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How data can drive important decisions

Jan 08, 2021

You cannot have too many good layers of good data. In contrast, it is entirely possible to have too much bad data. One bad layer can cause costly mistakes as variable-input technology (VIT) is implemented.
Remember that old computer adage? Garbage in, garbage out. Your variable-input management plan will only be as effective as the information it is based upon.

The foundation for a sound variable-input technology (VIT) program is collecting accurate data. Not just any data and information will do. It is necessary to have accurate, calibrated data.

Reliable historical data allows for the identification of strengths and weaknesses of management zones and hybrids. VIT lets you make plans to take advantage of the strengths and manage around the weaknesses. With VIT, collecting data becomes an important, ongoing process. Because of this, the more data you have, the more accurate your management zones and decisions will be.

The layers of data are the foundation of your VIT plan. You will want to collect data from all levels. This includes the height of a satellites, to the tractor and combine seat, to boots on the ground. You cannot have too many good layers of data, but one bad layer of data can result in costly mistakes.

The first level of data comes from your analysis of each field, looking for strengths and weaknesses. 
Start by collecting calibrated yield data and looking at the maps. Not all yield maps are accurate or useful. Begin by separating bad maps from good ones. This may involve excluding large amounts of inaccurate data and maps. When you look at a calibrated map, you can quickly tell the areas of high and low yields in a field. Those zones are very apparent.

This valuable information will not be there unless the map was made with a calibrated yield monitor. If the monitor was not calibrated, the map will not show correct spatial variability. The monitor may show a total yield close to the one on the scale ticket, but it will be impossible to identify high and low yielding zones.

What if there’s no yield mapping technology for your crop? Like sweet corn, silage, popcorn or hay, for example? Aerial imagery, from aircrafts, drones or satellites, can be a useful tool when trying to identify a field’s strengths and weaknesses. Even though those images can’t tell the actual yield, they can show where variability exists.

Scouting and your experience farming a field can be combined with aerial imagery. You have farmed some fields long enough to know where the best and worst areas of fields are located. Although this can be more difficult to work with, this information can be used to create a VIT management plan.

Once you have a solid collection of calibrated yield maps, comparing them will reveal important details. Some of the most valuable maps show crops in weather extremes. This may include incredibly wet or incredibly dry years.

Contrasting yield maps are worth their weight in gold for telling you even more about a field’s strengths and weaknesses and planning VIT management. It helps to identify areas that cranked out corn despite the drought and where the ponds, sidehill seeps and strong-yielding hilltops occurred in the wet years. These maps can tell you volumes about water holding capacity, infiltration capacity and where drainage is poor. This knowledge will help you make better choices such as picking the best hybrid and whether to apply a seed treatment or install more tile.

The next layer of data is soil type. Soil maps can be accessed online and through many software tools. When you layer soil maps over yield maps, you begin to see what causes variations in yield. Topographic maps will sharpen your focus, so you can create even more precise management zones. This can reveal where changes in elevation cause changes in yield.

Another helpful tool to identify management zones is in season aerial images. These images can be obtained with satellites with high resolution, manned aircraft or drones. These images can be helpful in identifying patterns in crops not seen from the ground.

Once you identify management zones, and the reasons behind yield differences, you can start writing your VIT management plan. In addition to researching hybrids and population, plot a fertility program for each zone, based on regular soil tests.

Use GPS, and continue to sample in the same zone for years to come, it is important to take enough samples for a good representation of the soil in each zone. If possible, also use the same lab and the same soil testing procedure (which varies among labs) every year to identify trends.

After implementing your VIT plan, monitor results and make changes yearly and as necessary. A final form of data is collected during the growing season, by scouts in the field. The scouts and their team can gather this information while they do regular scouting for insects and diseases.
Scouts should look for the reasons why yield falls off in certain management zones. Did the area run out of water, or is the problem a lack of nutrients or the presence of insects or diseases? This involves noticing an issue in the field and backtracking it from there.

Scouts should check whether target populations and ear counts were achieved in every management zone through stand counts, while referring to planned planting maps. Ear count should be within 6% of the planned population in each zone.  If it does not match up, scouts should look for the reason behind the discrepancy. If crusting or soil structure, for example, creates a history of not hitting your population and ear count goals, adjust your seeding rate, hybrid selection or management practices.

It is important to verify your nutrient management plan for each management zone and hybrid. Make sure hybrids didn’t run out of nitrogen during the growing season. You might need different nitrogen programs for various hybrids and soil types.

There’s one aspect of data collection that doesn’t involve soil or hybrids but must be considered when implementing a VIT plan. Various management zones will have different requirements for input application. Look at your labor and equipment requirements from planting through harvest. Make sure you have enough people and big enough equipment to follow through with your plans.

If your plan involves adding a pass, such as a late-season nitrogen application on some zones and hybrids, study as-applied maps and actual records to make sure you have the manpower. Those maps and records are one more layer of data that forms the foundation of your VIT plan.

Centra Sota’s Technology Services department and your local Centra Sota Crop Advisor can help with all aspects of VIT planning.

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