Big Data’s Role in Agriculture Today

It’s everywhere, changing everything – so in what ways is big data shaping agriculture? By deploying sensors, satellites, services and automation, farmers are receiving the data and insights they need to better manage resources and raise productivity.

Sensors let farmers know when to water and fertilize

Soil and water sensors detect moisture and nitrogen levels, so farmers can water and fertilize accordingly. As a result, farmers can more efficiently use resources and lower costs. Sensors also lessen environmental impacts by helping farmers conserve water and reduce fertilizer runoff into streams and lakes. Due to their relative low cost, even family farms can afford to distribute sensors on their land. 2

Sensors are not a perfect solution. Problems include sensor failure, inaccurate or lack of timely data, and bulk electrical conductivity charges. 3 There are four main types of sensor technologies. Understanding these technologies helps a potential user know what to expect in terms of the sensor’s accuracy and stability. Regardless of the technology, proper installation is critical.4

Most modern sensors involve transmitting data, and integrative platforms are increasingly available to support the type of sensor selected. These platforms gather and analyze data so farmers can gain the insights they need to make changes.5 Additionally, sensors using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and readers can be used to gather and analyze data about fields of produce or bales of hay (e.g., field, harvest date, weight, moisture), and in greenhouses for data on growth time and moisture content. They also play a role in livestock tracking, breeding, feeding, and disease management.6

Weather forecasting helps prevent crop and livestock problems

“Weather forecasting is the application of technology and science to predict the state of the atmosphere for a future time at a given location.”7 Through weather forecasting services, farmers can access data for their farms and ranches online, through hand-held devices, and via mobile apps.

Examples of weather apps for farmers and ranchers include:

Satellites images help farmers manage crop health

Satellite images used with agricultural management systems that collect and analyze them, can help farmers save time and money. These images are not distant views; they provide close-ups of crops. Weekly viewing helps farmers manage crop production and maximize yields. Farmers can integrate this technology with data from crop, soil and water sensors and receive notifications of danger thresholds.11

Another benefit of satellite data is detecting troubled areas with the help of NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), a popular remote sensing method used to measure the health of vegetation. Additional benefits include optimizing the use of nitrogen, adjusting watering schedules, comparing the performance of farm fields, and running large-scale experiments across the farm. 12

Smart farming increases productivity, improves crop quality

Technological advances are being incorporated into many farming practices to increase productivity and improve crop quality. Today, AgBots are used to plant, water, harvest and sort while precision seeding equipment responds to data on soil moisture, nutrients and other factors. In the future, we’ll have autonomous tractors controlled remotely or through robotics. When autonomous tractors combine with precision seeders, a farm field could be planted with just one person remotely monitoring the process.

Future technologies will include robots for weeding and delicate tasks, such as picking fruits or vegetables. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are likely to play a role in their development. Drones will be used for seeding and planting. There are even drones today that are used for spraying crops.13


Whether farmers leverage sensors, weather modeling, satellite imagery or robotics, the use of big data is changing today’s agricultural practices and will do so even more in the future. As farmers adapt to new technologies, they’ll rely on big data for precise, efficient, and productive operations.

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