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Digitizing the farm

Digitization got its start with a focus on the agronomic side, but now you’re going to hear more promises of business benefits

Digitizing the farm

Farms that go digital may find a myriad of wins that go way beyond just better agronomic and production planning. All that information can help at the bank too. It can also lead to better business decisions, and it can even help develop new partnership or succession agreements.

Of course the agronomic decisions may be the ones farmers will use to project their cost-benefit analysis. After all, that’s how the technology is being sold, and digitizing does allow for integrating multiple layers of production information so farmers can be on top of crop emergence, plant health, disease, pest or weed issues, and crop maturity.

These visualized layers of data can assist with all kinds of field decisions from timing of chemical or fertilizer applications as well as swathing or harvesting, or it can be used to evaluate new existing or new inputs, crop hybrids and management practices.

And, of course, field decisions at bottom are actually business decisions too.

“The old adage is that farmers know their land like the back of their hand, but digitizing puts it onto a platform where they can look at many different layers of agronomy and break down every single one,” says Todd Woodhouse, an agronomist with Bayer CropScience. “They can make comparisons and measure the return on investment of every decision they make on the farm. They could put numbers on a spreadsheet, but to visualize it and have those numbers at the same time is much more impactful and conclusive.”

John Tjeerdsma. photo: Supplied

That’s the major reason that John Tjeerdsma, who farms in southern Ontario’s Simcoe County, decided to try the digital platform Climate FieldView (from Bayer CropScience) this year. “I want to make the most money off each acre because I am small, and I don’t have economies of scale, so being able to get real data and analyze that in different ways is what I was looking for,” Tjeerdsma says. “I can layer on our seed populations, fertilizer programs and inputs, and see the results on the yield maps and have that all in one place.”

Tjeerdsma says it will also help him manage the variety of soil types from heavy clay to light soil that he has across his 300-acre farm.

Better conversations at the bank

The digitized farm can also provide visualized financial information that can be broken down field by field, crop by crop, and enterprise by enterprise, so a farm owner or manager can have better informed conversations with their accountant or lenders. Those advisors in turn can see the data, so they’re more confident in their clients’ decisions and in their ability to hit their plans, with ultimate benefits to the financial health of the operation.

“The higher value of putting your farm into a digital system is so you can look at it through a spatial lens,” says Devin Dubois, CEO of FieldAlytics, a digitalized, farm management platform. “There are a thousand different responses to the information you see. There’s still a role for agronomists to look at that kind of information and make a recommendation, but there’s also a role for your financial advisor to look at it and talk about cash flow, or how to save money. As an example, you might suggest reducing inputs, and that’s an economic decision, but how does the accountant know that’s the right thing to do because it also sounds like a poor agronomic decision?”

When a farm looks at its position from just overall margins on the farm or crop type, it’s hard to know what they need to manage on a more micro level, says Dubois. “An accounting answer is going to be different than an agronomic answer,” he says. “Having a digitized, analytical platform means a farmer can have all of his or her professional team, whether it’s an agronomic advisor or a financial advisor, look at the same information and respond to the same issue from different angles.”

Helping to transition or expand the farm

Over time, going digital promises to help a farm build up a historical picture of the operation that can then help with expansion or transition planning.

“I don’t know if we fully understand the value of this information going forward, but I’ve had the question, I’ve been farming for 25 or 30 years, and if I decide I’m going to retire and my farm is for sale, is there more value to my farm if I sell it with 30 years of this data?” asks Marvin Talsma, product manager for Climate FieldView, which is a subsidiary of Bayer CropScience. “I don’t know if we know that yet. I think we’re still young and early in this age of getting to that point.”

But when a farm wants to expand, digital information can be a huge asset in figuring out whether it’s a good or a bad decision.

“If a farm is going to the bank to look at purchasing another parcel of land, and it has this information, it can show how that farm’s decisions are made,” says Talsma. “We don’t provide some of that profit analysis within our platform, but we do have partnerships with other providers that provide that level. Then they can do different levels of profit analysis by farm, or down to the acre.”

Because a lot of digital information is publicly available, it’s even possible to scout out the performance of a particular piece of land ahead of time.

“When farmers are considering a piece of land to buy or rent, they can map from ahead of time and actually see if it’s productive, whether it has run into problems, and make decisions from there,” says Woodhouse.

Family farms transitioning to the next generation have never before had such an opportunity to build up a comprehensive historical record of their farm. Not only can they work out the value of the various parts of the farm more accurately, but the information can also help the next generation secure financing.

“Long-term, growing crops is a quest for continuous improvement, and history can repeat itself if you don’t know the history,” says Woodhouse. “I don’t know any farmer who has a history of every farm they have ever had, and if they are transferring it, usually the person who takes over carries it through their knowledge, expanding on maybe what their parents told them. But if they can have all that digital information, and be able to go back over the history to see what worked and didn’t, where they had to take a few steps back, and see what they had to do in a particular situation, it’s just going to make the next generation that much more successful.”

Risk management

Accurate and detailed tracking of everything through a digital platform makes for a better transparency, which is increasingly important to ensure food safety, security and consumer confidence.

Farmers can even turn parts of their farm into a research site. With the ability to measure and record responses to their own on-farm trials, they can experiment with different crops, hybrids and inputs on different fields, and under various conditions or situations to fine-tune their efficiency and wring the most yield out of every acre.

