Data is key to a successful farm

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farm data

Sitting on the sidelines sounds safe.

Some farmers choose that tactic when it comes to technology. They watch and wait until the pros – and cons – become abundantly clear. What’s wrong with a little caution?

Plenty, according to Matt Bechdol, president of GeoSilos, an Auburn strategic planning, analysis and communications firm. 

Bechdol illustrated his point with three names well-known to football fans: Sean Payton, Wade Phillips and Charlie Weis. Each of the coaches has been seriously injured while standing on the sidelines during a game.

Bechdol, who emphasized that you don’t have to be in the game to get hurt, spoke last week to about 25 people on the last day of the Fort Wayne Farm Show. The annual, three-day event has attracted as many as 40,000 visitors to Memorial Coliseum, where 1,100 exhibitors promoted their products and services this year.

“Every decision we make is about managing those (profit) margins so we can continue to farm if we want,” he said, adding that not leveraging the power of data is also a decision.

Although some farmers feel intimidated by the idea of dealing with data, they’ve always done it.

“It’s just all been in your head,” Bechdol said of statistics that include rainfall amounts, drainage problem areas, amount of seed sown per acre and more.

Not only does new technology make that information more accessible to more people, but it also offers a financial opportunity if managed right, Bechdol said.

But more than half – 65 percent – of growers aren’t using data to their advantage, he said, citing study results.

The statistic contrasts with the industry’s aggressive attitude toward the latest and greatest.

Fred Cline, the trade show’s organizer, said farmers are traditionally among the first to adopt new technology.

GPS technology was in tractors years before it was installed in smartphones, and self-steering tractors have been available for several years, he said.

Drones are used on numerous farms to survey far-flung fields. Face-recognition technology now available has become so sophisticated that farmers can use drones to scan herds of cattle to find the location of a particular animal, Cline said during a late-December phone interview.

Mike Bechdol, the speaker’s father, was among the crowd on Thursday. After his son’s presentation, the utility company retiree talked about technology in his former industry.

In the early 1990s, the electric utility, which he declined to name, started using a graphical information systems – or GIS – program to gather data on utility poles, transformers and more.

“It took us a long time to figure out how to use the data,” he said, adding they eventually used the information to answer questions posed by state regulators.

Matt Bechdol, the agriculture technology specialist, said, “Big data really is about turning data into dollars.”

Being able to gather environmental management and other information quickly in response to government officials’ questions cuts costs, which helps the bottom line, he said during the 60-minute presentation.

Another reason to gather data is to prove to demanding consumers that crops and livestock were treated within certain strict guidelines, he said.

“If we don’t get comfortable with it real quick, you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines and getting drilled like Wade Phillips,” he said, referring back to one of the injured coaches.

“We are all in this game,” he added, “so you’d better have a game plan.”

Not everyone in the audience was swayed by Bechdol’s pep talk.

Tom Lugibihl, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat near Lima, Ohio, uses “very little technology” in his operation.

“I know my thousand acres inside and out. I know where my wet spots are,” he said.

Producers with 4,000 acres, for example, would need computer programs to gather and retain the same knowledge, Lugibihl acknowledged.

But the Ohio farmer just can’t make the expected benefits exceed – or even equal – the cost of investment.

“To the smaller farmer,” he said, “it doesn’t pencil out.

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