Cubbage: Harvest 2017 Marks Precision Ag Milestone

Posted by Steve Cubbage on Tue, 11/07/2017 - 12:09

In 1992, the average U.S. corn yield was 131.5 bu. per acre. By 2016, that number had shot up to an impressive 174.6 bu. per acre.
It’s only natural for companies that led the “biotech” revolution to take much of the credit for the steep rise in annual corn yields. However, such accolades might be somewhat mis-directed. That’s because this harvest marks an important anniversary on the timeline of modern agriculture.

The roots of ag data go back 25 years to the first commercial combine yield monitor to hit the market. A fair share of the gains in U.S. row-crop production in the past couple decades should be credited to the “evolution” of precision agriculture, not just the big boys of biotech. Clearly, the yield monitor drove precision’s evolution, and the man behind precision’s evolutionary wheel was a quiet and unassuming but driven engineer named Al Myers.

We could easily dub Myers as the Steve Jobs of precision agriculture. Both started their technology companies in their garages. They both experienced rough starts out of the gate. They both exhibited extreme passion for their vocations.

Jobs only sold about 175 Apple I computers in his first 10 months of business. In 1992, Myers only sold 10 yield monitors that harvest season.

Just three years later, yield monitor sales had grown to more than 1,500. And as they say, the rest is history.

Today, yield monitors are standard on nearly every combine, and many monitors run on technology still manufactured by Ag Leader, Myers’ company.

Today, the yield monitor is still a game-changer for farmers. It’s one of the most powerful tools at a farmer’s disposal. Why? Because the information it collects is the final report card on every management decision made throughout the course of a growing season. It can help decide the little things, such as the varieties to plant next year, or it can serve as the backstop for today’s big data analytics.

Although multitudes of producers have adopted Myers’ invention, they fail to fully use it to their benefit. It’s like buying an iPhone just to use it as a phone. Who does that?

Unfortunately, farmers use a yield monitor more for entertainment value during those long hours in the combine than they use it for post-harvest production and business reflection.

Many precision technologies are on the market today, and the innovations coming down the pipe will make your head spin. However, none of them will likely work or be sustainable unless producers harvest good yield data. In precision ag, there are no shortcuts, and Myers’ invention is first base. You still have to step on first even when you hit a home run.

When I talk to growers about why yield monitor data is so important, I refer to a book by Howard Buffett. His book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World” refers to the average number of harvests a farmer will experience in his or her lifetime. Each one is unique. You can’t recreate a single harvest. That’s why capturing yield data every year on every field is so important.

Every harvest yields lessons that help producers hone their skills over a lifetime. This harvest, let’s tip our cap to Al Myers for developing the tool that helped sharpen the skills for an entire generation of farmers: the precision generation.