The introduction of precision farming is often referred to as an agricultural revolution. It has unquestionably helped change the way farmers and growers view the process of food production, focusing on small details to make marginal gains that deliver productivity and efficiency benefits.
The agricultural supply chain has been boosted with farmers demanding cutting edge innovation and manufacturers and suppliers able to deliver breakthrough innovation to market.
But progression has not always been rapid. The concept of precision farming can be traced back to America in the 1980s but took more than 10 years for other well-developed nations with a strong agricultural presence, like the UK, France and other major European countries, to latch on to its potential.
Fast forward 20 years and a plethora of options have been delivered by leading manufacturers who have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible, manoeuvrable, measurable and recordable in a field. Farmers have bought in to it and countries that were slow out of the blocks are now on board. In the UK, for example, about 60% of UK farmland is now under some sort of precision farming management.1
However, is the real revolution yet to come?
Integration to meet the challenges of tomorrow
Put broadly, developments in precision technology unlock potential. That could be potential for efficiency, productivity, environmental sustainability, profitability – many go hand in hand.
With food producers being pushed for increased output from fewer inputs, accurate targeting of the right inputs at the right time will be paramount.
Integration across technologies and platforms is where precision farming can be taken to the next level.
The use of drones and satellite imagery to capture site-specific information about a field of crops can tell sprayers where weed populations sit. Soil sampling can work hand in hand with machines designed to only place fertilizer in areas of the field where a nutrient boost is required.
Management decisions can be analysed during harvesting when real-time yield data is delivered, giving a meaningful analysis on whether the right actions were taken.
Part of the success of the next wave of precision farming products hinges on data. How precision technology improves agriculture depends enormously on how big data is handled.
Manufacturers will continue to invest in new products and technology to allow farmers to do things better, faster or more efficiently than before. But integration is where precision agriculture really gets to fulfil its potential.
Data is being created and captured all over the world – from tractors moving around fields to agronomists sampling soil. Weather stations endlessly stream information about growing conditions while unmanned aerial vehicles map out profiles of a single field.
Currently, much of that data is used for on-the-spot analysis or to inform the next management decision on farm. What excites manufacturers, suppliers, advisers and farmers is what could be achieved if all that data was captured, cleaned up and turned into something more innovative.
The supply chain could use that information to create an accurate picture of what conditions are like in specific locations or counties to help advise farmers on what products they can use to achieve the best results. Manufacturers can see local, national and international trends quickly, ensuring that they have stock and resources to meet spikes in demand or capitalize on growth areas.
Farmers get better advice, receive orders quickly and use only the inputs they need to achieve the best result.
There are huge benefits to be gained by the supply chain and at farm level. Unlocking the potential relies heavily on relationships between the two.
And it’s already happening. Major agricultural companies are breaking new ground in understanding what data can be captured and where it is best used on farm.
Increasing availability in emerging markets
Gone are the days of precision farming being only for the large-scale farmer.
In fact, precision farming has the potential to make huge gains in emerging agricultural markets.
More than 70% of jobs in East Africa are in agriculture2 where most crops are produced using trial, error and experience. Only relatively recently has mechanization helped transform the working day.
While some of the gadgets and smart machinery is not applicable or available to small-scale farmers in developing regions of the world, such as Africa, the principles of farming smart remain.
Smallholder farms support more than two billion people worldwide, but few have access to the information and advice they need to replace a legacy of inefficient and environmentally unsustainable agricultural practices.
Localized information can greatly improve production, reduce unnecessary fertilizer and pesticide use and increase profit. Innovations from high-tech global companies are starting to penetrate emerging markets, transforming lives and livelihoods.
As on-the-ground communication continues to improve for many smallholders in undeveloped corners of the globe, accurate information and support will have a dramatic, positive impact on small farms.
How far can precision farming go?
Manufacturers and suppliers of precision farming equipment are primed to continue to deliver smart solutions in an internet-connected world. Their focus is the same as farmers; to meet the challenges of modern food production.
Bridging the gaps from research institutions to research and development teams and from the factory floor to the field will be key to translating the practical exploitation to support the sustainability of primary production and supply chain functionality.
On-farm data, information and knowledge needs to flow easily through the supply chain to the farm and back again to provide greater opportunities for optimization, innovation and efficiency. A supply chain that prioritises connectivity for the benefit of each individual business and the industry as a whole is well-placed to reap the lucrative benefits.
1. Beecher-Jones, I. in Farmers Weekly (2014), “How precision farming is changing UK agriculture”.
2. NEPAD Report for United Nations (2013), “Agriculture in Africa – Transformation and outlook”