Land O’Lakes maps out farming’s future with Google cloud

Farmers looking for ways to increase their crop output are using more technology and relying a little less on intuition.

Farmers associated with Land O’Lakes, a dairy-focused, agricultural cooperative in Minnesota, are using online tools and apps to visualize their fields and to analyze the data in such areas as water management, seed placement and crop diseases.

To do that, Land O’Lakes, known for producing the top butter brand in the U.S., has turned to Google’s public cloud. The company is involved in a $3.5 million project with Google and expects to see a payback on it in two to three years.

Why Google’s cloud, when Land O’Lakes was already working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure clouds for other projects?

The answer lies with Google Maps.

“With the ability to use Google Maps to be able to visualize our data, our land, that’s really helpful,” said Teddy Bekele, vice president of IT for the distribution division of Land O’Lakes. “They have tools that give them insights and help them make decisions instead of just relying on intuition. We’ve moving into an age where decisions are based on data and analysis. You can use data to improve your crops and the output of your field.”

Bekele said that data analysis can’t be done without the cloud.

“The goal is to figure out how to harness tech advances to the traditional farming and business model,” he said. “The more science and data-driven decisions you can bring to a farmer, the more he’ll trust you and commit his business to you.”

Improving crop output is important for Land O’Lakes, a $13.5 billion company with nearly 10,000 employees.

The member-owned company, which is nearly 100 years old, has about 3,600 direct producer-members and 1,000 member-cooperatives. It also processes and distributes products for about 300,000 agricultural producers.

The co-op also is one of the largest producers of butter and cheese in the U.S., processing 13 billion pounds of milk per year.

With that direct link to farming, agricultural output is critical to Land O’Lakes. For example, Bekele said, corn is the biggest crop grown in the U.S., with average crop production in 2015 at 170 bushels per acre. However, in 2015 the maximum recorded output in the U.S. was 503 bushels per acre. There’s a huge gap between what corn farmers are producing and what they could produce, Bekele said, and he would like to turn that around.

“The genetic potential is there to produce more, but because of environmental conditions, soil types and certain practices, we just aren’t able to achieve that,” he said. “If the average went from just 170 to 180 an acre, that would be equal to 5 million more virtual acres.”

The answer to boosting that average yield per acre may lie with technology, Bekele said.