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Data visualisation to improve farm productivity

Agri-Tech East’s recent Big Data Special Interest Group meeting ‘Taking Data Presentation Seriously’ heard Simon Ward, founder of Increment Ltd, argue that farmers need a better way to assess the economic optimum for fertiliser and other inputs.

He explained that understanding the cost of production and relating this to the return on increased yield is very complex and the current benchmarking tools are of limited value.  Currently farmers benchmark themselves agains comparable farms, i.e. those of a similar size and crop portfolio, but it is difficult to drill down to see if additional expenditure results in a profitable crop.  This view is supported by research by Mark Reader of the Department of Land Economy at the University of Cambridge. In a recently released paper, ‘Loss-making margina spending on crop variable inputs’, data from the Farm Business Survey 2004-2012 was used to assess the crop gross margins and input spending for conventional winter wheat and oilseed in England and Wales.

It concluded that although additional fertiliser increased yield, the economic value of this yield in many cases was less than the cost of the inputs. Reader concluded that unknowns, such as yield,quality and price, make it very difficult to estimate the economic optima for inputs. These conclusions hold across a wide range of alternative economic models andsubsets of the data. mproved data visualisation would help farmers to benchmark against their own data; keeping records over a period of time would allow a better helicopter  view of where costs are incurred and revenue is generated. Precision farming has dramatically increased the amount of data available, from mini-weather stations giving field conditions, drones visualising crop health and telemetrics on machinery utilisation and fuel costs.

Eric Hannell, Senior Project Consultant at Tableau, has a particular interest in ‘dashboards’, which provide a snapshot of what is happening, hiding the complexity so that good decisions can be made. He pointed out that even the perfect dashboard will only answer the questions you design it to answer, so farmers need tools that they are able to tweak themselves so that they are tailored to their requirements. A good dashboard should be able to adapt to changes in needs and provide ad hoc visual analysis of the data.


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