Big Data

In the sporting world athletes are no longer solely judged by their physique, won-lost record or by a scout who travels the country in search of the next NBA or NFL super star. Today it’s done by what is called analytics, saber metrics or BIG DATA.

Whatever you call it, it’s all just huge amounts of data fed into a computer that spits out the winners and losers. It’s become not just a way to select your next shortstop, but the backbone of big business as well.

Initially, critics and slow adopters scoffed and said analytics was merely an answer in search of a problem. We gathered all this data, now what do we do with it? But it didn’t take long for tech-savvy companies like Amazon, Apple, Fed Ex and the Angus Association to find a use for all the data. Amazon knows what you’re going to buy before you do and the Angus Association has taken all the guesswork out of bull buying with their plethora of EPDs. It used to be said, “The eye of the master fattens his cattle.” Not any more. Now it’s more likely to be a MacBook, some Oracle software and Zoetis Genetics.

These days if you’re not using analytics and BIG DATA on the ball field, in the boardroom or in the bull business you can’t compete. And with analytics and animal agriculture being a bit behind the curve, it’s safe to say, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Ready Or Not

It’s easy to understand why cattlemen have not rushed to endorse BIG DATA as fast as farmers, because rancher’s first baby steps were not a pleasant experience. In the past, if a progressive rancher wanted to find out how his cattle performed in the feedlot and on the rail he probably had to own the cattle through the feedlot stage. And even then it was like pulling teeth to get any information on their grade and yield. Packers and feeders did not want to share this information because they feared they’d have to pay more for the cattle in the future. Once word got out there would be more competition for the calves. So it’s understandable why some ranchers would be skeptical. But we’re talking about something far bigger than cut-out sheets. This time it’s different.

Todd Janzen, a former Kansas farmer and now a practicing attorney recently asked in his blog, “Are livestock farmers being left behind in ag’s BIG DATA revolution? Most of the focus on farm data these past few months,” wrote Janzen, “has been on the impact on corn, soybean, wheat, canola, and cotton farmers. I keep wondering when the BIG DATA solutions for livestock farmers will appear. BIG DATA has enormous implications for livestock farmers too.” Janzen gave an example. “If production data from dairy cows in the Midwest was tracked and collected in a centralized database, then shared with participating dairy farmers, could these farmers better predict the swings in milk production (and consequent swings in price)? The first step in BIG DATA analytics is collection of the data. This needs to happen in the livestock industry to give farmers another tool to bolster production and reduce the effects of market swings.”

Janzen summarized, “On a recent tour of a meat packing operation, I was able to see how meat packers share all data among each other to measure and compare productivity. But why aren’t dairy, beef, swine and poultry farmers doing the same thing at the local level?”

Keep your shirt on Mr. Janzen, slowly but surely the revolution is coming to animal agriculture too. Alltech’s Dr. Karl Dawson told listeners at the Alltech Beef Conference in France, “We’ve heard a lot about “BIG DATA” and how it is helping row crop farmers get more out of every acre of land. Only now it is starting to change how the livestock sector contributes to the food chain. Over the last few years, computer tools and even artificial intelligence have been developed that will give livestock producers more information on important decisions.”

Dawson predicted, “Producers will be working more from armchairs and computers than they ever have in the past. Much like precision agriculture in row crops, they’ll have many of the same tools grain producers have. The first generation of these tools,” said Dawson, “Are already being implemented in Europe and parts of the U.S. This is going to be something that revolutionizes what happens in the industry.”

BIG DATA could be one of the fastest growing segments of the high tech industry. Tony Bishop, Vice President, Global Enterprise Vertical Strategy & Marketing, sees a day when it will be possible using “cow data” “to be interconnected with cloud-based BIG DATA analytics to track and analyze the movements of the more than 1.5 billion cows grazing on the planet.”

Bishop says, “One Dutch start-up, Sparked, is using wireless sensors attached to cows’ ears to measure the vital signs of the Netherlands’ bovine population. Dutch farmers can instantly see if a cow is sick or pregnant via their smart phone or computer. The animals’ movements, eating habits and response to environmental factors can also be monitored.”

“The Dutch cow-tracking system generates 200 megabytes of data per cow, per year. At last count, there were 1.5 million dairy cows in the Netherlands. That’s a total of 300 million megabytes of cow data going over the Internet each year.”

Can you imagine . . . even on the most remote ranch, instead of having cowboys check the cows you’ll be able to sit in your arm chair, see where everyone of them is and know if they are healthy because you also know their vital signs. That’s not some futuristic dream, it’s theoretically possible right now with the use of low flying drones and wireless eartags.

Brave New World

In October, the Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on “BIG DATA in Agriculture.” Billy Tiller, a pathfinder in the field, told the House, “We have witnessed giant leaps in scientific and agronomic innovations. In the last 20 years, we have seen another wave of scientific revolution involving biotechnology. All of these innovations have made farming more productive and have made the farmer a better steward of the land. As I testify here today, I believe another revolution in agriculture is occurring now, and that is the Information Revolution. It is built on precision agriculture, which involves the integration of computing power, satellites, and software that is increasingly being utilized to bring the American farmer into a ‘brave new world’ of automation and operational analysis. Indeed, we are accelerating toward a time when the producer will utilize all available sources of information, deciphered intelligently to operate more efficiently and decisively. This is the ‘BIG DATA’ opportunity within agriculture.”

