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This resource can help farmers navigate data management

Some smart people and smart computers are outpacing the information and technology that most farmers use.Farmers need to catch up.In a recent survey conducted by University of Minnesota Extension, about 50 percent of farmers had access to GPS and various map making tools.Of that 50 percent with GPS maps, most did not fully use precision ag principles. There were also mistakes being made – including quality control in data collection and interpreting data.If studying and using farm data feels like trying to get a drink from a water hydrant – just too much – it’s time to get some schooling.At the University of Minnesota, two Extension educators have worked on this subject for several years, and have now developed a website and workshop where farmers can learn more about using precision data.Crop specialists Brad Carlson and Ryan Miller have developed an educational program on precision ag literacy. Sensibly, it’s called “Unlocking the Potential of Precision Ag Technology.” More information is available at z.umn.edu/precisionag.“This is the direction that agriculture is headed,” said Carlson. “In 10 years, these precision ag technologies – data collection and the ability to be prescriptive – we probably won’t consider this precision ag, it will just be the way we farm.”They are offering workshops across the region on making wise data management choices, as well as helping farmers use their technology correctly.Their talk covers items like correctly calibrating yield monitors and combine hopper flow sensors for accuracy.“Farmers have technology at their disposal,” said Carlson. “They already have paid for this stuff, and now they are not getting anything particularly useful out of it.“Once the investment is made, it’s a pretty big mistake to not take advantage of the things that you’ve already paid for.”Big data managementManaging farm data has become big business in recent years.Carlson suggests the current “big data management company” scenario is similar to the 1990s’ heyday of dot-com companies.There are dozens of companies that want to manage farm data.“We’re starting to see a business model of what resembles a franchise consulting business,” said Carlson. “We’re seeing national companies that offer packages through local individuals.”With the early adaptation stage completed, many farmers who join data management programs would be considered mid-adapters.“Farmers don’t want to be left out as being the last to adopt,” he said. “The bottom line is this is the direction the industry is going in.“With most major trends, farmers need to either adapt or get off. That’s been the history of all business.”Here are some things that Carlson and Miller suggest for farmers who are considering big data management.• Use critical thinking when evaluating a company. While it’s difficult to know everything about a company, see if you can dig around on the Internet enough to find where they are based.“Can someone nationally understand local conditions to make hybrid recommendations?” said Carlson. “Do they know the nuances of managing fertilizer based on the soil type and the climate?”• Make sure you have an understanding of what is being offered as a service, as well as what you want from a service.“That’s going to be based on what you see as your biggest challenges – is it hybrid selection? Is it making pest management decisions? Is it fertilizer decisions? Are you wanting to conduct on-farm research? Do you want to see if using fungicide paid for itself? There are all sorts of directions that you can go, and it’s all up to the individual,” he said.• This time, read the fine print. Farmers need to make sure they keep ownership of their own data when they sign up for data management.“As long as you are keeping copies of all of your raw data files, and all the reports you are receiving, then you should have access to data should the company disappear,” he said.• Check to see if the company belongs to the Open Ag Data Alliance. Businesses that belong to the Open Ag Data Alliance subscribe to the policy that the farmer owns their own data and information.“Farmers do need to make sure they retain ownership as well as back up copies of all their data,” Carlson said.• Look at the price and level of service. Practice comparison-shopping.“Do you need all the bells and whistles or do you need someone to help you with processing files because you can look at those maps and make the decisions yourself? There are different levels of service that everyone is going to want,” he said.• There is still a place for written or computerized notes. If you’re subscribing to a service that offers multiple years of weather data, you also need anecdotal notes for reference.“When you are comparing multiple years of yield data, it has to be viewed through the lens of what was different about this year from the last,” he said. “Those types of notes are going to be essential for interpretation.”• Maintain a level of curiosity and creative thinking toward farm management.“What kinds of decisions are at your disposal to improve profitability? Keep in mind the object here is to maximize your profits,” Carlson said. “Precision ag allows you to be prescriptive with inputs. In a lot of cases, being most profitable also means reducing input costs, not just simply maximizing yield.”

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