Survey shows gap between precision data collection and use

Precision agriculture counts on not only data collection, but also on data management as well. And while a new survey of 700 farmers across Canada shows most producers are indeed gathering agronomic data electronically, many are not yet using that data for management purposes.

The survey, which took place over three weeks in November and December, 2016, by Guelph-based Stratus Ag Research, showed about one quarter of respondents are electronically gathering yield and production-related data related to planting, irrigating, fertilizing, pest control, and harvesting.

This group – typically big farmers under 45 years old, and slightly more prevalent in Western Canada – are using software to interpret and analyze the data.

Another 36 per cent of the respondents said they too were gathering data. But that’s where their engagement with precision agriculture stops.

With this group, the data either stays on the equipment where it’s gathered, or it’s stored on some external device such as a USB or external hard drive, with no further analysis.

“There is a lot of data backed up onto hard drives that is not doing much,” says Krista MacLean, project manager with Stratus.

There’s no question farmers are driven by technology and equipment. Modern machinery is well equipped with electronic data-gathering devices.

But for some reason – perhaps the lack of good software to help producers use the data — they are not taking the next steps to input it. MacLean found farmers don’t have software, good or bad, to adequately interpret and analyze the data and use it.

She says analysts at her firm are trying to sort this phenomenon out. They think inadvertent data gathering might be at play.

“Farmers are always upgrading equipment, and we wonder if in some cases data is being gathered simply because the technology exists with new equipment to gather it,” she says. Farmers may still be catching up with the full use of the technology, which would involve information analysis.

But despite what appears to be the underuse of data gathering, MacLean says more than 80 per cent of the respondents believe the data they’re gathering is helping them make better farming decisions now, or may do so in the future.

Stratus also found a segment of producers who aren’t interested in this technology. About 40 per cent of the farmers surveyed reported gathering no electronic data whatsoever.

“Some farmers are satisfied that traditional production approaches are adequate, and aren’t convinced the return on investment is there yet,” says MacLean. “They don’t think big data will add a lot to their bottom line.”

The survey was meant to be a benchmark for determining the status of precision agriculture data use. Next, MacLean says Stratus will be asking farmers who gather the data but don’t use it, how would they like to be using it, and what’s holding them back.

Clearly, there are struggles. Less than 30 per cent said they were satisfied with the software brand they’re using or have used for data analysis.

To MacLean, that’s a challenge to software developers, and an opportunity to create a user-friendly interface for farm data interpretation. But given the current skepticism, they’ll have to show farmers the value of what they’re offering.

“There’s an education component here in reaching out to farmers and explaining how data interpretation can help them,” she says.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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