Field farm data over time can help improve profitability, but just what is it being used for?

For December’s edition of the Farm Talks podcast, Emily Zahurones spoke about the future of ag machinery with Terry Griffin, an agricultural economics professor at Kansas State University and consultant for farm data and spatial ag technology. Known as ‘Space Plowboy’ on Twitter, Griffin talked about how producers can participate in exciting tech advancements without breaking the bank down the road.

Availability of spatial ag systems:

“When GPS became available for civilian purposes, in particular for agriculture, we started putting GPS on combine harvesters to geo reference field monitor data, and eventually put that technology on steering on guiding systems later in the 1990s towards the end of the decade,” Griffin said. “That was sort of the genesis of what we referred to as digital agriculture, precision agriculture. All of a sudden, we had lots and lots of data that could be recorded electronically and can be logged.”

GPS technologies aren’t new and have been explored by researchers for the past 30 years. Recently, advancements in automation are working to improve streamlined harvesting techniques and improve the cost-profit ratio for the American farmer and rancher.

“Over the last three decades, you could argue that we’re still in the infancy of digital agriculture, we have not made the big steps like we had anticipated,” Griffin said. “Technologies that have been around since the 1990s are still not ubiquitous.”

USDA statistics indicated two-thirds of farm acreage is utilizing some sort of automated guidance. With precision agriculture products in the marketplace, many of the available systems aren’t being used among all U.S. producers due in part to satellite availability.

“We rely upon wireless connectivity to make a lot of these digital agriculture technologies operational. And it’s something I think about quite a bit,” Griffin said. “Another thing that scares me a little bit is how we as a society were at the mercy of some of the solar activity that’s happening.”

Solar activity in the next 11-15 years will interfere with GPS signals in the upper atmosphere. Prolonged exposure can disable satellites either temporarily or permanently depending upon the severity.

Advancements are ongoing with GPS technology as rural home connectivity is a similar issue receiving attention. The wealth of data retained through the satellite is helping researchers to improve farm tech and automation opportunities.

“There’s a lot of opportunity that’s going to come in the future,” Griffin said. “Digital agriculture is almost synonymous with this concept of using farm data from thousands of farms within an aggregate as a community for analysis, that largely benefits the companies that pay for that to occur.”

Twitter Advocacy:

Griffin works closely with Ag through Kansas State University and as such, has found ways to immerse himself in simple, direct communication with producers through his social media, specifically Twitter, @spaceplowboy.

“It’s an interesting story, how I came up with that. Space has a double meaning here. My Ph.D. is in spatial economics, but also my personal hobby that I enjoy with my kids is astronomy. I thought that was well-fitting and memorable. People tend to remember this [Twitter] handle when I verbally share it in casual conversation.”

Griffin has used this platform to promote Ag Manager farmer tools, talk about the benefits of GPS tech systems and most importantly learn about the issues producers care about.

“Twitter has been great because it’s a two-way communication,” Griffin said. “A lot of my really good ideas weren’t ever my ideas. In the beginning, it was just me observing what farmers were talking about being a problem that they’ve recognized on their end. That’s an indication to me as a researcher.”

Advancements in Automation:

Griffin’s current project funded through Cotton Incorporated is exploring the idea that cotton harvesters, cotton pickers and cotton strippers are each individual million-dollar machines. What if there was a cost-effective and less labor-intensive method to harvest these perennial crops?

“If the robots can go in and harvest cotton, as it becomes mature, it can extend the growing season. We can start earlier, maybe in August, instead of waiting until September and avoid physical loss and avoid quality penalties,” Griffin said. “My job on the team is to look at the economics of this, answering the questions of capacity, how slow can these machines go if we have a dozen of them in a field compared to the million-dollar machine? Ultimately, what’s the per acre cost that we can afford to pay for this machine to break even on a per acre basis.”

But every operation is built different. Common challenges for Griffin’s team are spatial GPS connectivity and how the robots might work in unique climates and topography in different parts of the country.

“The secondary market is something from an economic perspective that we are also very concerned about moving forward,” Griffin said. “It has a lot to do with the size of farms, the geometry, the shape of the field, and trying to improve the profitability and mitigate the risks for cotton farmers.”

Looking forward, the best way to incorporate these technologies will depend upon the goals of the operation. These systems may have a high initial price tag, but Griffin assures that the remuneration is worth it.

“We got to ask ourselves, what’s the cost of this not just for the parts and the bearings and the labor to fix it? If we’re trying to plant corn in Kansas in April and our planner goes out, we’ve got to order parts. It’s down for two days that we’re able to make that two days of planting up at the end of the season in late May,” Griffin said. “How many dollars have we lost just by yield potential? Because the further into the summer we wait the lower the yields are expected to be.”

To listen to the full Farm Talks podcast episode, visit or find it online with Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, iHeart radio or Amazon music.

Episode 3 cover art

Trending Video

Recommended for you