What if I don’t have the right data?

How to manage – and prevent – crop data gaps

So you forgot to charge the iPad. Or perhaps the power switch never drew your attention. 

Maybe you’re stuck with older, computer-free equipment.

Either way, you’re at the end of the field and the data you could have otherwise used (or hoped to gather) isn’t available. 

What do you do? Can you still make decisions based on more than personal experience and guesswork? 

Data service providers think so, given a little creativity. 

Why it matters: Farmers get frustrated when data from technology isn’t providing them with a return on investment.

Data gaps occur most commonly during harvest thanks to operators not turning on, calibrating, or logging into yield monitoring systems, says Robert Sample, data management technician with GPS Ontario.

Lagging or lost GPS connections also commonly contribute to information gaps between rows. 

Gaps of this nature, however, are largely a non-concern.

Software systems such as Trimble, a product marketed by Sample’s company, use what he describes as “pretty powerful algorithms” that can extrapolate what data does exist to cover blank spots, both in terms of yield and within the field. 

The ability to develop high-resolution, multi-layer soil maps (fertility, soil pH and type) is another aid. 

“We might not have the full data, but we’ll know that zone should be performing similar to other sections…We’re starting to see correlations between different zones,” says Sample. 

Creating layers manually

Whether growers are missing select data points, or have little to no data to begin with, basic record keeping and manually inputting information into management systems can go a long way. 

According to Jenna Metzger, climate business operations manager with Climate FieldView Canada, those using systems like FieldView can make corrections via built-in fixing tools. If the wrong hybrid was entered at planting, for example, a correction could be made after the fact.

When generating data layers in the field on-the-fly is not possible, manually creating layers is also an option.

Doing so won’t catch everything (seed populations will show as a single number rather than what left the drill during planting) but Metzger says it’s an effective starting place for growers without the equipment to capture information in real-time. 

Satellite imagery can also be useful. In her experience, she says it can be a good yield indicator (particularly from July) when viewed in conjunction with bulk bushel numbers. 

Metzger also encourages growers to not underestimate the value of historical data. Whether on paper or a USB, combining it in a digital management platform can bring insights. 

“Quality of data in is the quality of data out,” says Metzger, who also emphasized the value of good record keeping. 

“There’s more than one way to get your data.”

Better benchmarking

For Collin Phillip, general manager of Granular Canada, sometimes data gaps stem from too much information, or not knowing what data is truly useful. 

The first questions operators need to ask themselves, says Phillip, is what data they have, and what specific problem they’re trying to solve.

After that, it’s a matter of determining what data sets will accomplish the identified goal.

Layering multiple data sets can offer insights, as can a variety of other management strategies. However, the development of benchmarking tools from aggregated farm data could have an even greater impact. 

Tools like those employed by Google, to show when patrons most often frequent businesses, offer an example of how aggregated information builds on itself to generate specific insights. Digital farming platforms, he says, could do the same. 

As more farmers use more digital platforms, it will be possible to develop larger pictures from which farmers can benchmark based on their own unique circumstances. 

“It would give you the real story. These tools can take that narrative and clean it up. It becomes crowd-powered,” says Phillip.

Granular is exploring these ideas by asking operators what kinds of benchmarking data sets would be of greatest value. 

Phillip also believes the effectiveness of digital benchmarking tools, and digital tools more generally, are particularly suited to smaller operations that might otherwise struggle to compete with those running larger acreages, more equipment, and greater human resources. 

“You need technology to offset that,” he says. 

“Digital tools are kind of the secret weapon for small acres. What is the cost of not making use of the data you have?”

Data best management practices

Electronics don’t live forever, and they’re far from foolproof. To prevent data gaps from data loss, Robert Sample, data management technician with GPS Ontario, recommends employing several proactive storage practices.

Look at the volatility of the storage medium
Hard drives are only rated for four years. USB drives are rated between 10 and 15 years. Just updating data does not guarantee it will be there decades later. That means the storage medium should itself be periodically replaced. 

Store data in more than one place
Keeping backup storage media adds another layer of security. This can take the form of additional hard drives, or a cloud-based platform — the latter being accessible as long as the internet exists. 

Consider auto-sync when possible
If a cloud-based storage system is being used, auto-sync (a common feature on newer monitors) can ensure data is periodically updated while in the field. If something happens, only a portion of that day’s data will be lost. 

Develop good habits with older systems
Many older systems do not have auto-sync and will stop logging data or encounter data corruption issues once storage capacity has been reached. This can be prevented by establishing regular times to pull and save data elsewhere, whether daily, weekly, or at some other interval. 

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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