This is the first of a two-part look at putting data to work. In this installment we explore more details of how data can be used, and how that may change the way you manage on the farm. And check out Part 2.
The rising love of big data in all industries is sweeping through agriculture, too, but not everyone knows how this trend will evolve or manifest itself on the farm. However, conversations with a number of industry innovators show opportunity for farmers to have a better handle on costs and income in new ways for the future — think real-time management.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling that we would run our operation looking at information two or three weeks after a rain event, for example,” says Roric Paulman, Paulman Farms, Sutherland, Neb. “We’re looking at information all in arrears.”
He explains that he took on My John Deere technology and got good as-applied maps and better recordkeeping, and then dumped information into spreadsheets. “Then along comes these kinds of digital software pieces: one to capture harvest, one to plug in tankmixes on the phone, so we’re always searching for an opportunity to manage better,” Paulman says. “We wanted a real-time balance sheet instead of a once-a-month budget to actuals.”
The goal? Find a way to evaluate cost per bushel or cost per hundredweight in real time.
He saw that opportunity with Granular, a comprehensive information management startup that provides farmers a way to capture information and report it in real time to manage the farm. Granular is one of several such startups that have gone into business in agriculture during the past five years, many supported by third-party venture capital firms that see the potential of farming as a business.
“I saw in Granular an opportunity to do this and get real-time information,” Paulman says. “To put this in perspective, we estimate what we want to do, we project through prescriptions and good planning, but are we really performing at that level?”
Paulman has found it is possible to replace many of the spreadsheets he had been using to track tasks, inventory and work on the farm through the Granular service. “They don’t have all of the features we need yet, but they’re building toward that,” he says.
A changing mindset
Talking with Paulman is like talking with a corporate CEO. He farms with his son, Zach, and a longtime lead employee, Tony, to run the operation. But he also speaks in phrases heard more often in boardrooms than in machine sheds, with terms like “inventory,” “receivables” and other language bandied about. This business-focused approach is critical for your success with new tools like Granular and others.
The key is to find a company you can work with given your management style. “This is like a marriage,” says Adam Litle, vice president, customer success, Granular. “It’s important to do due diligence on both sides so the farmer isn’t wasting his time, and we’re providing value.”
Yet the idea of a system that can help enhance management at this level is new. “We’re creating a category; it’s a new category in the world of agriculture, and we’re not talking just about farming in the U.S. It’s a global category,” says Pat Christie, CEO, Conservis.
He explains that farming is a risk-based business, and where do people turn for advice and input? The key is that farmers need to be willing to adopt “data systems that can drive outcomes,” he says.
The opportunity for these new services is producing an understanding of the value the systems provide, so farmers actually see a true return on their investment. “The best customers that will pay for something are those that are fatigued trying to do it manually,” Christie says. “They’ve been trying to do it with spread-sheets, with Dropbox, and this and that, and they’re saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way’; and when we show up and say, ‘We can automate 90% of what you’ve been trying to do and give you those results in real time’ … they see the value.”
The right mindset
The challenge for farmers is reaching that point. Not every farm is run with that managerial mindset, which is not a “slam dunk” to many farms. Instead, it’s a developmental stage for the farm: a position more mature businesses enter as they grow with added employees and services that need real-time management.
Christie offers some added insight: “If you automate today what people are already trying to do, and then incorporate all the advances in technology, that’s the right path to be on … my opinion.”
Christie’s firm, a competitor to Granular, offers an enterprise ag management platform that allows farmers — using connected smartphones and desktops — to manage the farm in real time as well. He notes, however, that this kind of management requires a solid business focus.
Litle, however, isn’t far off the idea that this business mindset is important. He notes that after doing the due diligence, his firm has been known to say, “You’re not quite ready for this service. Sometimes they need to change their processes.”
However, for farms that are ready to move with these systems, the benefits can be tangible pretty quickly, especially for those that are managing their businesses through a stack of spreadsheets right now. Excel is a great tool for providing you a snapshot of the business, but input of key real-time information isn’t easy — how many acres did you spray on Tuesday? At what rate was that product put down, and was that the rate you budgeted for last fall?
Critical questions are being asked by growers, especially in a year when margins will most likely be negative. Capturing potential income and preserving capital is important.
The smartphone is an important tool for many data services. Even machine operators can produce valuable information through their smartphone by logging start and stop times for specific tasks. When did that sprayer start running? When did it stop? How many pounds were applied? Once that “work order” is complete, the system has a real-time view of the information. And you can check your work.
“By using the mobile phone and the computer to communicate work orders, you can have a higher accuracy for what you’re doing in the field,” says Litle. “It’s not just about the data, but running your farm in a more efficient way day to day.”
In the next installment, we'll look at the process of putting data to work and how that's possible in a multi-employee operation. And we'll offer a Big Data resource guide for you to check out too.