Tools & data

Background

The more (free) data, the better

Combining data from tractors with GPS signals gives you access to a wealth of free data – data that you can place alongside other information such as soil scans and satellite images. This functionality is available for new and existing tractors. Because: the more data you have, the more effective and reliable they are.

Data is collected nowadays from practically everything, and “big data” is the latest buzzword, so coined because enormous quantities of data (information) are involved. Large multinationals are avid users of such a practice. Data not only yield knowledge, insight and power, but also hard cash, and even farmers or agricultural contractors can earn money from it!

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During each tillage job the tractor collects valuable data for free, like fuel consumption and required power. In particular tillage, sowing and planting provides useful information. - Photo: Peter Roek
During each tillage job the tractor collects valuable data for free, like fuel consumption and required power. In particular tillage, sowing and planting provides useful information. - Photo: Peter Roek

Making use of big data

The agricultural sector is already gathering and making use of big data. Data collection is also increasingly an accepted phenomenon that happens automatically, as more of us embrace automation and 24/7 connectivity.

The GPS system, the autopilot, machines and implements are, in fact, recording what they are doing and where at any given time for every square centimetre. (Tractor) manufacturers are also recognising the importance of this, and are assisting users to access and analyse this data using cloud environments and online software applications.

As a farmer, you will often pay for wireless communication and for the storage, analysis and processing of your own data, and that is increasingly giving rise to resistance from farmers across the world.

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The agricultural sector is already gathering and making use of big data. Data collection is also increasingly an accepted phenomenon that happens automatically, as more of us embrace automation and 24/7 connectivity.  - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet
The agricultural sector is already gathering and making use of big data. Data collection is also increasingly an accepted phenomenon that happens automatically, as more of us embrace automation and 24/7 connectivity. - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet

Cloud environments

Some state-of-the-art tractors and other vehicles are already constantly connected, and send their data to manufacturers’ cloud environments. This can be useful for the purposes of service, preventative maintenance, and track & trace, but, in spite of privacy legislation, questions are being raised as to what is happening to all of that data.

Data are no longer considered ‘nice to have’, but rather ‘need to have’

This is one of the reasons why initiatives and solutions are being developed across the world to take control of data collection, management and valorisation. Not only are those tasks becoming easier all the time, but they are being carried out in a more focused and more targeted way. Data are no longer considered ‘nice to have’, but rather ‘need to have’.

Dataset more accurate every time

Dutch arable farmer Chris van de Lindeloof first became interested in collecting tractor data in 2015. “I heard a professor explaining the (future) value of big data, and the extent to which it is already being drawn from the CAN bus in trucks. It got me thinking, so together with my tractor dealer I began looking for a solution for our tractors.”
Chris connected his GPS to the AFS terminal of his Case IH tractor to enable the NMEA signal to be linked to the tractor data. Since then, a vast amount of data is being recorded site specific, alongside GPS data such as height and position. “We collect 8 types, and the most interesting are fuel economy and height when working the soil. Fuel efficiency relates directly to the structure and condition of the soil. This is of particular interest to us because our fields have widely varied soil types.”
Chris sees clear correspondence between satellite images and the soil data based on fuel economy during ploughing and power harrowing. “You can easily distinguish the tramlines, and for several seasons now, I have successfully used it to make application maps for variable rate application of herbicides, drilling wheat, and spreading fertilisers. I know that you can collect even more data from soil scanners, such as the pH, but the data I collect is free of charge. Plus, because I collect data every time I cultivate, it doesn’t produce a mere snapshot with a single plot map. This increases the reliability of my data set each time.”

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Chris van de Lindeloof, arable farmer in Hoeven (NL): "Because I collect data every time I cultivate, it doesn’t produce a mere snapshot with a single plot map. This increases the reliability of my data set each time.” - Photo: Peter Roek
Chris van de Lindeloof, arable farmer in Hoeven (NL): "Because I collect data every time I cultivate, it doesn’t produce a mere snapshot with a single plot map. This increases the reliability of my data set each time.” - Photo: Peter Roek

Tractor data: free and for nothing

The more data you have, the more reliable the information generally is, and this is certainly the case if you work in precision agriculture and you are gathering or you need site and time specific information. This often starts with yield mapping in order to understand what yields (and income) your harvests bring in and where your soil yield potential is not being utilised sufficiently.

Dutch arable farmer and large scale contractor Daniël Cerfontaine considers yield measurement itself to provide the most important data of them all: “The yield is the culmination of your work, it’s how you make a living as an arable farmer.”

Every additional data layer adds value, whether it concerns field and crop information, weather and precipitation data, or information from data collected from using machines, implements and sensors. More and more farmers and contractors realise that their tractors also collect valuable, and more importantly free data every time they use them. Linking GPS coordinates to these data provides site specific information as well, and it is proving ever easier to do this.

Establishing correlations of crucial importance

Dutch arable farmer and contractor Daniël Cerfontaine regards yield measurement as the most important data set when it comes to site specific data collection. “The yield is the culmination of your work, it’s how you make a living as an arable farmer. Any other site specific field and crop data as well as vehicle data are also useful, certainly if you can simply collect that data continuously and automatically ‘for free’.“
For his contracting business, however, he wants to obtain more detailed information regarding fuel consumption, effective hours and productivity. As an arable farmer, he hopes to be able to establish a relationship between the required traction (for tillage) and the soil structure.
“I would like to have as much data available as possible in order to make objective decisions. I don’t feel that’s possible yet. We decide too often based on a gut feeling. The trick is to capture that gut feeling in tangible and validated figures. Data are currently too unreliable, and insufficient to base my decisions on. There is too little that I can do with all the data we collect.”
However, Daniël sees possibilities for making judgements regarding variation in soil structure based on traction measurements. If there’s little or no correlation, one could refrain from carrying out (costly) soil scans. “The more data you have, the better, but establishing correlations and relationships is of crucial importance, and that really is a job for data analysts. Let them analyse the data, and let agronomists then interpret the information. That will enable us arable farmers to decide whether or not to carry out a crop related intervention.”

