Steve Cubbage, is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.
Steve Cubbage, is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.

In the early days of precision agriculture, there were a lot of technologies arriving on the scene that captured the title of “The Next Big Thing.” One of those “Big Things” was something called “EC”—the acronym for electrical conductivity.

The theory was that by shooting an electrical current into soil to measure resistance and logging that data with GPS you could make an “EC Map” of your field.

Why?

For many it was like being able to peer into a soil’s soul as you could discover its character and how it might react under certain conditions. In scientific terms, the EC data told you how much of your soil was sand verses clay and helped determine its water and nutrient-holding capabilities.

In the early 2000’s, the “it” piece of hardware to have in your precision stable was a pull-type coulter EC rig called a Veris or an EM-38 machine that sort of looks like you’re pulling a landscape timber with wheels attached!

EC maps became the “it” layer to have in your precision portfolio—trumping at that time the still-fascinating colored yield maps and those nifty variable fertility layers. For a brief moment in time, EC soil data was considered the “magic bullet”—the “go-to” layer for making management decisions involving variety selection, seeding rates and nutrient and herbicide applications.

What happened next? Reality sank in and it was discovered that EC data is not exactly magic—but it isn’t snake oil either. It is a tool—a layer of data—no different than yield data, topographical data or fertility data. Unfortunately because of this reality, EC mapping went through a sophomore slump as precision service providers went back to their meat and potatoes services like doing GPS soil sampling and making yield maps deeming EC data not worth their time or effort. Both metaphorically and in reality, EC became regulated to the fencerow right next to the five-bottom plow that nobody uses anymore.

Fast forward to today. EC is back—and so is a little bit of the magic—retooled and this time with a purpose. The difference this time is that EC data is being leveraged to validate traditional data such as yield maps and soil type maps. It has also become a foundational layer as variable-rate seeding technology has hit the mainstream. It just makes sense to better understand things like the water-holding capability of your soils before deciding on how many seeds per acre to plant.

The other big reason for EC’s comeback is another new acronym called VRI—“Variable-Rate Irrigation.” VRI is literally an electronic prescription that tells your pivot how much water to put on as it moves across the field. Again, it is just common sense that something that determines the water-holding capabilities of a field’s soil be used when determining how much water to apply to the soil!

The final big reason EC became a bigger deal was something called big data and cloud computing. The computing technology finally caught up with the data being collected. Data scientists finally realized that EC truly deserved to be in the starting lineup of today’s precision ag data team.

It is because of all these reasons that EC is back, and it’s here to stay simply because we’ve discovered its relevance in relation to all the new layers of data. It simply makes all the other layers better.

It’s nice to know that EC data was not a one-hit wonder, and it’s good to see that its sophomore slump is behind us. It is now clear that it is about to graduate to a whole new level.