The volume of farm data available to producers has grown significantly and is increasingly coming to the fore in farming, but is it changing agriculture as we know it?
Data and technology is rapidly becoming unavoidable for farmers and with some suggesting data is the ‘new crop’, harvesting it is becoming increasingly common for many farm businesses.
The volume and range of data types generated by farms and their supply chains is vast and is generated at farm, service provider, processing and packaging, as well as retail level.
Generating insights and value from this data can translate into business gains, but only when information is applied in practical situations and decision-making on farms.
Forbes Elworthy is a New Zealand farmer who is passionate about the intelligent use of data.
He founded Map of Ag in 2012, an international company which can integrate a wide range of farm-related data.
The company works with farm service providers such as vets, agronomists and processors, to join up data inputs which would not otherwise ‘talk to each other’ around the networks of farms they serve.
The idea being to integrate data from multiple, dissimilar sources such as that from milk buyers, abattoirs, British Cattle Movement Service, farm accounts and animal performance systems into common frameworks.
He says: “For our industry, data is a means to an end. It is not valuable until it is made relevant to the optimisation of the farm.
“These type of ‘big data’ approaches are able to solve many on-farm data challenges, but for it to work the data needs to be transformed into usable formats and analyses such as dashboards or apps available on smart phones.
Mr Elworthy adds that Map of Ag does not seek to ‘be the hero’ in these relationships, but rather to work with farms’ trusted advisers to give them the tools to better provide their services and support more efficient, profitable and sustainable farm businesses.
So when an app is released, it is not a Map of Ag app but instead is branded with the business or partnership cooperative that commissions Map of Ag to help upgrade their services to a farm.
“This approach can enable farms to make comparisons on production, profitability and sustainability and means trends can be produced which can be benchmarked on an individual basis or with similar farms.
“Given that few farmers chose their profession to look at screens all day, our view is that the tools Map of Ag supports should be used to automate data flows by using artificial intelligence to organise information from various sources such as PDFs, online, invoices and specialist farm software packages into a ‘data lake’ of tidy data which is ready for analysis.”
Data capture is increasingly becoming digitalised but uptake for farms is a gradual process and confidence in using the outcomes they highlight takes time to build, says Mr Elworthy.
“One beef systems project we are working on is indicating reductions of greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of beef by 40 per cent.”
Andy Venables is a fourth generation tenanted dairy farmer from Cheshire. Farming alongside his family, he runs a 300-head herd selling to Muller on a Co-op contract.
He believes there is huge value to be had for farmers and the wider agricultural industry from sharing data.
He says: “The value farmers get from their data is not necessarily the data itself, but the insight it can provide if it is well organised and enriched.
“This is the ‘value add’ for farmers when sharing their data. The better insights they gain will help them to make informed decisions and improve their profitability from farming.
“If this can be used by wider agricultural professionals and organisations too, the potential to add value spans from farm to industry level which could be mutually beneficial all parts of the supply chain.”
With a keen interest in data utilisation and having spent time off the farm working in this field, Mr Venables had been searching for ways to make more of the data the farm had available and began using Map of Ag software after meeting Mr Elworthy in summer 2016.
“When I returned to the family business, we were investing in technology like cow collars with ID tags to measure milk yields and heat monitoring but we only had an office PC that talked to the parlour, no wifi and a lot of paper work.
“We had no shortage of data, but so much in different formats [paper, email, apps] and nothing talked to each other.
“To get any insight, all this had to be worked into programmes like excel to gain any value from which is not appealing or a priority for most farmers.”
He is currently working on a dairy project with Map of Ag and says this has taken away the complexity of multiple data sources by hosting it all on one platform and means he can monitor how the business is performing daily whether he is on or off farm.
One of the graphs he highlights is a comparison between daily milk production and a quarterly forecast, data which helped the business to react quickly to last year’s dry summer.
“In June and July 2018 our daily production was on the way to below our forecasted production and meant we were in-line to incur deductions on our milk cheque.
“Having the data readily available meant we could react with buffer feeding and get back on track to within forecast deviation and incurred no penalty.”