The challenge of increasingly efficient agriculture has introduced a wave of technological innovations competing for the spotlight. Precision agriculture is rising to capture farm data with the promise of benefiting global food production and environmental security. The resulting deluge of raw data constitutes both challenge and opportunity for smart farming. The dilemma farmers face was studied by researchers at North Carolina State University.

Make data make sense

More than 90 percent of consumer – and farm – data captured is location-based. From one’s latest Amazon purchase to a morning trip to work, it’s all tracked on the grid. Similarly precision-agriculture technologies net recurring flushes of spatial data. But the raw numerical product is cumbersome and often irrelevant to many growers. The farmer’s focus remains agronomic – for economic productivity. Farm technology must be more than a shiny object; it must contribute.

From sensors embedded in farm machinery to constellations of satellites taking pictures, data are flowing everywhere. It’s estimated that by 2025 an average-sized farm will produce more than 1 million data points each day. Integrating technology on farms requires melding data streams with basic agronomics to improve on-ground management. Distilling silos of data into meaningful kernels may prove tougher than scavenging the data itself.

Yield monitors accrue data. Combine-mounted systems record grain throughput based on global-positioning-system field location. Farmers can see in real time the varying harvest rate of a crop during each pass. Later they or their consultants can visually map the data to assess the season’s gross production.

Yield maps layered with environmental data can help isolate site-specific anomalies hindering crop yield. The maps can help identify areas for farmers to scout. Other data sets such as field elevation and drainage, soil texture and seeding rate help expose relationships between field conditions and yield.

“It’s important to put numbers behind our assumptions, not just rely on our gut or a qualitative assessment,” said Rob Austin, a geographic-information-system research and a North Carolina State University-Extension specialist. “Being able to identify, characterize and quantify the effects of environmental factors impacting yield is both the challenge and opportunity in more-efficient land management.”

But current technology generates raw data akin to unplanted seed – untapped potential requiring action to deliver the goods. While widely used on vast Midwestern grain farms, yield monitors are less common on North Carolina’s smaller fractured fields. Yield monitors may seem a technological layup for large-scale grain farmers but studies show technologies are not "one size fits all."

Austin and Deanna Osmond with North Carolina State University-Extension analyzed yield-monitor data to assess the agronomic value of nitrogen rates on corn and wheat. The five-year on-farm study involved 100 coastal-plain growers. The researchers compared a grower's current nitrogen use with a 25 percent increase and a 25 percent decrease for any change in yield. The study provided growers an opportunity to evaluate yield-monitor technology on their own land.

Statistical results confirmed current North Carolina State University-Extension recommendations for corn and wheat nitrogen-application rates. Wheat growers generally proved accurate in their nitrogen use for optimum yield. Study results did indicate some cases where corn farmers could reduce nitrogen fertilization with no statistically significant yield loss. But those results didn’t always trigger a change in farmers’ actions – numbers alone weren’t convincing. The project’s takeaway message was the logistical challenge of accurately capturing and analyzing farm-sourced data.

“The time required to calibrate equipment and clean resulting data was significant,” Osmond said. “But it was necessary. Just collecting data isn’t enough – it can be misleading. You need a sound background in research and analysis. Gathering meaningful results comes down to data quality.”

The push for growers to adopt technology leaves many caught between a promising investment and an expensive numerical fog. Farmers can benefit from data when presented with actionable information but most haven’t the time to analyze the barrage of detail.

Developers are working to assimilate the multitude of data platforms – ‘teaching’ them to render useful dashboards. But a polished dashboard doesn’t invoke change. Osmond and Austin’s study showed that human decisions do.

Forthcoming protocols and algorithms will help farmers distill big data into actionable events. But the technology’s current reporting – without agronomic interpretation – isn’t meaningful to most growers. An interpreter is needed to translate data into confident action. So who is equipped to fill the void? Researchers, Extension professionals, and crop consultants are logical sources for the job.

“One of Extension’s roles is to help identify the technologies and tools that have the greatest benefit and potential for use on the farm,” Austin said. “We’ll absorb the risk to prove a technology, then share what works with growers.

“Technology alone isn’t the superhero. The technology provides us about 80 percent of a solution, but the remaining 20 percent comes from data analytics and interpretation. That crucial 20 percent depends on a solid foundation in agronomic decision-making and data science.”

Sign up for our Weekly Ag newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Jennifer Howard is a communications specialist in the crop and soil sciences department at North Carolina State University.