Compared to some farmers, Mark Johnson and his son Jeremy are rookies at field-mapping, having only been at it for about four years. But they are learning quickly.
The first couple of years, they mainly collected harvest data on their corn and soybeans near Clear Lake, Iowa. More recently, they layered hybrid and variety maps over their yield maps.
"[When planting] we'll switch hybrids halfway through a field," Mark Johnson says. "It's nice when you go to a field to harvest and it [their Ag Leader Technology INTEGRA monitor] tells you when you're switching to the next hybrid ... It gives you good comparisons so you can immediately grasp what's going on in the field."
This year, the Johnsons plan also to collect data on the type and amount of starter fertilizer that goes onto areas of the field. They will do the same with insecticides. After harvest, they will be able to draw some conclusions about what worked and what didn't work.
The Johnsons are typical of farmers these days, having gradually added more levels of sophistication to the amount of data they collect. They are also getting more sophisticated about how they use that data to improve yields and/or cut inputs.
When farmers first started making GPS maps in the mid- to late-1990s, they started with yield maps, says Ag Leader's Michael Vos, software sales manager. "They were report cards for folks on what happened in the field. They told what [yield] they got but didn't tell them why they got it. Through the years, that begged the question: 'Why did I get half the yield in this part of the field?'"
Now farmers are finding ways -- including new software -- to answer that and other production and bottom-line questions.
"Over the past few years, we have seen growers look more and more at historic data from their fields," says Tyler Hogrefe, John Deere senior technical product manager. "Precision ag is getting to the point that many growers have been doing it for 10 years or more."
One of the big changes he sees is the ability of growers to overlay input and soil data on top of yield maps. Deere's APEX software is one of the products that gives farmers that capability.
So is Ag Leader's SMS software. Vos says his customers can use it to conduct "kind of a detective's investigation" into which "maps are the clues," he adds.
"Field maps don't answer a lot of questions when you first see them," Vos says. "In fact, they generate more questions."
So, "Don't start with the data [you find on maps], start with observations on the field," he says. "The farmer already has the most data in his head. He knows a field's history; he knows [for instance] that he had a hog shed on that area of the field five years ago, and that affects the fertility levels there."
Once you have factored in your own knowledge, a farmer can then begin to look for more data. Soil sampling, for example, can give him a better idea about fertility levels and how they impact yields in certain parts of a field. That, in turn, can lead to changes in programs to boost fertility levels or to curtail or reduce fertilizer applications where they are not needed.
"Farmers already have a hypothesis about what is going on. The data just confirms or debunks what he thinks is true," Vos says.
He suggests growers ask one question at a time of their maps. Too many maps produce a blur, not a clear picture.
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
Improvements in software are helping clear that blur. APEX, for instance, has a new feature that lets growers pull up multiple layers and adjust the transparency among those layers, Hogrefe says. That means a farmer can look at yield and soil layers at the same time, and create composite maps that pull the information together. Or he can separate those layers to look at them individually.
"A lot of progressive farmers look at this [mapping software] as a tool for on-farm research," Vos says. They are using SMS and other software to run trials on fertility, populations and herbicides. They can then make decisions about what to use on the rest of the farm.
"That's where the power of maps comes in," Vos says. "The grower can go after the weakest link in his chain. This gives him confidence in what he is doing."
Of course, not every farmer has the skills or inclination to do all of this. "The biggest complication is actually just doing it," Hogrefe says. "It gets pretty complex to pull in all those layers of info. It takes a very skilled user to read through all of those layers. Some have the data and the equipment but don't know how to interpret the data or write the best prescriptions. Everyone is different; everyone has a different comfort level."
That's where consultants or dealers come in.
"For some growers, the best option is not to own the software himself but to work with someone who does and who knows how to use it," Vos says. "We sell software, but we recommend this all the time: Some people should work through a consultant."
Agronomics are only part of the mapping picture, says R. Scott Nusbaum, Trimble product manager for Farm Works. "Ultimately, people want to know the cost/benefit relationships of what they do."
Farm Works software creates an "enterprise summary map," which "takes all your maps and crunches them to put costs to them and then shows a profit map of the field," Nusbaum says. "It lets you see if VR [variable rate application of an input] worked or not."
The software attempts to answer questions such as, "How much money did I make in the areas where I didn't put as many inputs?" Nusbaum says.
APEX has a "Record Keeping" function that has similar capabilities, Hogrefe says. It allows a farmer to create a template to apply to each field that includes variables like costs for machinery, fertility and seeds. It then generates income, expense and profitability map layers, and can produce six different types of financial reports.
With all of these mapping options, farmers often have a common complaint: They find themselves locked into a particular software brand that does not work well with other software or hardware.
That may be changing.
Recently, Deere added a feature called EIC (Equipment Interface Component), a software language translator that allows data collected on GreenStar displays software to be read on a competitor's software. "We want our customers to have the ability to do whatever they want with the data. So if they are comfortable with [for example] SMS software, we want them to be able to use their GreenStar data with that software."
After all, data and maps aren't any good unless you can use them.