Standing guard for an entire crop season, a red flag flew patiently above a corn canopy in all weathers, marking the location of a record-breaker. The Ohio State University (OSU) banner stood sentinel over a plant named Terra Byte which represented the most agricultural data gathered in farming history for a single corn plant across an entire growing season.
A world record for ag data collection in a corn field is a heavyweight headline-grabber, but far beyond the novelty, OSU researchers are using Terra to pick apart the strengths and weaknesses of precision agriculture data. Surrounded by 3.2 million other corn plants in a 100-acre field, Terra was a vehicle to examine methods of data collection, analysis, and actionable potential for U.S. growers.
Precision agriculture graduate student Trey Colley used a wealth of research technology and applied it to a field situation outside the box, selecting ground worked by farm manager Nate Douridas at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center, home to OSU’s Farm Science Review show site. “This project documented and opened up information about what was going on in our fields,” Douridas says.
Douridas planted three headland passes of 100-day corn around the field where Terra grew (114-day corn). Colley chose ground zero just inside the first pass of 114-day corn and planted the red OSU flag over Terra, accepting the risk of deer, weather or machinery mishap.
Pre-season, planting, in-season and harvest, an immense amount of data was collected from Terra: 18.4 gigabytes; 28 megabytes per kernel. (Terra’s record is currently awaiting Guinness confirmation.) Theoretically, if the same rate of collection was applied across the entire 100 acres, the storage requirements would be staggering, according to Colley: “The total comes to 60 petabytes of data. To store that much data, you’d need 466,000 iPhones or about 360 million filing cabinets filled with paperwork.”
Kaylee Port, program manager for OSU Precision Agriculture, says Terra was an attempt to showcase various tools available to growers. “Hopefully our work with Terra will allow growers to do more with their data, integrate new data, and make better on-farm management and crop production decisions with that data.”
Climate FieldView, AirScout, Trimble Ag Software, MyJohnDeere, time lapse cameras, weather station, aerial imagery, application data, input measurements, soil sensors, and so much more, Terra’s data haul is intimidating in scope, but broken down into individual components, the tale-of-the-tape measurements reveal the hits and misses of farming. Colley and the OSU team are compiling an overall report and will measure the economics of each technology. “It’s pretty simple,” Colley explains. “We’re going to find out what made a difference for the grower and what didn’t across the whole field. We want to point to which technologies were economical.”
Douridas says the Terra project (and precision ag as a whole) relates to return on investment (ROI). “We farm by the inches and that requires tremendous data collection. It’s important to look at as much ag technology as possible and decide if there is ROI and where,” he explains.
At harvest, Terra was 16 kernels around and 34 kernels long. “Terra wasn’t the biggest one in the field, but we stuck with it and didn’t grab a bigger ear to trick anybody,” Colley laughs.
Terra gained a great deal of attention, but the record-breaking project was aimed squarely at field scale production, emphasizes Colley. “We just want to inform farmers of what we see and observe. All growers need a digital strategy so they don’t blindly adopt technology just because it’s cool.”
“Farmers don’t need pretty imagery to tell them where bad dirt or wet spots are in their fields because they already know,” Colley adds. “Boiled down, if you can’t make actionable decisions with your precision ag technology, you need to reevaluate the types of tech used on your farm.”
(For information on the technology used in the Terra Byte project and an overview of the entire season, see fabe.osu.edu/node/6355)