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What the Rubik’s Cube Can Teach Us About Precision Farming

2 Mar 2022  •  Erin Hightower

Story wrote for CropLife.com and first appeared in February 2022

Everyone around in the 1980s knows what a Rubik’s Cube is. This puzzle, which became one of the world’s best-selling toys, was created by a professor of architecture as an exercise to encourage his students to think critically on multi-faceted problems. Now, forty years later, the Rubik’s Cube is making a comeback. Even my 10-year-old nephew received a Rubik’s Cube this past Christmas.

Why this newfound interest in solving the puzzle, or “cubing” as it is known? You can credit gaming competitions, but I like to think the resurrection might have something to do with the parallels it has to precision agriculture. Because, when you think about it, a farming operation has a lot in common with a Rubik’s Cube, particularly when it comes to precision farming.

Solving the Rubik’s Cube does not happen by chance or luck, just as having successful growing seasons, year after year, are not the result of chance or luck. Here are four ways the Rubik’s Cube helps us understand how to solve the puzzle of precision agriculture.  

1. Everything is connected
One of the most important things the art of cubing can teach about precision agriculture management is that one set of issues directly impacts others.

Every cube, layer and face on a Rubik’s Cube is interconnected. With every move, effects trickle down to the next move as well as the final result (or lack of result). Solving all the cubes of the red side without thought for how it will affect the orange side will make the cube unsolvable.

Likewise, everything that happens on the farm is connected to something else. Planting affects harvest, tillage affects spraying. All the steps growers make in previous years, even decades, affect the final result: yield. The best way to start seeing this and understanding these relationships is through data management and analysis.

Related article:  How to examine and improve tillage practices

I saw this idea play out firsthand during my time working in natural resource management. I recall an instance where a grower moved from a tillage strategy to minimal tillage without fully developing a weed management plan. Changing the operation to minimal tillage had a huge impact on that grower’s weed management, yet they did not adequately adjust their weed management strategy. The grower was spraying the same chemistry, just at a much higher frequency. This “strategy” did not effectively get rid of weeds, instead, it resulted in pesticide resistance. Not recognizing just how big a role tillage played in that grower’s weed management set the foundation for a failed outcome.
 
2. Multi-variate management

Every Rubik’s Cube, no matter its size, has cubes coded with various colors. Likewise, every farm, no matter its size, has a variety of activities that need to be tracked and managed.

The Rubik’s Cube helps to reveal that all farms, regardless of their size, have data from multiple sources that needs to be managed. Therefore, farms of all sizes benefit from that data and strategic mindset. The key is for growers to understand how to scale a data management system and program to meet their needs.

Smaller farms, for example, might consider starting with programs they participate in, like a Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Farm Service Agency crop programs or even Community Supported Agriculture consumer reporting efforts. These programs often require regular reporting of activities. It is easy to pull reports when tracking and monitoring that data. Starting here is a great opportunity to first realize, then grow the use of technology and data.

3. Seeing the big picture
 
Taking a strategic approach to something, just about anything, involves seeing the big picture.

Those who are successful in solving the Rubik’s puzzle put in a lot of work to strategize before ever making a single move. They spend time looking at the cube, assessing its current state and thinking through moves before making one. Every color, every spot on the cube matters to formulating the proper strategy and achieving the end result. With every click, they are constantly reaffirming that their moves align with the cube’s final solving.

A successful precision farming operation involves the same mindset. Growers must take a good, hard look at the farm as a whole. The only way to get this full picture is by documenting all data in a Farm Management Information System (FMIS).

Watch to learn about using Work Planner, a new tool in the John Deere Operations Center:



Some growers only document certain activities in their FMIS. This is understandable because data can be overwhelming. In fact, I often advise growers who are just dipping their toes into the idea of documenting data to only focus on one area to start, such as doing so for reporting purposes as I mentioned earlier.

However, even if you are not using all the data now, it is still a good idea to document it. It takes years, several growing cycles to really be able to see and analyze data. All that data being documented now, while maybe not being used now, will be great to have further down the road when you are ready to solve bigger problems.  

4. Moving backward means moving forwardOne of the toughest steps in solving a Rubik’s cube is also one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term farm plan. Part of the strategy involved in successful cubing is, sometimes, first moving a cube away from the goal location. Rather than moving a green cube to the face where green cubes are collecting, a strategic move at the time actually might be to move it further away.

It seems counterproductive, but it is crucial to achieving the long-term goal. This is a final, important lesson cubing strategy can teach us about farming strategy: in order to better the operation’s desired outcomes, it may require a move that seemingly goes against the end goal.

It can be a hard concept to realize. Even data isn’t the magic bullet to acceptance; good data often ebbs and flows and can also take years to show clear patterns of progress.  

Related article:  The first year using agronomic data

The use of fallow years is one of the most jolting and illuminating examples that comes to mind. This practice is best known to be used when needing to offset costs for a year. The practice of fallow, while in the short-term takes away from the end-game goal of having productive land that makes money, is a smart step in a longer-term soil health play. The moisture retention, the compaction reduction and the allowances of the organic matter to recover in soil all come about by taking a step back before stepping forward with a new cropping system.

These perceived “steps back” are beneficial, as long as they are not viewed as failures that lead to knee-jerk reactions, but instead are recognized as calculated, positive steps to moving the farm forward.

The resurgence of the Rubik’s Cube may not last. But, at least for now, it presents a new, nostalgic way to relate the systematic methods to solve a cube with similar steps to “solve” the precision farming puzzle.

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Interested in more about precision agriculture? Check out the RDO Equipment Co. Agriculture Technology Podcast, browse past episodes, and find out more about everything from equipment to UAVs to specialty crop care.

Watch the video series Precision Ag Answers – from RDO Equipment Co. on YouTube for a mix of quick tips and deep dives into the biggest precision agriculture questions.
Erin Hightower

Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 15 years. As an Agronomist at RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner.

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