Building Big Data: Farming Big Data Goes To The Cows


When we think about the people who actually use big data, we usually imagine someone sitting in a warm, cozy office, suited and booted, making calls or getting busy on their computer. Few of us imagine that someone sat in an old cow shed, wearing ragged overalls and muddy boots, would be doing exactly the same thing.

But this is precisely what’s happening at a number of farms across the country today, as farmers, cloud servers and insurers team up to apply big data to agriculture in an attempt to improve yields and stave off the effects of extreme weather.

Taking the cloud to the farm

One of the most popular new cloud services in the countryside is Farmeron, a type of plug-and-play software tool which farmers can use to keep track of just about everything to do with their farms, allowing them to better manage their expenses and inventories, and ultimately increase their yields.

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Real-time data is extremely useful in an industry like farming, where the line between failure and a bumper crop is a very fine one, as Matija Kopic, CEO of Farmeron, explains to GigaOM:

“The major problem we keep on seeing — especially in bigger, modern farms — is that there’s a lot of data being created and not being used, on how they’re performing, what they’re doing.”

“Using Farmeron, farmers can see how well an animal, or a group of animals, or a whole farm, is performing.”

Farmeron’s features include an intelligent weighing system that allows farmers to keep track of their animal’s weight and compare this data to the different feed mixes they’ve been feeding them on, in order to optimize their  diets. Fameron can also log medical records for each animal, and give farmer’s useful insights into cow breeding cycles and milking, among many other uses.

The service is currently only available for cattle farming, but with more than 450 farms in 14 countries already using Farmeron, it’s fast catching on and could well expand to other types of farms in the near future.

Increasing Crop Yields

Dairy farms aren’t the only ones who are benefiting – crop yields are improving too, thanks to a new start-up called Solum, which provides a combination of cloud-based software and hardware technology to allow farmers to monitor soil conditions on their land.

By better understanding the condition of their soil, farmers are able to maximize the use of their land, by planting the right crops in the right places, and intervening with fertilizer when conditions demand it.

Nick Koshnick, founder of Solum, explains:

“The recent, widespread adoption of GPS-based tools has enabled an unprecedented ability to systematically understand and control every portion of crop land. Our company has re-invented the way soil information is generated. Our platform leverages a diverse array of measurements and data to provide new insights that can dramatically increase crop yields.”

Koshnick elaborated on the difficulties faced by today’s farmers:

“If you apply tons of fertilizer to sandy soil and there’s a lot of rain, the fertilizer will just run off.”

As well as giving insights into soil, Solum is also an environmentally-friendly tool, as it helps to reduce farmer’s dependency on chemicals and fertilizers. Simply by better understanding the soil conditions and knowing where and when, and which crops to plant, can vastly improve yields.

“If you show (farmers) a way to put resources where they’ll get more return and less runoff, of course they’ll want do it. My pitch to the clean-tech crowd is: this is the place where sustainability is directly in line with economic support.”

Mitigating Extreme Weather Conditions

What with the severe heat affecting crop production, and the rising value of crops as a whole, the summer of 2012 has been a pretty costly one for crop insurers. But that doesn’t concern The Climate Corporation too much.

That’s because the 6-year old, San Francisco based insurer has developed a complex data crunching system that collates and analyzes masses of climate data from a vast network of its own sensors and public sources. Using the data it gathers, The Climate Corporation is able to predict everything from temperature and rainfall, to soil moisture levels and finally, expected crop yields. And it doesn’t just do this for one farm either – it does it separately for the millions of individual fields it insures across the country.

Despite having to pay out on 97% of its policies this year, the company is in no danger of going under. Every year, it runs more than 10,000 different climate scenarios for each of the farms on its books for the next two years, in order to understand how much risk it is facing. The Climate Corporation knew there was a 10% chance of severe drought this year, and so to a large extent it was able to mitigate the disaster.

The system is not completely foolproof though. While The Climate Corporation expects to make up for this year’s losses with next year’s takings, too many bad droughts would mean that eventually, crop insurance becomes financially unviable. When that happens, farmers will be faced with the stark choice of paying more for their premiums and accepting lower profits, or else raising prices and making the rest of us pay for it.