A Hard Year Highlights the Need for On-Farm Progress
August 27, 2019
In a year when nothing was typical or business as usual, I’m struck with how desperately we as farmers need more insight and support to make the best decisions as swiftly as possible. While few will be talking about a bumper crop or favorable margins for #Harvest19, there’s a lot we can learn from this year, and a few silver linings as we look to future growing seasons.
When Farming Doesn’t Go According to Plan
I learned from my dad at a young age that the best-laid plans made in the winter at the kitchen table often go out the window once the planter hits the field. Farming is inherently unpredictable, and it’s hard even in the good years. Just as essential as the farming plan is the agility and grit to get it done - especially if mother nature, manufacturers, or markets throw you a curveball.
In his more than 40 seasons farming, my dad was hard working, artful in his approach, and always seeking out new information at the elevator drinking a cup of coffee. But he never had the benefit of insight like we do today and like we will tomorrow. Our decisions to spray were often driven by information from our neighbors. We learned about seed genetics by testing them ourselves. We learned by looking at the past, not the future.
In a lot of ways we winged it - relying on past experience and intuition. Be the expert in your craft, your land, and your business and get it done. But it doesn't have to be that hard anymore. A year like 2019, oddly enough, highlights that opportunity better than most.
Mark Young, our chief technology officer & head of product, and I recently joined the “Around the Farm” podcast to talk 2019 challenges and future digital farming advancements. It’s worth a listen, if you have a few minutes.
Digital Farming Tools Can Ease the Pressure
Just the other weekend I was walking some corn fields in Missouri that were still pollinating - more than six weeks later than you’d expect. And these fields were wet and at risk for disease emergence. But when would the disease develop, and which fields had the highest risk?
Any farmer knows the drill once disease pops up. It takes time to determine the risk and if the return is worth the investment. At that point you’re already looking at yield loss, not preserving the full yield potential. Once you make the call for an aerial spray, it’s common for there to be a waiting list - sometimes taking a week or more before application. All the while your crop develops more disease and greater yield loss in the field before your eyes.
It’s a powerless and frustrating feeling - and I’m interested in making this experience obsolete. While we can’t make more time in the growing season with digital farming tools, we can help offer insights to optimize that time and maybe even tell the future a bit.
We’re testing disease risk models right now on our Climate Research Farms and with some early adopting farmers that are pretty effective at predicting disease risk roughly two weeks down the road. Just imagine how the scenario of fungicide sprays might be different if you can have a line of sight to what may happen and a cost benefit analysis of your options. It could preserve your full yield potential, not to mention eliminate one unnecessary pressure from the season.
Through our collaboration with Bayer we’ve also made significant strides in our disease identification capability for scouting. With our models running on tens of thousands of image examples, they’re getting better and more effective at using real-time smartphone camera imagery to accurately identify key plant diseases.
Setting Up for Success with Digital Tools
But the value of digital farming isn’t just in avoiding yield losses and preserving return on investment, it’s about maximizing your farming opportunity. Here, models supporting seed selection and planting density have made significant strides - and they needed to.
Plant breeding programs are improving the seed productivity at a phenomenal rate. When you get three to four years into the lifecycle of a hybrid, it’s likely already eight to 12 bushels behind the new generation coming to market.
Yet here’s the challenge for us on the farm. It’s “I don’t know this new hybrid.” “I haven’t had a chance to experience it on my operation.” “What hybrid does it relate to?” “How much do I really fertilize it or should I spray fungicide on it?” “Is the density still the same?”
Unfortunately, we're having to learn these things over and over. And that’s where this digital space becomes really special, because using all of the knowledge about an operation and pulling in years of R&D seed genetics data, we’re able to recommend the best hybrid selections specific to your individual fields through Seed Advisor from FieldView™, a pre-commercial innovation that provides hybrid recommendations and optimal seeding rate by field. While some seeds may be new to the market, we’ve seen them for years in Bayer R&D and know their genetic lineage, strengths, and weaknesses.
Gone are the days of guessing or relying on intuition only. We’ve been fine-tuning Seed Advisor with a set of farmers, our FieldView™ Innovators, for a few seasons. Their feedback and experience is telling. They see a high win rate on Seed Advisor’s recommendations, usually by six to nine extras bushels, and are eager to run it on more of their operation.
But that’s not to say on-farm testing isn’t needed anymore. Quite the opposite. With all this data and a simple digital interface at our disposal, it’s time farmers lean into that innate curiosity and get experimental.
Making On-Farm Experimentation Easier
In addition to the expanded pre-commercial test of Seed Advisor in 2019, we’re also working to make FieldView even easier for farmers to use in running their own experiments for seed, crop protection, fertility, and other variables.
Instead of spending time setting up an extension-quality experiment or relying on the limited value of benchmarking, soon FieldView will be able to do it for you. Pick what you want to test and let the tool run the parameters for planting and crop management. It’s your split-planter trial, your products, your equipment, your data - just with the addition of a digital data scientist in the form of FieldView.
Leading With Agility and Insights
Stepping back and looking broadly at where we’re taking digital farming from a science and technology standpoint, we see creating more space for real-time decisions, more data-based decisions, and decisions driven by predictive insights as the way forward.
Just like no year in farming will ever run perfectly to plan, we believe digital tools should be just as agile as every farmer in the field.
As we look to harvest, my team is planning to take this “lemon” of a year and feed it to our models. Just like people, computer models aren’t very good at predicting what they haven’t seen before. Next time planting is delayed or GDUs are limited, our tools will be even better at delivering yield-preserving insights.
If it sounds too futuristic or optimistic for you, I promise it’s neither. Many of these tools are being used today by more and more farmers around the world - we’ve expanded beyond North America to South America and Europe. And our R&D team is working hard new science and approaches for next-generation digital farming tools.
Farming is still, and always will be hard, even when we activate the full power of farming data.
Still skeptical? I’ll tell you what I tell my brothers and users new to the FieldView platform. Just start. Download the tool. Hook it up to your equipment, and get to know your data. You’ll be amazed by how quickly adopting data-driven approaches advances your operation - and delivers peace of mind.
About The Author
Sam is an eighth-generation farmer and Chief Science Officer for The Climate Corporation. He often speaks out in advocacy of farming, digital technologies and global trends. Find Sam’s latest views on Twitter.