In the past year, talk about farm data has ramped up exponentially, yet many readers have been capturing on-farm data for more than a decade. The main struggle is how to turn that information into a decision-making tool.
Noel Anderson may have the answer.
This geologist and soil scientist from Madison, Wis., consults with various organizations on land use issues. And now he’s on a mission to help farmers “pull it all together.” He’s a kind of evangelist who wants farmers to get a better handle on how to manage all the information they have available to them.
Anderson likens farm data to a human body. “In medicine we find the best success is when the doctor treats the whole patient, not just the liver or the heart,” he notes. “But that’s what we’re doing with farm data; we’re just looking at one part and trying to make a decision across the whole operation.”
He says farmers need to pull all the information into a single place so they can make decisions based on more than yield or soil type. Larger decisions are aided by better data management, too.
Anderson, whose firm Madison Information Systems and Analysis, works with a range of businesses to pull together a lot of different information, and he’s using an infrastructure anyone can download for free — Google Earth. It’s a great way to acquaint yourself with the program’s power. This is a program that goes far beyond the handy Google Maps application. Today, a lot of companies use Google Earth images as their base layer in programs.
Of course, to get the most out of the service, Google Earth Pro, which costs $400 for an annual subscription, allows you to do much more.
Working in layers
The key to Google Earth is that it presents a “base layer” of an aerial photographic image that is geo-located. You can find your farm on a map (see image above) and outline a specific field. You can then layer other information with that image.
“There are layers of information available for the farm, including soil maps, mineral deposits and other information about any location,” Anderson says. “This can be valuable information for managing the whole farm.”
And you can add your own layers. Google Earth Pro can import a variety of geographic information system e-files from your yield mapping program into field layers, where you can also house soil type layers and other information for at-a-glance views of your operation. Once installed, it’s easy to turn layers on and off, build shapes using a polygon tool where you can precisely define areas, and explore different layers of information.
A demonstration used by Anderson shows different layers and how they can be brought to bear on decision-making. The example he uses is the Crave Brothers Farm LLC in Wisconsin, where a problem was discovered, thanks to using a whole-farm view of the operation.
Crave Brothers, known for its artisanal cheeses, was expanding its business.
“They needed to drill a high-capacity well for their operation,” Anderson says. “We pulled together different information from their operation.”
The well needed to provide up to 300 gal. per minute of flow, and the aim was to drill at a site that considered the combined goals of environmental protection and adequate groundwater flow.
“We looked at different layers and found the property was near a rare-area quartzite deposit where the maximum well flow if dug in that deposit could be no more than 5 to 10 gal. per minute,” Anderson says. “We knew we had a
problem. And we wouldn’t have known that if we had just looked at soil type and some surface information.”
The bigger picture
With Google Earth layers, you can bring together topographical maps, soil type maps and other tools for decision-making.
“Farmers are great with nutrient management and getting the crop what it needs, but those nutrients are bad news when they run off or infiltrate to the groundwater,” Anderson notes. “You can know your problem areas on the farm with map layers [that] you can add to Google Earth.”
He sees this whole-farm view as having increasing value in the future. Farmers can take GIS files and import them into Google Earth Pro, where the layers can be placed. “When you do this, different patterns emerge. There are times that people look at yield maps and can’t figure out what’s going on. This approach can help solve those problems.”
As someone who consults with farms over conservation and land management issues, Anderson notes this kind of information has great value for concentrated animal feeding operations, where waste management plans are required. “It’s just another use,” he says.
Not hard to manage
Learning how to pull information into Google Earth takes a little time, but once you get the hang of it and bring all those different data files into one place, you can start evaluating fields from a wide range of accumulated knowledge. Soil maps have been around for some time and are now all digitized.
You can search out a wider range of resources by turning to Google, as well looking for KML or KMZ files to bring into your Google Earth Pro system. “There are a wide range of maps being built, including demographic maps and other information that you can bring in to analyze,” he notes.
It does mean taking more control of your data and managing those layers yourself, but having the information in one place will make working with your consulting agronomists and others more precise.
Pulling together all your data into a single dashboard where you can review farm specifics offers potential for any operation. Download the free version of Google Earth to get a sense of how layers work. It’s a solid first step in the process toward better data management for your operation.
Anderson uses an online webinar format to explain the system, and he offers that service for free. Learn more by emailing him at [email protected]. Put “Google Earth Webinar” in the subject line to be included in a future free webinar.
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