by Tom FitzGerald
The concept of data analytics within agriculture is nothing new. Farmers have been comparing the performance of livestock genetics, crop varieties, machinery efficiency for as long as these technologies have been available. What has changed however is the sheer quantity of data available (increasing) and the speed and cost of analysing it (decreasing). The changes are exciting, but there is real complexity to the application and effective management of data to drive improved decision making on the farm.
The amount of data at the disposal of farmers and their advisors is increasing at breakneck speed. For example, satellites measure crop canopies, electronic ear tags are used to trace livestock and combine harvesters produce detailed GPS yield mapping. This all feeds into the concept of ‘big data’, from which data analytics can provide insights across different sources of information, and even produce predictions and prescriptions. It is these ‘decision support systems (DSS)’ that are able to complement the decision-making capabilities of farmers. For example, a DSS could help a farmer identify the exact feed ration needing to be fed to livestock to reach specific quality criteria for sale, or identify areas of the field which need more fertiliser - and areas of the field in which rates should be cut right back. This kind of insight can save the farmer time and money, improve environmental outcomes, as well as make the farm more productive overall.
New technology in agriculture and farming
One of the advances in farm technology in the early 2000s was the adoption of desktop-based (think an application on your computer only) software for farm management and accounting. The pivot from manual, paper-based records enabled farmers to manage information about their farms in a way that wasn’t possible before: insights into farm management that were only possible through the manual aggregation of data, usually meaning insights were too late to be actionable.
However, desktop-based software requires manual updates, and pulling together datasets from multiple locations is difficult. Cloud computing software (think web-based) removes the need for manual updates and enables farmers and their advisors to collaborate in real-time. Understanding profitability has always been crucial for farmers, as the markets that farmers sell into are volatile markets and output unpredictable due to weather and other events. The farm financial management software, Figured, enables farmers to produce financial plans for the future by utilising an API link with accounting software Xero. It is this synergy that offers the farmer tangible benefits in terms of time saved and the ability to build insights on a single source of truth.
Today, the farming team works across multiple sites, using different devices. More people require access to data - whether that’s farm staff, accountants, farm consultants, advisors, agronomists and more. Farmers have more data available than they once did, having introduced a multitude of systems over the previous two decades. The interoperability and synergy of software systems are no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential.
Farm technology is big business too. According to AgFunder, farm tech investing soared to $7.9 billion in 2020, with year-on-year growth of 41%. In terms of geography, the US accounts for 83% of all farm tech investment, and California alone was 35% of the total in 2020. New technologies are popping up across the globe though, and with them comes the location-specific knowledge that helps to tailor technologies to the specific use cases of farmers.
How has data analytics in farming shaped the future?
With all of these technologies vying for the attention of the farmer, it can often be hard for farmers to know where to begin to understand technologies. Tech companies are investing heavily in supporting their users, but there are also new pioneers within the farming community offering digital services to their farmer customers, or being part of the farm business itself. Some of the large farming companies are now recruiting their own data managers that sit alongside the existing farming team of agronomists, accountants, veterinarians etc. This, therefore, begs the question of what the farm of the future looks like?
The modern farmer is already being pulled in so many directions, and the time demands on the farm manager or landowner look set to continue. Delegating responsibility for gathering and analysing data is a key way that farmers can leverage the expertise of others, which will benefit the farm business by allowing the farmer to focus on value creation and decision making. The trend for collaboration has always been a key theme in farming, with cooperatives being used in many countries. Could the farm of the future be part of a digital cooperative, where data is shared for the benefit of the participants? By analysing a bigger dataset, new insights can be gleaned from where trends wouldn’t have been possible before.
If we look to other markets that are further along the commercial and technology journey, for example, New Zealand, we see trends that can give us some indications of how the UK market may develop. Most farms are using cloud technology as a standard now, with many of them only selecting applications that can talk to each other through APIs (automated data links) as a standard. With more than 50% of NZ farms now on Xero & Figured, farmers are now realising that the sharing of benchmark data with others in a cooperative fashion is a great way to drive performance. New Zealand - an example of the future?
One of the great opportunities through the free flow of data is that other use cases emerge. For example, web-based accounting has opened up the ability of small businesses to obtain lending that is largely automated using apps such as Xero alongside IWOCA (and others). Very rapid decision making using automation enables small businesses to use the power of the market to offset the disadvantage of their size, obtaining quicker money and better rates. There is nothing now to stop farms from accessing finance outside the main banks. In the same way, farmers can ensure components of their future harvest and lock in prices, driven by world markets but with the right insights.
Another great example of future opportunities is data sharing up and down the supply chain. Companies such as Agriwebb are using their data on livestock numbers and weights to communicate to buyers on what livestock is going to arrive, enabling them to manage and understand what prices/supplies are going to do. In the same way, governments require returns of what is planted and what is expected yield to enable them to manage the market at a macro level, but much of this can be automated now using web-based agronomy tools such as Agworld, who are in turn connected to the tractor and connected to the farm financial management software in the case of Figured.
In summary, there is an exciting future ahead for farming, with strong data underpinning ever better decision making. Farmers are optimising their business in a way they have never done before, and it is good for productivity and good for the planet.
About the Author
Tom is the UK and Ireland Partner Success Manager for cloud based farm financial management software, Figured. Tom is an experienced farm consultant, agronomist and has worked in several roles in the agtech sector. Tom primarily works with Figured’s accounting and consulting partners in the UK and Ireland and supports customers in the companies other markets of New Zealand, Australia, United States and Canada.