For Good and Bad

We can learn about the coming revolution in animal agriculture from people who have already experienced it. Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer and Board Member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, gave House committee members a lot to think about. He said this new wave of analytics can be used for good, and for bad. For example, Hurst said, “Agricultural equipment firms have run pilot programs where data is uploaded every several hours to the cloud, where it can be used . . . well, we don’t really know all the ways it can be used. If 1,000 machines randomly spread across the Corn Belt were recording yield data on the second day of harvest, that information would be extremely valuable to traders dealing in agricultural futures. Traders have traditionally relied on private surveys and U.S. Department of Agriculture yield data. These yield estimates are neither timely nor necessarily accurate. But now, real-time yield data is available to whoever controls those databases. The company involved says it will never share the data. Farmers may want access to that data, however, and they may not be averse to selling the information to the XYZ hedge fund either, if the price is right — but that’s only possible if farmers retain ownership and control of the data.”

According to Hurst, ranchers are justified in being weary about data privacy. “Even if an individual operator does everything to the best of his ability, following all the applicable rules, regulations, and best management practices, there is still concern that the EPA or one of the numerous environmental organizations that bedevil agriculture might gain access to individual farm data through subpoenas or an overall-clad Edward Snowden. This concern about privacy will likely slow the adoption of the technology. The data will be invaluable to regulators and to parties in future litigation and it may also help protect farmers from accusations of wrongdoing. Of course, some farmers will never be comfortable sharing any kind of farm information with strangers.”

This is the ag industry’s Catch 22. On the one hand the cattle industry was shell-shocked, says Hurst “when it discovered the EPA was using aerial surveillance to monitor livestock firms, at the same time their farmer side was happy about the prospect of cheap and ubiquitous drones to monitor crop conditions and forecast yields.”

Hurst said, “The transition to a data-driven model will also make it easier for bureaucrats to regulate and measure. Whatever this new revolution brings,” Hurst says, “It won’t be the same. The BIG DATA movement and the innovative technologies and analytics it yields will lead to at least as much change in agriculture as did the Green Revolution and the adoption of biotechnology.”

Who Owns The Data?

Probably the biggest question about the use analytics is who owns all the data that is being collected? Another person who testified before the House Committee on BIG DATA was Shannon Ferrell, Associate Professor at Oklahoma State. He said, “The greater concern may be in the privacy issues surrounding the sharing of agricultural data through BIG DATA applications. Current federal privacy laws do not directly address one’s privacy rights with respect to information like agricultural data. The current intellectual property framework fails to provide a clear niche for agricultural data in the realms of trademark, patent, or copyright law.”

Because the concept of BIG DATA has exploded in a relatively short period of time, current laws and regulations have not kept pace. The question arises, should BIG DATA be regulated according to trademark, patent, copyright or trade secret laws? At this point there is no answer. And because all this data being collected has potential economic value, Ferrell testified, “questions began to arise regarding who had the superior “ownership” right to that information, given that multiple parties had a hand in its creation. Thus, this issue might be framed as, “Who owns data generated about an agricultural producer’s operation?”

In the age of identity theft a still bigger question might be, what happens when there’s a breech and an unauthorized disclosure of your data? Considering the downside, one assumes the American rancher, whose average age is 57 years old, may drag his boot heels in the ground and will not be an early adopter of this technology. But even if you have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the age of BIG DATA is coming to ranching whether you like it or not.

Be Afraid, Very Afraid

According to Blake Hurst, “Some of the contracts that farmers are signing with those who collect and store their data are over 30 pages in length and even then it’s unclear as to who owns the data.”

Billy Tiller told Congress many of these agreements, “Give these companies the right to a worldwide license to use your data in any way they please and in most cases for free.”

Even though the contracts are verbose, Hurst says, “It’s still unclear whether the data will be shared or sold; who can access it; whether it will be kept in a place that could make it accessible to others via a Freedom of Information Act request; whether farmers can get his data out of the system; whether it is accessible to government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency; whether or not it could be used by the service provider to speculate in the commodities market and what happens to the data if the company is sold, acquired, or dissolves.”

“One of the most important issues around BIG DATA goes directly to property rights,” Christopher Caldwell pointed out in the Claremont Review of Books. “Just because Facebook, MasterCard, or Google keeps track of what I searched for or where I buy lunch, it is not altogether clear why they should assume ownership of that data.”

These same questions could be asked of the firms now providing age and source verification for cattle. If the IRS asked them how many calves Joe Rancher enrolled do they have the obligation to tell them, or to sell that information to a third party?

In view of the many unanswered questions about BIG DATA, there’s no denying that besides entering a new age in data analysis we are also probably entering a golden age of lawyering and lawsuits.

Cyber security expert Mikko Hypponen, believes we are at the beginning of an enormous social change that carries with it real danger. “We are the first generation that can be tracked from birth to our deathbeds, where we are, what we do, who we communicate with, what are our interests. It’s easily trackable and saveable for decades. It feels like we’re in a massive experiment done on mankind. Only much later will we realize what it means when all of our thoughts and movements not only can be tracked but are being tracked.” He asks, “Will BIG DATA lead to Big Brother?”

After all is said and done, maybe it won’t be so much about who owns what, but who owns who.