MY Data Science
TODAY’S FARM IMPLEMENTS
How technology and data help fight the battle against Mother Nature
L. Dow Brantley III, President,
Brantley Farming Company
I AM A third-generation Arkansas farmer, working land located near the community of England, about 30 miles east of Little Rock. My grandfather, Laudies Dow Brantley Sr., was at first a sharecropper who rented farmland from other people. Then he was able to buy a 400-acre farm that nobody wanted, and that put him on the map. He still rented and sharecropped other farms, but now he was also an owner, and he made that investment work for him. Thanks to the efforts of my grandparents and parents, our farm has grown from just a few hundred acres in 1947 to around 9600 acres in row crop production today. We grow rice, cotton, corn, and soybeans.
When my dad, Laudies Dow Brantley II, graduated from ASU, he returned home and started working the farm with my grandfather. Then as my two brothers and I came along, we did our part too. Farming involved a lot more manual labor 25 years ago than it does today. Irrigation was done with aluminum pipe in 20- or 30-foot joints, eight inches in diameter. The problem was, it was very expensive and Dad only owned two or three miles of it so they had to keep moving it around from this field to that field. While we kids weren't strong enough to pick those pipes up, at 8 and 9 years old we were big enough to push the pedal and drive the truck forward 20 feet so the men could set the pipe off the ground. So on Saturday mornings Dad dragged us out there and made us drive the truck 20 feet, 20 feet, 20 feet. Whenever we complained, Dad’s answer was, “You should’ve picked a better grandfather.”
As my brothers and I got older, our parents told us that if we wanted to farm, the farm would always be here for us. But they made a point of saying that there’s a big world out there and we should go explore it—maybe we would find something we liked better. In fact, my two brothers did find other careers. One is in the insurance business in Dallas, and the other is in the medical supply field in Little Rock. As for me, I studied agribusiness at UA Fayetteville, and after graduating in 1998 I spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., working for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The last six months I was there I was detailed to the Clinton White House, working in the advance office—moving people around in advance of the president. It was a unique experience, but after two years in Washington I was ready to come home. Turned out I had picked the perfect grandfather for me.
BRANTLEY FARMING COMPANY is a business, and what we do in 2019 is no different than what my dad was doing 40 years ago. At the end of the day, we’re charged with growing a commodity. But farming isn’t like other businesses. I often compare us to a tennis shoe manufacturer. If they screw up a production, they can fix it and do better tomorrow. If I screw up, I've got next year. In my whole lifetime, I might have a chance to do this only 40 or 50 times, while the tennis shoe company can do it a thousand times over.
The curveball is Mother Nature. We build the best plan we can, and then when that first rain event happens, we throw that plan out the window. This year was a different experience for us—we couldn't get a crop in. We missed planting 20 percent of our farm this year because it wouldn't quit raining. Not just our farm, this community, this state. That hurt. I'm looking forward to this year ending. But that's farming. You win some, you lose some.
While I wouldn’t say that Mother Nature has met her match in data science, I will say that technology and data are helping us in our constant struggle to get it right every single season. It starts with the plants themselves. In 1998 we grew our first genetically modified soybean. And then not long after that they introduced a genetically modified cotton plant—it has a gene in it that will kill the cotton bollworm. That changed our world. Before that, we were putting out a lot of pesticides in an attempt to kill those worms, and we never were able to kill them all. So that technology did two things. It cut down our workload, and put a lot less pesticide out in the environment. This change opened us up to more productivity, because it required less work on those acres than before.
As for technology, you may think a tractor is a tractor. Not anymore. The tractor we're driving today is just a big old computer. Yes, my dad can still get on it and drive it very easily, but I could take a 25-year-old person who's never driven a tractor and teach him quicker than what my dad could catch onto. Now when you start the tractor, the first thing you do is get your monitor up and running. The monitor shows the functions of the tractor, of course, from what implement it’s pulling to any issues the tractor itself might be having. Through GPS this data is now relayed to us here in the office. We can see it on our screens. If it shows a caution or a warning light, we get an email and a text message instantly. And when there’s a problem and we don't know what it is, the dealership, or local service providers, can plug into that computer before they even come out, and understand what might be wrong. And if they have the part, they can bring it with them.
Today’s tractors are more expensive, so we have to run them more than we used to, over more acres. The tractors are bigger and faster, with more moving parts. The technology on this machine gives us the ability to push what we call work orders directly to the tractor—whether it’s about applying a certain mix of fertilizer or spraying herbicide. A lot of farmers do push data back and forth, but we're a little different. For inventory control here on our farm, we mix the herbicides and pesticides in a central location and deliver that pre-mixed bladder of water to the field. We think the driver's more productive if he's driving than stopping to make a mix. That bladder has a tape label on it so the driver can confirm what he’s spraying and get started.
The best part is, we're mapping these fields as we go through them. As we're fertilizing or spraying, it records the date, the time, the wind speeds, and what they applied, so we then have that data in our system. When we're spraying, we’ve always got to be aware of our surroundings, and it’s especially important to record what the wind was. That way if there’s an injury, or if some neighbor calls with a question or a complaint, we have proof that we sprayed this field on this date and this was the wind level at the time we did it.
