Big data on the farm: Too much, too soon?
Big data is ready for the farm. But is the farm ready for big data?
Agriculture is the least digitized major industry in the United States, according to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute.
Farmers sometimes struggle to see the benefits of new technologies. Some have been burned by investments that they feel did not deliver, making them reluctant to commit and invest again, according to Alltech chief innovation officer Aidan Connolly.
In Connolly’s view, however, agriculture, with its inefficiencies, offers greater opportunity for improvement than any other industry.
And there is recent evidence that the sector is now racing to catch up at a supercharged pace, spurring innovation that is virtually transforming farming.
However, as drones, sensors, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, smartphones and high-speed mobile internet gather and analyze data, growers and producers are struggling to manage the resulting deluge of information.
Eighty-four percent of U.S. farmers who responded to a recent Stratus Ag Research (SAR) survey said they have high-tech equipment that captures reams of data from livestock, planting, harvesting or crop protection operations. Yet only 42 percent of them are actually transferring this information to a field data management software program for further analysis.
Connolly has observed that technological solutions are sometimes over-engineered, capturing a lot of information that the purchaser doesn’t see as beneficial. He suggests that these technology companies would benefit by narrowing the focuses and applications of their innovations.
“Entrepreneurs are throwing out a lot of information and analysis and hoping some of it will stick, most of which doesn’t, and indeed it ends up distracting from the real value that they provide,” he said
Establishing that value creates an enormous frontier of opportunity.
For technological entrepreneurs like KEENAN, the Irish feed mixer manufacturer and Alltech acquisition, those circumstances invited a response: expansion into farm data analysis.
“We've been involved with the internet of things (IoT) since about 2011,” said Conan Condon, director of KEENAN’s InTouch. “At that stage, there wasn't much connectivity. There were about 12 million connected devices. Today, there are about 6.4 billion connected devices. So you can see the growth that has happened within six years.”
Today, more than 2,000 livestock operations, ranging in size from tens to thousands of cows, use the InTouch system, a live review and support service that helps producers apply actionable intelligence to their operations, giving them the benefit of KEENAN’s access to data on more than 1.3 million monitored cows.
Data-gathering technology represents a profound departure from “the way it’s always been done.” John Fargher is a fifth-generation Australian livestock producer and the co-founder of AgriWebb, a late-stage startup producing farm and livestock management software.
“I identified the problem on our own family farm, which is a simple one: farmers and ranchers running their business off pencil and paper,” he said. “We can now track all the inputs and all the outputs across that business and then facilitate data-driven decisions.”
Who sees my farm’s data?
2016 saw investments in data-driven agriculture fall 39 percent from 2015, according to the SAR report.
“It plateaued for one reason: the inability of everybody to share data,” said Condon.
“We're very open to sharing data,” he continued. “Always have been and always will be. Too many people are holding onto what they think is their farm data, and the farmer is not benefitting from the sum of all data.”
Some farmers express concerns about the security of their information. How might companies and government officials exploit and profit from their data? Who gets to access it? Who owns it? Does having data somewhere in the cloud leave it vulnerable to attacks and misuse?
All these questions remain largely unanswered, even as the technology pushes ever forward. Yet Connolly believes it is essential that data clients “are willing to trade this level of privacy in return for gaining greater value from what they are using.”
“Certainly, individual farm data is first in importance, especially to make proper variable-rate decisions and to build data on individual fields,” said SAR survey project manager Krista Maclean. “Better long-term decisions, however, may come from incorporating aggregated data into the decision mix.”
Farmers responding to the SAR survey consider data specific to their farm more useful than aggregated data. But, as application of the technology evolves, observers are seeing room for both.
Aggregated data can predict weather, report the condition of soils and crops, and alert to the presence of pests on a sub-regional basis.
“However, if the data is to be truly actionable and valuable, we need to drill down to the farm level,” said Connolly. “There is no reason to dumb down our offering by trying to make it into something that is not specific to the decisions being taken on an acre-by-acre or even an inch-by-inch basis.”
He suggests machine vision technology as an example. The monitoring and analysis of cattle and pig behaviors, especially in large-scale operations, is challenging, but vital. Pig and cattle behavior can provide information about the barn environment, food and water adequacy, health, welfare and production efficiency. Imaging-based inspection and analysis can offer an automated, non-contact, non-stress and cost-effective option.
“It appears to be capable of generating a benefit of up to $300 per cow,” Connolly said. “It is inconceivable that a producer would not consider using this technology if they are competing with a neighbor who has a $300 benefit over them on a per cow basis.”
Grape growers and winemakers are also gravitating to high-tech solutions, contracting with firms like the drone-based SkySquirrel of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to keep watch over their grapes using a unique disease detection technology.
“Grapevines infected with disease produce lower quality wines and can cost a winery up to $40,000 per hectare in lost profits,” said Emily Ennett, marketing and business development manager of SkySquirrel. “Our disease detection is 100 times more efficient and significantly more accurate and cost-effective than scouts on the ground.”
SkySquirrel also provides triple-calibrated “Vine Vigour” zone maps for fertilizer applications and to improve the aromatics of wines, drive homogeneity and optimize harvest segmentation.
Big data, from seed to salad
A key driver of farming’s embrace of digital technology is the depth of transparency enabled by data collection and analysis.
Increasingly, Connolly said, consumers — millennials, in particular — are demanding this traceability in their food, such as: where and how it was produced; its environmental footprint; and its benefits with respect to the welfare of animals and farm workers.
“With that in mind, I believe that these technologies allow farmers to connect directly with the end user in a manner that can only be good for both sides, giving the consumers more confidence in the food chain and hopefully allowing producers/farmers to capture more of that value for themselves,” said Connolly.
With the arrival on the farm of big data, the work of the 21st century grower or producer is rapidly being fine-tuned like never before. Out with the guesswork and the questions left open to interpretation, in with unassailable hard facts, an entirely new degree of precision and a sense of reassurance that only a decade ago might have been dismissed as wishful thinking.
"I see a lot of changes in our area of expertise, IoT; the ability to use the cell phone network to transfer data back to the farmer’s phone so he can act on making informed decisions,” said Emmet Savage, co-founder of Moocall, a calving sensor that signals a farmer’s smart device when a cow is going into labor.
“There’s so much happening,” he continued. “It’s all about data. It’s all about recurring revenue. And it’s all about making the farmers’ lives easy.”