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Daniël Cerfontaine, contractor and arable farmer Berg en Terblijt (NL): "The more data you have, the better, but establishing correlations and relationships is of crucial importance, and that really is a job for data analysts." - Photo: Peter Roek
Daniël Cerfontaine, contractor and arable farmer Berg en Terblijt (NL): "The more data you have, the better, but establishing correlations and relationships is of crucial importance, and that really is a job for data analysts." - Photo: Peter Roek

Cable or box

Increasing numbers of state-of-the-art tractor models have their GPS system, vehicle electronics (CAN bus/Isobus) and electronics to manage/operate machines and implements integrated. Vehicle, field and implement data are then collected by a single terminal that processes and stores all the data.

If the GPS system or autopilot system is not connected to the terminal in your tractor (vehicle), you cannot simply link the tractor data to GPS coordinates and store them that way. This is possible, however, if you connect them using an NMEA cable, and this may vary by brand of GPS and tractor. This cable will allow you to supply the terminal with GPS coordinates relatively cheapily and easily. It can also be used to record vehicle data such as fuel consumption, the required engine and PTO power, lifting capacity and traction, and travel speed site specific.

Free data

These are free data that are collected during (cultivation) work in whatever manner, and that provides a great deal of information about the condition and structure of your soil. What is more, they provide information to supplement soil scans, yield maps and satellite images. The more data you have, the more effective and reliable they are, making it easier for you to establish relations, draw conclusions, exclude aspects, and make decisions.

Data is transported either by USB stick or, as is increasingly the case, wirelessly via 4G, Bluetooth or Wi-fi. There are various initiatives and solutions in this field across the world, such as ISOconnect and 365Farmnet in Europe and ISOBlue and Climate FieldView in the USA, along with numerous national initiatives.

Worthwhile mentioning are also 2 brand-independent Dutch initiatives: Agrobox from FARM24, and an ISOBlue derivative from Trekkerdata.nl.

“I certainly don’t need expensive soil scans”

Arable farmer Derk Gesink and a number of his Dutch colleagues want to gain more from the tractor data they are collecting every time they cultivate. “Not through the manufacturer or the software provider, and not through a monthly or annual subscription – just getting the data yourself (practically) for free and without that data being stored somewhere far away and processed in a cloud environment. I wanted something independent of any brand, where I can determine myself what happens to the data.”
He discovered the ISOBlue box developed by Purdue University in the USA. “It contains standard, inexpensive modules plus a modem with a SIM card. You can connect it to the diagnostics connector in any tractor. From that point, it uses 4G to continuously send all data wirelessly that the tractor puts on the CAN bus, including GPS coordinates. If we can’t decipher the codes on the CAN bus, we use reverse engineering. For example, we operate the tractor hitch, and look at what data flow it creates on the CAN bus.”
Gesink also hopes to link the data to yield measurements, but his highest hopes are for the data generated by soil tillage. “Plough resistance for instance is a measure for the type of soil . I certainly don’t need any expensive soil scans for that. A useful additional feature is that the ISOBlue box can act as a hotspot to set up a local Wi-Fi network, which you could use for your tablet with farm management software on it. Or you could use it to remotely monitor what is going on on the CAN bus.”

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Derk Gesink, arable farmer Mensingeweer (NL): "I wanted something independent of any brand, where I can determine myself what happens to the data.” - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet
Derk Gesink, arable farmer Mensingeweer (NL): "I wanted something independent of any brand, where I can determine myself what happens to the data.” - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet

Transparancy

The transparency that European tractor manufacturers are required to provide regarding data on a tractor’s CAN bus/Isobus (within the scope of releasing what is known as Repair and Maintenance Information or RMI) assists with the ability to interprete and (wirelessly) send that data.

Great deal of potential

Agrobox and ISOBlue are both compact boxes that draw data from the CAN bus/Isobus via the tractor’s diagnostics connector, and then continuously send them wirelessly to a cloud environment using 4G. The users who share their experiences in this article see a great deal of potential in the collection and management of as much data as possible, although, external influences such as shifting gears up or down when ploughing, for example, can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to validating that data.

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Tractor data gathered during for example ploughing, provide a good indication of the soil conditions. - Photo: Lex Salverda
Tractor data gathered during for example ploughing, provide a good indication of the soil conditions. - Photo: Lex Salverda

Freeing tractor data

There are a range of initiatives under way to collect tractor data and transmit it wirelessly. Such as the Dutch initiatives Agrobox from FARM24 and an ISOBlue derivative from Trekkerdata.nl. Purdue University in the USA developed this ISOBlue box for the North American market. Technical experts from FarmHack, Trekkerdata.nl and Purdue adapted it to enable it to ‘understand’ European tractors.
The slogan on the website www.isoblue.org reads ‘Freeing Ag Machinery Data’, and that is also essentially what it is: ‘freeing’ tractor and machine data from the CAN bus/Isobus to render them independent of any brand and making them available for use by the farmer free of charge.
The Agrobox works in a similar way. Both boxes use 4G to continuously send the data that has been recorded. The data from the Agrobox becomes available on MyFarm24. Recently, a number of Dutch arable farmers and contractors have started testing these solutions. Contractors regard it mainly as a means of being accountable to customers (as well as the Government) with regard to fuel consumption, use of fertilisers and crop protection chemicals, and the impact on soil and the environment.

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