By Any Measure: How Small Improvements Lead to Big Gains in Efficiency
The data is clear: paying attention to metrics improves performance. When we track our fitness and nutrition, we acquire small insights that lead to corresponding changes in our behavior, and we end up feeling better. When we live by a budget, we save more money. And when we meticulously track farm inputs like fertilizer and pesticide, we end up using less.
As agriculture has become more digital, what used to be measured in acres, bushels, gallons, and tons is now quantified on a considerably smaller scale—even down to individual raindrops. As a result, the conclusions we can draw from those detailed measurements have become more accurate and useful, helping farmers save money and reduce their environmental impact. Farmers have always accumulated knowledge by interacting with their fields, but today they are using data to deepen that understanding.
Let’s take a look at some of the many ways that these tiny, incremental measurements are making massive positive impacts on farms around the world to help farmers cultivate their crops more efficiently.
One of the most important tenets of precision practices in agriculture is empowering farmers by providing data that helps them paint a clearer picture of the many intricacies affecting what happens in their field(s). Though farmers know their fields intimately, there are limitations to that knowledge. For example, while a farmer can manually measure nutrient levels in the soil, they simply can’t monitor every plant or square meter of soil throughout their fields. To bridge that gap, modern agriculture has developed a wide breadth of tools such as Climate FieldView™, which is a program that enables farmers to gather and analyze their farm's data in a central digital app. Tools like these and others are allowing farmers to see their fields in entirely new ways in order to harness the possibilities of the finite details beyond normal human perception, including microscopic nutrient exchanges.
Monitoring on a microscopic scale
Although we currently can’t ask plants what they need or how they’re doing, plant scientists have devised various ways for us to listen to what they tell us. Perhaps the most prominent example is in-field sensors, which are extremely sensitive data collection devices interspersed throughout a farmer’s field. Capturing precise measurements of nitrogen, phosphorus, water and other organic matter beneath the soil’s surface, these in-field sensors will let farmers see into the earth in order to keep it—and the crops—healthy
Eyes in the sky
We often think of farming as a very rooted practice with boots on the ground and hands in the dirt. Though that’s entirely true, farmers are also now able to enhance that perspective using satellite imagery, which gives them a detailed bird’s eye view of how their crops are growing. Similarly, many farmers are using drones equipped with spectral imaging technology that overlay different visual wavelengths in order to increase the amount of insight they can glean from the sky.
Acting on intelligence
Once farmers can measure what’s going on in the field, they can then make more informed decisions about how to manage their operations. Though scientists are continually discovering new possibilities to gather and crunch data, farmers are currently putting these measurements to good use.
Through personalized algorithms specific to each farm, various crop analytics platforms constantly reconcile countless data points from the field. The conclusions drawn from this data then generate recommendations for the most efficient management decisions to consider throughout the growing season. For example, these tools can outline the areas of the field a farmer needs to focus on, whether it’s addressing pest pressure or cutting back on the fertilizer.
Smart machines doing manual labor
Farmers also have access to smart machinery that operates in accordance with those intricate in-field measurements. Even seemingly mundane pieces of equipment such as sprayer systems have been re-imagined to put collected data to good use. As they scan through a farmer’s fields, these new nozzles specifically use insights from in-field sensors to hone in on plants that need additional support. With an unprecedented level of accuracy, these detailed applications ensure that farmers don’t waste resources on plants that don’t need them, helping to conserve water, nutrients and other applications. In fact, farmers have been found to save anywhere from $13—$25 (€11.5—€22.1) per acre each season just using GPS and precision applicator technology alone. As engineers begin to explore potentials for precision technology with devices like aerial drones in agriculture, farmers can also look forward to conserving even more time, energy and other resources.
Sowing seed: the scientific method
Many of these digital management platforms use data from in-field sensors and ecological readings to offer tailored recommendations based on the unique metrics captured within each field. The level of detail in these recommendations can be astounding, with some platforms working to help farmers optimize a crop’s potential by specifying how much space to put in between plants or how deep to plant each seed down to fractions of an inch to optimize a crop’s performance based on the unique environmental factors. It may sound small and inconsequential, but when you consider that farmers typically plant 75,000—225,000 seeds per acre for crops like soybeans, you can begin to imagine the large-scale impact of conserving resources, reducing cost and increasing harvest potential.
Measuring up to a prosperous future
As scientists have developed the means to measure the more intricate details throughout the plant growth cycle, farmers have been able to apply that knowledge creating better agricultural practices to harness the unique opportunities within their individual operations. But it’s not just the farmers who benefit from more efficient farming; these technologies that provide incremental agricultural insights enable us to reduce our impact on the environment. Looking to the future, farmers will continue to find ways to take the guesswork out of the equation. With insight to guide us, we can cultivate our crops more efficiently, protecting our resources so both people and our planet can thrive.