How precision agriculture is driving data-gathering on farms

 

Increasing global demand for food means farmers are under ever greater pressure to produce more with the same resources. It is anticipated that food production will need to increase by 70% on today’s levels by 2050, as the world’s population rises to over 9bn – 34% higher than it is today.

This, combined with considerable pressure on margins, means maximizing efficiencies is a priority for a lot of large scale producers – but this also needs to be done in a sustainable form. Agriculture not only faces a slow-down in productivity growth, but limitations to the availability of farmland, changes to the climate, input price increases and restrictions to energy use – all of which it must tackle.[2] Fortunately, technological advances and the increasing integration of computer software in farming practices is helping to provide the answer.

Efficiency and competitiveness

In the UK, total factor productivity is a measure of how well inputs are converted into outputs in the agricultural industry – giving an indication of efficiency and competitiveness. Between 2010 and 2015, total agricultural productivity increased by 5.3%[3], with inputs rising by 3.4% and outputs up by 8.9% to the highest level ever recorded. Since 1973, total factor productivity has increased by 68%, driven by a 35% increase in the volume of outputs and a 20% decrease in the volume of inputs.[4]

According to Defra, labour is the key input in driving productivity gains, with labour volumes having approximately halved since 1973. However, over the past few years, growth in labour productivity has been a result of increased output, rather than any reductions to labour volumes.[5]

Increasing mechanization has reduced demand for labour, and as precision agriculture becomes more autonomous at collecting data and transmitting to software for analysis, labour inputs are likely to fall further.

A huge number of farming machines are now able to collect data from the field, including tractors, combines and sprayers, using satellites, high precision positioning systems, smart sensors and a range of computer applications combined with high-tech engineering. There are numerous types of data that can be collected and utilized in precision agriculture – each set of data helping to build up a large and accessible picture for the farmer. Measures can be taken to determine patterns in soil and weather conditions, seed viability, topography, nutrients, disease history, row distance and planting depth.

Precision agriculture

Increasingly, precision agriculture is being used to measure resources and inputs and to quantify results from both. It allows farmers to use the most precise and correct amounts of inputs; whether this is water, fertilizer, chemical controls or seeds.

Around 70-80% of new farm equipment sold in Europe now incorporates some form of precision agriculture component technology. There are 4,500 manufacturers producing 450 different types of machine, turning over around €26bn annually and employing 135,000 people.[6]

Agricultural machinery can be fitted with high precision positioning systems, automated steering, geo-mapping, sensors, integrated electronic communications and variable rate technology, among others. Pinpoint accuracy reduces the overlapping or unnecessary use of inputs such as fertilizer and sprays, maximizing productivity at optimal cost. High precision positioning systems such as GPS also help with this, navigating and positioning machinery from anywhere in the world with up to 2cm accuracy.[7]

Automated steering systems can take over from manual driving, reducing the chance of human error. These systems can either direct the driver, provide guidance patterns or take complete control of the machinery while the driver focuses on the equipment being used.[8]

Creating maps – or geo-mapping – has become one of the most useful tools for producers, as they allow for an accurate and targeted approach to inputs. Maps can provide details on soil, topography, terrain, moisture content, organic matter, nitrogen, pH and a number of other elements – these can then be used when planning plantings and inputs.

Sensors and remote sensing can aid in building up maps, transferring data from field to software via integrated electronic communications, as these can be mounted on or built into moving machines, reducing the need for farmers to manually input the figures. [9]

Inputting sampling and data to software over a number of years can build up a farm record that can then help to improve decision making, provide traceability, enhance market opportunities and improve the overall quality of the produce.

Monsanto and DuPont have launched Prescriptive Planting software in the US which provides data driven advice to determine variable planting rates; accommodating varying conditions in a single field to maximize yields.[10] This is a type of variable rate technology, that allows for precise and accurate applications depending of specific variations to a number of factors such as soil type.

Water usage

Efficient use of water is a key aspect many large producers will look to optimize, particularly with drought a sizeable issue in many key producing regions like Australia. Companies such as IBM are working on producing software to help farmers manage water usage. Currently, 70% of fresh water worldwide is used for agriculture, so how this is managed in the future will have a global impact.[11]

Precision agriculture, though unable to alter the weather, can help farmers tackle the challenges it poses. By collecting and analyzing data, farmers can accurately assess what fields are likely to be more affected by adverse weather conditions and can then plan for this.[12]

Many organizations are focused on driving precision agriculture, including AgGateway – which encourages industry cooperation to set up global standards and guidelines.[13] There are also a number of European Commission-led initiatives on precision farming, such as the Working Group on Smart Farming and the European Innovation Partnership on Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability.[14]

Despite all of this, uptake of precision farming practices in Europe is still very low, with only 35% of new fertilizer spreaders sold including a precision weigh instrument – which is essential for adjusting quantity and direction of spread.[15]

On top of this, the issue of the aging workforce on farms continues to be a hindrance to the adoption of new technology. In 2013, 31% of the holding managers on EU farms were aged over 65, while only 6% were younger than 35.[16]

In many rural areas across the UK internet access is also still an issue, with only 59% of homes in rural areas having access to superfast broadband in 2017.[17] Having fast and reliable internet access in the home is still a challenge for many, but having access to this in the field, where precision technology would be transmitting data from, can be even more difficult. A report by the National Infrastructure Commission says that 4G coverage in the UK is worse than in Romania and Peru and ranks only 54th in the world.[18]

For Europe to remain competitive in the global agricultural industry, data driven farming is the key ingredient – allowing for more productive and sustainable practices.[19]


[1] IBM Research: Precision Agriculture. 2017. IBM Research: Precision Agriculture. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.research.ibm.com/articles/precision_agriculture.shtml.
[2] The Global Food Challenge | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. The Global Food Challenge | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/global-food-challenge.
[3] Gov.uk. 2017. Total factor productivity of the agricultural industry – GOV.UK. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/total-factor-productivity-of-the-agricultural-industry.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Farming 4.0: the Future of Agriculture? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Farming 4.0: the Future of Agriculture? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/farming-40-future-agriculture.
[7] Precision Farming: key technologies & concepts | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Precision Farming: key technologies & concepts | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/precision-farming-key-technologies-concepts.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Santa Clara University. 2017. Big Farma: Prescriptive Planting – Resources – Technology Ethics – Focus Areas – Markkula Center for Applied Ethics – Santa Clara University. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/technology-ethics/resources/big-farma-prescriptive-planting/.
[11] IBM Research: Precision Agriculture. 2017. IBM Research: Precision Agriculture. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.research.ibm.com/articles/precision_agriculture.shtml.
[12] Ibid
[13] Precision Farming: key technologies & concepts | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Precision Farming: key technologies & concepts | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/precision-farming-key-technologies-concepts.
[14] Enabling Smart Farming in Europe | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Enabling Smart Farming in Europe | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/enabling-smart-farming-europe-0.
[15] Farming 4.0: the Future of Agriculture? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Farming 4.0: the Future of Agriculture? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/farming-40-future-agriculture.
[16] Ibid
[17] Farmers Weekly. 2017. BT’s Openreach deal ‘must address rural broadband woes’ – Farmers Weekly. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fwi.co.uk/news/bt-openreach-deal-must-address-rural-broadband-woes.htm.
[18] The Guardian. 2017. UK 4G coverage worse than in Romania and Peru, watchdog finds | Money | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/dec/14/uk-4g-coverage-worse-than-in-romania-and-peru-watchdog-finds.
[19] Digital Farming: what does it really mean? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. 2017. Digital Farming: what does it really mean? | CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cema-agri.org/page/digital-farming-what-does-it-really-mean.

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