Computers and data help farmers know what to grow
In 1978, when Bret Davis graduated from high school and became a partner in the family farm, almost no one owned a computer, farming practices were handed down from father to son, and data amounted to penciled notes on pieces of paper.
Sitting in his small office in an outbuilding behind his home, Davis slapped a stack of giant three-ring binders. They contain the test results of soil samples taken from every half acre he farms, more than 7,000 clumps of dirt.
The samples become charts, each a swirl of colors denoting levels of phosphorus, organic matter, potash, humus, PH and more. Davis overlays these charts with others showing yields to better understand why crops performed well, or didn’t.
“There are things in here we didn’t even understand 20 years ago,” Davis said. “We used to do everything by pencil and paper. You’d write it down once, and use it once. Now, I go back through 10 years of data.”
Just south of Davis’ homestead, a plot of soybeans presents an unbroken carpet of dark green leaves stretching beside and behind a knot of fat silver silos. It appears to be a picture of healthy plants. Davis knows better; the data told him so.
What looks lush and green was tinged with yellow on satellite images he views in a program on his computer. The images showed the field wasn’t absorbing sunlight efficiently. Something was wrong. That something was frogeye leaf spot, a fungus that covers soybean leaves with pin-sized red and yellow spots.
Davis treated the field, halting the fungus and preserving his crop. Without the data to spur him to act, he might have caught it too late.
The computer program, Climate Pro, is one pipe feeding a stream of information to farmers such as Davis. He scrolls through each of his 63 fields, covering 3,600 acres, to see how his corn and soybeans have fared this year. He gets new images and information every two weeks. “You can use it to understand where you may need to take a deeper look,” Davis said.
He points to a yellow patch on a corn field across the street from his home. The yellow means the corn is not as healthy as its peers in nearby rows. “I guarantee that spot ran out of nitrogen. The way he farms now is a leap from 1978. He learned the craft from his father, who learned it from his father and so on. It was all tradition and gut feelings.
Today, everything is mapped and logged and kept for reference so that he and Wade McAfee, his partner and stepson, know exactly what they did and when they did it. They know every drop of fertilizer and herbicide put down, every ear of corn or pod of soybeans pulled out.
For years, they didn’t know what they did right and what they did wrong. Looking at a field and seeing variances in yield, they prescribed fixes for hundreds of acres — even though conditions in the field can change within a few feet. “We would take the good spots and make them bad and the bad spots and make them good,” McAfee said.
Farmers have always had information and used it to some degree, but the explosion of data in the past few decades and access to computing power have started to conquer the field. Davis and McAfee have desktops, laptops, tablets and iPhones — all of it integral to their work today.