GPS technology also helps us be more efficient in our work. Every year we lay off cotton or corn rows so we can irrigate them. Before GPS, we had a marker system on our set of hippers that would make a mark for us; that way when the tractor driver turned to come back the other direction, he could drive it straight. But we used to have to have our best drivers on the tractor—otherwise, our rows would end up crooked. Now, thanks to GPS technology, we can take the best driver out and put in a guy like me, who's not as good. Meanwhile, the best driver can be more productive by managing two or three other drivers.
Technology and data science also help us with irrigation. First of all, we’re no longer using that heavy aluminum pipe. Today we use poly tubing—essentially plastic pipe. We buy it in rolls, and it’s inflatable. We use it for one season, then it’s recycled. Today we're laying about 40, 45 miles of poly tubing, which is a huge improvement.
For irrigation we also use what we call soil moisture probes, which we set out in some of our fields at different depths—say, four-inch, eight-inch, and 12-inch. This is newer technology that we're all still trying to learn. These probes send data to the computer screen in my office to help us make decisions about when we should irrigate again. With the old-fashioned method, whoever was the irrigator would say, “Well, I watered it last week, is it time? What do you think?” And they would go back and forth trying to decide. Or they'd actually go out and look at the soil, feel it, study the plants. You can get an idea, especially if you're experienced. But now it’s pretty cool to have that sensor. “No,” I can say, “let's wait a couple more days.” This has allowed us to stretch out the intervals between irrigations. I think we're using less water—I’m not yet sure how much less—and we’re also spending less labor time out in the field.
Planting has also changed through technology. Used to, we’d have to do intricate calibrations to make sure we were putting out the correct amount of seed. Now with cotton, for example, we just type in “I want to plant 42,000 seeds per acre,” and the planter puts it out—and sensors record the number of seeds falling through that tube that are going into that trench. These new planters are much faster than the old models. We bought a planter this year that allows us to plant at 10 miles an hour through the field. That’s double the speed of our old planters.
Not only that, but we have the ability to change our seeding population on the go. Certain soil types aren't as productive as others, so we won't put as much seed per acre in those. All of that is determined here in the office according to soil type: “I want to plant X amount in this zone, more or less in the next zone.” And because the tractor/planter knows where it is within the field, it can speed up or slow down its planting population according to our plan.
The big change is that, through technology and data science, we’re giving the plants what they need when they need it, and we’re getting better at maximizing the yield in every soil type.
THE KINDS OF technology I’ve been discussing here have been useful quicker in cotton, and then in soybeans and corn. Rice has been slower. We don't have a genetically modified rice product, and I don't see that in the foreseeable future. But where I think rice maybe has a technology advantage is in our ability today to grow a crop with much less water. I’m involved in the Arkansas Rice Federation and the USA Rice Federation, and back in 2014 I had the honor of serving as Chairman of the USA Rice Federation, representing the rice industry. In the rice world, most of our focus is on sustainability: How can we conserve what we have and do better? How can we take what we have and do more and use less, whether it be herbicides, pesticides, water, fertilizer? Technology is a big part of that ongoing conversation.
And we're producing data, data out of our ears. What do we do with it all? That's the million-dollar question. We've got more than we know what to do with, but there are plenty of opportunities to make use of it when we can. We're in harvest season, so a top priority right now is to get those harvesters cleaned up and ready to go. But we're also shipping grain every day, so I’m constantly communicating with our guys at the grainery. And then we're already planning next year's crops. I'm a farmer, which means I’m ultimately a logistics coordinator.
I'm farming three years in one. What do I mean by that? Next month, in November 2019, I'll get the last of my 2018 crop sales income. I’ve already spent all of the money I have to grow the 2019 crop, and I've harvested it. And in August I started spending money on the 2020 crop.
Some people, they spend money and call it an expense, or they get a check and call it income. But to really understand your business, you need to look at it on an accrual basis. You've got to separate these things out—we break it down crop year by crop year. So it's a lot of moving parts, a lot of trying to understand what crop year this expense or income is for. Because when we go to the bank for our quarterly or annual review, we need to be able to sit down and say, “That crop year was profitable.” This data we’re producing is a huge help with that.
And yet Mother Nature is still always threatening to slam us, especially in cotton. We've got a beautiful crop right now, but it rained the other night and that’s always worrisome. If the rains really set in, the cotton will literally rot in the field. That happened to us in soybeans last year. We had a crop and it rained and didn't stop.
But I don’t ever regret my decision to come home to the farm. I'm getting to run my own business, I get to be outside, I get to work with family. I’ve learned a lot on the fly, but I’ve also been able to lean on my dad and his experience. That's priceless. And even though my brothers aren’t here day to day, they stay involved in ownership and other ways. And now I’m getting to watch my daughters, who’re 13, 11, and 9, drive Dad around the farm in the truck. What goes around comes around.
Overall, I’d have to say that the good days outweigh those two or three really bad ones we have to endure every year. And in spite of all the natural hazards inherent in farming, all this new technology is making the farmer’s life a whole lot easier. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next. You take this technology away, and I quit!