Should you dive into data? Part two in a series

Should you dive into data? Part two in a series

Tech companies mine input costs and prices to help farmers make informed business decisions.

In part one of this series we shared how data companies are changing agriculture. Another good example is Farmers Business Network, a 2-year-old company that compiles and organizes vast amounts of data on seeds, fertilizers and chemicals, so that farmers can make informed decisions when buying.

A key segment of this firm, which is backed by funds from the technology sector, is its Seed Finder system. Farmers can search actual yields on over 1,900 hybrid seeds and then compare how they performed based on population, planting speed, planting dates, soil type, nitrogen use, irrigation, weather and more.

Clay Smith can retrieve FBN’s seed information on his smartphone. (Photo: John Borge)

The database was built with input from farmers, who anonymously supplied yields, when the crop was planted and harvested, the amount and type of inputs used, and planting and harvest information. That information is then compared with that from other farmers who used the same seeds and farmed the same soil types.

“It takes all of the precision data that a farm generates, organizes it, integrates it and then analyzes that farm along with thousands of others. FBN analytics automatically identifies top-yielding seeds for each field’s soil types, [and] does in-field analysis on population, soil types, seed profitability, field cost and field profitability,” says Charles Baron, FBN’s vice president and co-founder. “We can even look at how different soil nutrients and nitrogen application affected yields on each seed. You will get a much clearer picture of what it will cost to get your yield target.”

Farmers can compare their yield and per unit cost results with those of other farmers in the system. If the yields trail those in the peer group, the search can be refined with a few keystrokes to check weather, soil composition, planting rate, fertilizer use and other factors that may have affected yields.

FBN launched its input procurement service to help members negotiate and purchase farm chemicals by leveraging the power of the thousands of farmers in FBN. Farmers can use FBN’s Procurement system to buy chemicals online.

“By negotiating directly with manufacturers and passing the savings onto our members, we’ve been able to cut members’ chemical bills by as much as 40%,” says Baron.

FBN Price Transparency also provides actual market prices for chemicals to farmers, which they can use to negotiate purchases with local suppliers for hundreds of products, even if they are not covered by FBN Procurement.

“Prices should be transparent, and everyone should have access to great prices” says Baron. “It’s a fundamental new way for farmers to make their business more competitive.”

Weather where you need it

Another newcomer is ClearAg by Iteris, which extends its long history of weather and soil expertise used in roadway management and applies it to farming.

Through this web system, farmers can access weather and soil information specific to their fields to gauge proper times during the season for their field crop activities. The information can be coupled with other data systems or to ones the farmer may already be using to get a clear read on crop and field conditions.

“ClearAg helps farmers make decisions, based on conditions of crop, soil and weather, that they need to make when they are planting, spraying or harvesting,” says Jeff Keiser, ClearAg vice president.  

For example, Keiser says they take a farmer’s information on timing of planting and the location of the field, and can forecast the crop’s growth rate. It also can warn of disease.

A bank for data

To address farmers’ concerns about the security and control of data collected from their farm, the Agricultural Data Coalition (ADC) in July initiated a pilot Data Bank program.

A group of growers, service providers and university researchers are participating in a testing phase of this program and will provide feedback before it is offered to the farming community.

“We have been working hand in hand with technology experts and farm leaders to ensure that the product will be secure, user-friendly and address the primary pains of data management and sharing,” Matt Bechdol, ADC’s interim director, said in a statement. “While this is certainly only a first step, our next steps will be dictated by the farmer leadership on our advisory board, the pilot users and our diverse group of founding members.”

Bechdol says the Data Bank repository is like a bank, except farmers will deposit, or upload, data to a secure cloud, where they can organize, manage and share it.

“Farmers want to make decisions, not manage data, and the process today remains messy, though it is improving,” Bechdol says. “Technology is an enabler for farmers who already have a lot on their plate and want to make the best business and stewardship decisions they can, and that takes information.”

Want to learn how ag data can help you make better decisions on the farm? Join us for The Ag Data Conference, Nov. 29-30, at the Coralville Marriott and Conference Center, Coralville, Iowa. Don’t miss this chance to hear from farmer-users as well as industry leaders. Find solutions at The Ag Data Conference.

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