Tools & data

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Manage farm data successfully in these 6 steps

A comment I hear regularly from my customers across the world is: “My data is in the wrong place, I can’t make any sense of it, help, what do I do next?” Another is: “I only start my computer up a couple of times a year and I’ve forgotten how to work the software.”

And while data is interesting and terrifying in equal measure, getting your data management organised will reduce the pain and increase the accuracy of business decisions that can be aided by the information. Here are 6 steps to help you manage data.

Importance of good data management

The dynamics of data management are changing by the week. This can add an unnecessary strain on the precision farming operation as farmers try to keep a handle on what to do and when while managing the rest of their business.

The harsh realities of different systems, different operators and the requirements on data from different parts of the business, lead to it being mismanaged and disappearing into the “too hard box” or “I’ll come back to that tomorrow”, but tomorrow never arrives and the situation just gets worse and worse.

The agricultural industry is at the start of the data revolution, which will have huge implications for the performance and profitability of the operation. Therefore, the demands on the farm, farm manager and agriculture are huge, but there is one thing in common with all operations in all countries at the moment, which is holding the majority back – good data management.

Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

One of the issues farmers are facing is the sheer number companies encouraging farmers to use “their” system and farmers having a problem understanding which system to use. This leads to confusion and farmers gaining the ability to use many software systems, badly, and puts them in a very difficult position.

My approach is to look at the digital farm/physical farm relationship. The term “management tree” is often used to describe the list of clients, farms, fields on the digital farm and if you get this part of your precision farming business organised accurately, then any data collection or management after that becomes much easier.

What data and where?

Depending on who the farmer takes advice from, the priorities will be different.

The agronomist wants to create variable rate maps quickly and easily, the combine operator wants to record yield data quickly and easily, the drill operator wants to select the AB line quickly and easily to save time and then possibly share it with other vehicles in the field.

So the demands on Farm Information Management Systems (Fims) is huge. What is clear is the grower, farm and field structure should be the same regardless of the use.

The agronomist should be using the same field names as the drill or spray operator, for example, and getting this part right will ensure data management becomes more accurate and relevant for the farm manager.

Drones are just another source of data a farmer has access to and there is nothing special about the method of collection. As long the data is relevant and can easily be brought in to the farming system and converted into an application map, for example, then they can be useful.

What field mapping resolution?

“I can collect data down to 5cm resolution,” I hear farmers say with great excitement. “So how are you going to apply that information?” I ask. The puzzled expression comes across the famer’s face. “I don’t know, but it’s great having the information and I’m sure I will be able to in the future,” they reply.

That’s all very well and good, but what do you want to do now? What’s the resolution of your application equipment? Do you have section control and to what accuracy? That has to be the determining point of resolution.

In the old days, fields were created by fencing in areas of similar soil types or other characteristics. Over the years fences and hedges have been removed to create bigger fields for larger equipment. Soil type zones haven’t changed, so we are putting digital fence lines back in to replace the ones that have been removed.

Photo credit: Nolan Berg Alamy

Photo credit: Nolan Berg Alamy

If we are able to split our fields in to three or four manageable zones, we are much more likely be able to manage the application equipment and the agronomy associated with it.

If, over time, application equipment resolution improves then zones can become smaller, but in broadscale agriculture, have we got to the point where we can yet from a commercial perspective?

Trusting your data

If we have not set up our equipment correctly, then we are going to be inaccurate with everything we do. How often should the yield monitor be calibrated? How often should I calibrate my fertiliser spreader and or sprayer?

We have to be sure when we’re collecting or applying or information we have trust in what we are doing. A great deal of time has gone in to developing systems, only to fall at the final hurdle with incorrect calibrations.

Good data can be applied poorly. If the basic machine set up procedure hasn’t been followed correctly the data can be rendered meaningless.

Making data exchange less complicated

Why can’t my tractor talk to my combine and the sprayer and why can’t I transfer my AB lines across all my monitors regardless of colour? It’s a question that frustrates farmers more than any other.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, sharing data outside implement brands is very difficult unless you use a Fims.

But that brings us back to the original challenge: is there one system that works for machine management, agronomy management, weather management, water management?

Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

There isn’t one perfect system otherwise everyone would be using it, so choose your systems carefully. Consider what the most important requirements are for your business and what the software support is like for a particular system.

A Fims will help you manage your data, but be sure to get the basics right. Get the management tree set up correctly, so whether it is the agronomist or operator who wants the collect, create or apply the data, it will be done accurately.

Top 4 data-handling tips

  • Choose data handling systems carefully
  • Ensure your agronomist, drill and spray operators are using the same field names
  • No point striving for a few more cm resolution, it is down to application width
  • Ensure fertiliser spreaders and sprayers are calibrated

Whether the data is being transferred manually via a USB stick or via the cloud, the basic rules still apply, digital farm and physical farm should be the same. Any exchange of data after that will work and work well, but if it isn’t set up correctly then problems will start.

Whose data is it anyway?

It is the farmers’ data. It doesn’t belong to the agronomist, the agrochemical company, the machinery dealer or the machinery manufacturer.

The data has been collected on the farmer’s land and has been paid for by the farmer, so why do other companies think they have the right to use it in any other way?

If, however, a farmer decides to give away or sell the data, then it’s out there for anyone to use. It’s the surreptitious collection and use of data farmers have a real concern with.