“If you take the time to set up and put in different hybrids and fertilizer blends that you’re using, you don’t need to put flags in the ground anymore because we can reference it with a digital system,” says Talsma. “If farmers make a mistake, like forgetting to turn on the fertilizer on their drill or planter, they will have a strip or two in the field where they’re not putting fertilizer down with the seed. To me, it’s not a mistake. It becomes a trial as long as we can map and measure it. That’s what systems like FieldView are all about, it’s being able to map, measure and act on what you’ve learned.”

Tjeersdma likes to do trials on his farm, and says another reason he likes the FieldView platform is because it’s intuitive and connects everything through cloud technology, so he spends less time having to manually program in data from different sources as he had to in the past. This year, when he suspected that he might have some N deficiency problems in his crops, he was able to identify the issue by applying more N in a small area and tracking the response through satellite imagery.

“In that trial area, I could see on the satellite images throughout the season that it went from a red, orange area that’s not looking too good to green, which was healthy and doing well,” he says. “It picked it up right away and so I knew that what I was doing there was making a difference.”

The other big advantage is being able to get more eyes seeing what they are seeing. “It goes back to the interactions that farmers have,” says Talsma. “Because they have so many partners that they’re working with, they have more eyes on it and that’s a huge advantage to learning from what they’re doing.”

How do you digitize the farm?

There are likely lots of other uses for the digitized farm that nobody has even thought of yet. So what’s involved in getting a farm into a digital platform?

Maybe not as much as many farmers think, and it may be an ideal project for wintertime when they have all their annual data in and a bit more time to learn and play around with a new system.

The very first step in digitizing the farm, regardless of what platform a farmer is using, is to map its boundaries. That’s generally a simple process of searching for the farm location through satellite maps that are pre-loaded into the system (similar to searching Google Earth) and then drawing digital boundaries.

In FieldView this is done by simply clicking on the corners of a polygon feature that appears once the farm or field has been created and named in the software, and tracing the outline of that field or farm property. Once the field is mapped, within a day or two the system will populate the farm map with historical satellite imagery going back three years such as vegetation, topography and soil data.

There is a lot a farmer can do with this initial information before he or she begins to add additional data like yields, seeding and fertilizer maps collected on the farm itself.

“If I am starting today, I’m going to start with my yield and my soil,” Talsma says. “Those are the two places where, as we start to gather information and data, we can have a significant impact going forward.”

Most digital systems will provide Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) maps that basically show how much biomass is in different areas of the field.

“That NDVI image has a high correlation to yield. So, even if you don’t have yield information, you can use that imagery to see areas of the fields that are higher- or lower-yielding,” says Talsma. “You can go out and soil test in a more strategic way based on the zones that can be identified, then create a fertilizer plan based on what you get back from the soil test. That imagery is not going to tell you what you need to put on, but it can help identify zones that have higher or lower nutrient levels, or areas with higher or lower organic matter that you can explore.”

Then the farmer can begin to load in their own farm’s data. If they have monitors in their seeding or planting tractors, or their sprayers or combines, they are already collecting historical data that can then be manually transferred into a digital farm management platform.

“With Climate FieldView we have an intuitive website that when they put their USB stick into their computer, it compresses the files and brings the data in, then sorts it into planting, seeding, application or harvest data,” says Talsma. “It helps the farmer to bring that historical information in.”

It’s now also possible for that data to be uploaded live in real time as the farm operator seeds, sprays, fertilizes, combines or does any other field operation, and they don’t need to have the latest, most expensive equipment.

If they are using FieldView they can purchase a device called a FieldView Drive that will plug into any piece of equipment from 2005 and connects via Bluetooth or iPad in the equipment which automatically collects and uploads the data as it collects it into FieldView.

“Through the winter months, farmers could set this up, put in the varieties or hybrids they plan on growing and an app collects data as they seed in the spring while the tractor is travelling across the field. The same thing goes for the sprayer or combine; all the data is being collected live,” says Talsma.

What’s the cost?

Talsma says that an annual subscription to FieldView, for example, is $149 and there’s also an upfront cost of around $500 to $750 for a decent iPad to collect live data. The cost to adapt equipment with the FieldView Drive to collect live data and export it automatically to FieldView is around $329.

“Depending on your size of operation, how many seeders or planters you may have in the field, you’re looking at about $1,000 per piece of equipment that you want to collect data in for an initial upfront cost,” says Talsma, who adds the farmer also gets as much support as they need from the Climate FieldView activation team to get them up and running.

Once it’s set up there isn’t much more to do on an annual basis, except updating boundaries if they change, or information about new varieties or hybrids for the upcoming season.

Talsma says the best advice for someone starting out on the digital path is, don’t be afraid of the technology but take it in small bites.

“Don’t do it on your own. There are a lot of experienced farmers out there to rely on and get their feedback, and people that work for FieldView, or whatever you’re looking at in this digital space, will help you get started and answer your questions,” says Talsma.

Tjeerdsma says he found it straightforward to set up his system and he liked the interface with the iPad because it’s something his 71-year-old dad, who he farms with, will be able to use as well. “My dad uses his iPad every day,” he says. “Once I get him onto the system, it will be easy for him to pick it up, which was another reason for using it.”

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Angela Lovell

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