, they planted a significant amount of the crop this year and were operating the most important piece of equipment on the farm; since Fulton feels planting is the most critical operation performed in the crop year.
"That starts everything, that establishes where we will eventually end up on the yield," he said. "In the past we used to talk about a single planter being pulled through the field. But in this case we are actually talking about 48 planters on a single tool bar that we are going to operate independently."
This past winter Fulton surveyed farmers across the Midwest and South, asking just one question: what are the five biggest hurdles to data management at the farm level? By far the number one challenge in data management was automatic data transfer. In most cases that data remains on the machine and is never sent to the farm office, or other sites where the data can be analyzed and used to make future decisions.
The second most mentioned obstacle was the fact that growers need help. "They don't know where to get started and it's a culture change in some respect," he said. "Many don't see how the data is accumulated."
Thirdly, the need for software was mentioned. Surprisingly, Fulton noted, the one thing that was never mentioned by those surveyed was data privacy. "No one ever wrote back, from a farmer's perspective, and asked about who owns the data or data privacy," he said, "and I thought that was pretty interesting.
"I think what we have here is some education to understand from the farmer's perspective, that sharing data, sharing it with the right people and having ownership of that data is first and foremost."
Fulton, whose precision ag research focuses on dry and liquid applicators along with planters, also noted that if this data can be presented to a farmer in a visualized form, it will be easier to understand and address the issues that they see more easily.
"We have to have personalized solutions. We have a lot of famers out there and for them to be engaged not only do they have to trust their dealer, their consultant, their ag retailer ... but they have to feel like they are being given personalized solutions," he said. "We know neighbors don't farm similarly and so they want something that is personalized. And I think we will get through that gate and get over some of these hurdles we have."
Via Stéphane Bisaillon, Loran Sneller