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Precision Ag Innovations Series 2016: 5 Takeaways

HAVING just returned to the North Coast from a week in Des Moines that kicked off with our annual Precision Ag Innovations Series meeting and wrapped with a trip to the massive 2016 Farm Progress Show in nearby Boone, IA, my brain is literally swimming with ideas, thoughts, clever turns of phrase, etc., that I picked up from the many panel discussions and presentations, as well some good old fashioned late-night brain picking over cocktails in the hotel lobby bar.

Now somewhat firmly entrenched in my cozy little cubicle wonderland here at the office, it’s time to go backwards down the number line (it’s a Phish song, don’t ask) and think about the implication of some of the things we heard in Iowa this week.

And with that, here are 5 takeaways from the 2016 Precision Ag Innovations Series meeting:

1. Merger & Acquisition Mode is Holding Back Adoption: Oftentimes panel discussions can end up turning into a veritable celebrity roast of sorts, depending on the topic, of course. Basically, when we humans get into a large group with our professional peers we are much more likely to lament and bond over the negatives/challenges surrounding that topic than we are to heap praise upon it (stupid humans, AMIRIGHT?). And no, I don’t have any scientific studies to back that baseless assertion up, you’re just going to have to trust me here. Anyways, I couldn’t count on two hands – and I’ve been told I have rather large hands – the number of times panelists criticized the Johnny-come-lately mindset in precision agriculture data management software circles where everyone is always looking at the next big software package and a new next big software package comes around just about every other month. Southern Minnesota farmer and drone professional Todd Golly perhaps summed up the current go-kick-rocks attitude many feel when it comes to the FMIS companies: “Today we have all of these data companies, one of them sells us on their service and we put all of our data into this new system, and in two years it’s gone. They leave, and we’ve got nothing on the market that’s been stable enough to earn farmers’ trust. I’ve chosen not to do anything ‘til somebody wins.”

2. Imagery Continues to Take Flight: Time for a sports metaphor! For the last five years yield data has been the New England Patriots – almost universally fawned over, respected by all – of the precision ag industry, while imagery has been treated about as politely as my favorite team (hate to admit this) the Cleveland Browns (laughed at, ridiculed, trivialized – lots of adjectives we could go with here). However, it seems the tables may be turning a bit when it comes to using imagery for in-season management decisions. “The yield map is like a report card – once you’ve received it, unfortunately it’s too late to do anything to change it,” explained Illinois grower Steve Pitstick. “I have a feeling in-season imagery is going to be very important going forward. I haven’t figured out how to use it yet, but I feel it’s going to be very important.”

​3. Still Too Much Grower Involvement in Data Collection: Pitstick had another metaphor that stuck with me from the week. He was discussing his original reluctance to embrace text messaging fully back in the early 2000s, reasoning to himself at the time “Why the heck would I text somebody when I can just pick up the phone and call them?” Then smartphones began adding keyboards, and Pitstick estimates he now sends over 3,000 text messages per month (NOT those kind of text messages, you guys!). It seems data collection efforts are stuck in the same boat currently, with adoption hovering around the estimated 15-20% range with growers, as many like Pitstick with his text messaging holdout just won’t embrace it until it becomes easier. “Passive data collection” is the term that was used, if my notebook is correct, and, as Nebraska grower Kerry Knuth states “that’s what we want. We don’t want to have to touch the data. As a grower for us that’s everything; the more information we can gather without the farmer having to do anything, the better for everyone.”

4. I Think We’re Getting Close on Zone vs. Grid: When I first started dabbling with precision ag industry coverage back in my early CropLife days, it took me a little while to get the whole zone vs. grid thing the industry has been grappling with for the past couple decades. Monday’s meeting, however, was the first meetings that I can remember where a general, pretty much unopposed consensus emerged that zone management is the best way to go. Where Zones seem to win out over Grid is in helping growers embrace field variability, according to panelist Dustin Spears. “Farmers seem to think the goal of precision ag is to remove variability from the field, but we’ve got to take that variability and embrace it. There are some really good spots in every field, and there’s probably even better areas within those spots that we can optimize. What acres are super productive to farm and which acres are a waste, or areas where it’s not economically feasible to farm? Sometimes we need to let those acres go. As farmers we’re always trying to fix things, and we think we can fix those bad spots, too. But why keep dumping inputs into crappy areas?”

5. Will Weather Data Ever Pay? Some Say Yes, Some Say No: One panelist gave an unofficial estimate that 50-60% of final yield variability is due to extreme weather events throughout the growing season. With that statistically significant of an impact on the final bottom line, one would think weather data has the promise to really change the way growers interact with their crops throughout the season, and that person wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Here comes that V word again though, variability. In this case, weather oftentimes varies so much across even a single, say 20 acre, field – for example NOAA may report your area received 3 inches of rain overnight but one area of the field only got 1 inch while this other area got all 3 inches and it all fell within an hour. That’s a much different set of circumstances for those two areas of one field, and they should be treated as such. How can we capture that weather variability and use it to fuel management decisions? Panelist Andrew Nadler, weather data specialist, Farmers Edge, had an idea: “You could have a program where weather data is used to dictate when you look at satellite imagery, and produce a ‘change map’ that shows a grower where in-field a weather event had its greatest impact and it can be geo-referenced so that it can be ground-truthed and investigated.”

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