Big data informs agriculture management decisions

Technology advances are changing the way producers look at their crops and manage each acre.

In the mid-1990s, I attended a large farm show with my husband where he preceded to point out all the ways data could be collected on various aspects of the farm operation. My comment at that time was “Who do you think is going to enter all that information?” Well, agriculture technology has come a long way since then, in both quality and quantity.

Today, data is collected, shared and utilized on farms to help aid decision makers not only on a farm and field scale, but also on points within a field. Farmers and companies have invested significant time, money and effort into the collection of data to the point it is now being referred to as “big data.”

A recent article by Alan Guebert, “Big Agriculture, big data and big money,” stated that every day the world generates 2.5 quintillion bytes of electronic data. To put it into perspective, you would need 57.5 billion iPads (32-gigabyte memory) to hold just one day’s worth of data. Now that is big!

While agriculture is not generating all of that data, large amounts of data is collected in the generation of soil maps, real-time weather data, yield information and variable rate application for inputs. As we move forward, more ways of collecting, layering and utilizing data will be available. One technology that is on the horizon is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect information on crop conditions during the growing season.

With all of this information available at farmers’ fingertips, they are faced with both opportunities and challenges. Opportunities include information for fine-tuning management, enhancing production efficiency and improve agriculture’s environmental footprint. Challenges consist of data ownership, access to data, as well as how to use all of this information to make decisions.

To enter into the discussion of big data and the use of new technology in agriculture, plan to attend Michigan State University Extension’s third annual Growing Michigan Agriculture Conference which will take place Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at the Kellogg Center on the MSU campus during Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) Week.

The one-day conference is packed with timely information from MSU experts and nationally renowned speakers that will help Michigan producers maximize their farms’ potential.

The afternoon breakout session, From Data to Drones: Precision agriculture applications, trends, and use of data, will look at the application of precision agriculture technologies and the creation of “big data”. Participants will hear from Matt Erikson, economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, who will provide an overview of current and future technology applications, along with some discussion on issues surrounding ownership, access and use of individual farm level data.

Attendees will also explore the use of drones or UAVs and crop models in agriculture. Bruno Basso with MSU’s Department of Geological Sciences will highlight his research in the use of drones integrated with crop modeling to increase farmers' profitability and reduce environmental impact.

Registration information is available at The cost for the conference is $75 by Jan. 28, 2014; $85 by March 3, 2014; and $95 at the door. To find out more information or to learn how to become a sponsor, contact ANR Event Services at or 517-353-3175.

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