High and Tech versus Down and Dirty; Big Data and UAVs meet Boots on the Ground

11 Feb 2015, Posted by Miles Williamson in Archived

My 360 teammates and I have the good fortune of working in a very fast changing, exciting, and rewarding industry – called Agriculture!  Farms are growing exponentially in size as is the equipment required to do the work.   This has created a vacuum of sorts in our Western Canadian small towns including sparsely populated recreation centres, and closures of schools and elevators.  (But that’s a story for another day).  My question is, by growing too fast, are we missing out on what got us here in the first place?

If you’ve gotten to know me over the years, or read my bio on the website you’ll know by now that I’m a sports fan/nerd of 40 plus years and am therefore obliged to tie some obscure sports quote to my real life in agriculture, so here we go:  “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence” Vince Lombardi.

I’m reminded of that quote for the simple reason that my mind is swimming with information gleaned from not one, but three outstanding conferences I’ve had the privilege of attending in the last 6 months – Info Ag in St. Louis, and more recently the Crop Production show in Saskatoon, and Ag Days in Brandon, where the theme’s/hot buttons of the conferences were all the same: Big Data, and UAVs.  Don’t get me wrong, both have the POTENTIAL to be game changers on the farm, but I think we need to take a breath (call a time out) and ask, AS A FARMER, HOW IS THIS GOING TO MAKE ME MONEY?  So let’s get to work, by starting with a plan.  Let’s decide which technology to use, and what we want to use it for.

Our team currently works with very detailed 5m satellite imagery, but in summer 2014 we had the good fortune of being able to expand our horizons (pun intended) with a third party UAV service provider that enabled us to assist a customer with a spray drift complaint by assessing his drift damage with NDVI  imagery.  This allowed us to get the image flown, processed, and back to the customer in a timely fashion and allow him to document the area and severity of the damage in SUPPORT OF the information that one of our 360 team had already done on the ground – IE digital pictures, mapping the damaged area with GPS, and assessing the damage and lost yield visually.  We look forward to working with Ag Sky Technologies more in 2015 focusing on how we can help our customers enhance their knowledge of their fields, be it getting a good NIR/NDVI image in a “challenged,” cloud cover area, or something as simple as taking a digital shot of a large canola field trying to assess Bertha Army worm hot spots.  Air support for the 360 army?  Ok, that’s too much.

Data; yes we have it, but again let’s make a plan.  What do we have, what do we want to collect, what are we going to do with it, and how are we going to learn from it to make the farm money?  As applied data, spray application information, yield maps, field notes, there’s a mountain of it out there – but how useful is it?  If we’re collecting yield data, we need to make sure that the calibration is on, not only in each combine but BETWEEN combines; ensure that our air seeder is recording on the correct delays and increments; ensure that we don’t have any GPS lag or offset issues.  If the little things are missed, the data collected is worthless.  I’ve sat through some outstanding presentations on VR seeding over the years, but one comment really hit home this summer, “The last thing you want to do is incorporate VRA seeding and have it be uncalibrated and not end up with the proper stand.”    That speaks volumes about doing the importance of those little things.  So you have a yield monitor, you want to compare results on different parts of the field – outstanding.  Let’s document those areas all summer, assess them visually, keep that field clean, time our fungicide applications (as close to) perfectly as we can, calibrate our combines and generate a solid yield map.  And by the way, that data is yours don’t give it away.  Keep a copy of the raw data, and let’s sit down next winter and analyze it over coffee, that’s what we do.

So let’s chase perfection,  in our fields,  by using our exciting new technology to capture intricate little details of each field – but let’s not forget those little things  – good, sound agronomics, and proper calibration, and who knows maybe we’ll catch excellence like Lombardi’s Packers.