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What’s all this talk about “Big Data”?

By Richard Lewis

Posted by Mim Mitchell, 17th February 2015

Throughout the year there has been quite a lot of commentary around a relatively new phenomenon known as Big Data – what is it and how is it used? Big Data refers basically to the amount of information gathered by machinery involved in farming including things such as yield mapping, protein monitoring, precision ag, animal health and general information around the inputs and outputs of farming – it is also referred to as telematics. The information is gathered via GPS and mobile phone data and really nothing new to most Australian farmers, however there are plenty of people who want to get their hands on it.

Picture this: there is a header harvesting a wheat crop in southwestern Victoria with a worker operating the header. Telematics can send the farmer information on how the machine is being operated – speed, fuel burn, losses, tonnes per hectare and per hour. It can also send the owner information on the crop – yield mapping, protein and moisture levels, then this can be overlaid with planting and spraying information to garner real time profits per hectare and distinguish the performance of one paddock to another. So who wants this information besides the farmer? The machinery dealer can monitor the health and condition of the header, diagnose any faults or issues that may arise, check the operators proficiency in operating the machine through fuel burn, idle time, etc. and provide real time service to the owner of the machine without physically being in front of it. The agronomist and farmer can determine the success of seed varieties, fertiliser application through the year, and the success of various practices such as controlled traffic farming. The seed and fert company can see how their products have performed throughout the growing season, the grain buyer can work out how many tonnes and the quality of the grain available to purchase and the farm accountant can see how much money will be coming in the door in real time – as it happens.

As you can see from this very simplistic example, this Big Data can be of serious economic benefit to many suppliers if they can get their hands on it – so next question is who owns this data? The obvious answer is the farmer – but what if he hasn’t paid the extra bucks to allow the telematics to be gathered in this format? Most manufacturers will charge a fee or an extra amount to “turn on” the tools in the machinery required to gather this data, so if the farmers doesn’t want it, can it be turned on by someone else to gather the information? Moreover, who gathers the information – where does it go?  To the dealer that sold you the machine, to a cloud for everyone to access, to somewhere else? All tough questions to answer and depending on who you talk to, the answer can vary. To give you some insight on how important this is, there are already partnerships in the US and Europe between machinery companies and chemical providers and many more to come – this information may not be important to the farmer but it is sure as hell important to many others who are trying to sell their wares to that farmer.

Its all a bit fluid at the moment and no question there are plenty of farmers already utilising this information to their advantage but watch this space – we haven’t even touched the surface yet as Big Data becomes more readily available off machinery used in farming, and companies will pay handsomely to get their hands on it.