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Precision farming - climbing aboard the digital high-tech tractor

Sustainably cultivating arable land, ensuring good harvests, milking cows, paperwork - farmers are barely coping with their heavy daily workload. High-tech agricultural machinery and automated solutions help save time and resources. By contributing to shaping progress, agricultural businesses of all sizes can gain economic and ecological benefits.

Precision farming has long been pratice. "The goal of every agricultural business is to be efficient and sustainable. In precision farming, resources such as seeds, pesticides and fertilisers are only used where they are needed," explains Prof. Dr. sc. agr. Hans W. Griepentrog, head of the Department of Process Engineering in Plant Production at the Institute of Agricultural Engineering of the University of Hohenheim.. 

Farming via satellite and sensor - farmers have the necessary data on a screen

GPS-assisted agricultural machines equipped with sensors spread fertiliser only where necessary. © Oliver Martin, Farmblick, Kraichtal

Agricultural machines with RTK (real-time kinematic) systems are equipped with GPS and sensors. A farmer driving a tractor constantly receives new information in real time via the on-board computer. Where is it dry, where is it moist? Where is the biomass weak? What are the soil compaction and terrain profile like? How much fertiliser and pesticide is needed and where? What are the weather conditions like? Where farmers used to painstakingly make notes of individual steps on index cards and where analyses were once carried out in the laboratory using traditional methods, this same information is now digitally stored as electronic field records and immediately available online. Based on such data, farmers can identify, plan and implement measures adapted to individual conditions. Such measures include machining depths, optimal sowing and partial surface treatment. As the tractor is driven across the field, information from the digital fertiliser record is transmitted to a computer-assisted fertiliser spreader. Nutrients necessary for plant growth are thus only applied to specifically determined sites. Intelligent sensors can be used in a variety of ways: the colour of leaves can be determined via light waves by nitrogen sensors on the tractor. The on-board computer simultaneously adjusts the spreader according to fertiliser recommendations, matching the amount of fertiliser to the requirements of specific areas. Intelligent sensor-controlled systems also provide valuable services during harvesting. For example, combine harvesters measure the quantity of crops to be harvested and the moisture within a specific area. A software programme then takes this information and determines yield distribution over the total field area.

Screen of the ISOBUS-compatible terminal used to control or automatically steer the soil sampling vehicle. © Oliver Martin, Farmblick, Kraichtal

Another approach to saving resources involves automated steering systems. They are satellite-controlled to maintain a precise course for the particular agricultural machine. They have a maximum deviation of two centimetres. This prevents overlaps, reduces fuel consumption and automatically switches off the nozzles while the tractor is turning. This enables targeted and reduced use of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. The defined nitrate input can be absorbed completely by the plant, thus avoiding overfertilisation. This is seen as environmentally and economically important. "Production processes have become more transparent and easier to control for everyone involved in farming processes," says Griepentrog, a process engineering expert. "Environmental protection requirements and sustainability targets are therefore met." Griepentrog also emphasises the importance of using such measures for organic farming. "Up-to-date knowledge of field conditions and crops along with autonomous machines lead to better production results and resource efficiency."

Semi-autonomous driving gives farmers further economic added value. Instead of actively steering, he or she can use a mobile device to plan and complete other tasks at the same time, such as instructing parallel driving systems. Another advantage is that this avoids tiresome and consequently inefficient work.

Drones and robots - vision of the future or providing real help?

The KUBOTA RTV-X900 utility vehicle, converted by a company called FarmBlick for application in georeferenced soil sampling (the borer is mounted at the rear of the vehicle). Exact documentation of the sampling site helps farmers to identify the same site and repeat the sampling at a later date. © Oliver Martin, Farmblick, Kraichtal

Aerial view: Using thermal imaging or multispectral cameras, drones can detect disease-related changes in individual plants at an early stage. If plants are growing differently within a plot of land, they can apply fertilisers or pesticides specifically to the slow-growing plants. Drones can also be used to map biomass, detect wildlife as well as document water, hail or animal damage. Plants are not crushed, neither is the soil compacted. Is the crop infected with pests? Have wild boars rooted in the soil? Field robots can detect the exact position and characteristics of crops, companion plants and the soil. Many individual photos are assembled into an overall database picture. Numerous sensors enable targeted sowing, with small holes dug only in available slots and seeds selectively planted. The robots weigh very little, thus causing very little damage to wet soil and enabling farmers to sow early in the spring. Such devices can also be used for mechanical weed control. Robots have also long been used in barns. They recognise and clean the teats of cows and provide autonomous milking, thus relieving the farmer of these tasks.

Cooperation with other farmers - a possibility for small farms

Hans Griepentrog also highlights the importance of regional data, e.g. on the behaviour of crop varieties, the best period for sowing and the use of pesticides and other active ingredients. “If special data analysis methods are used effectively, the experiences of many regional farmers with similar problems can be put to good use. Data management, satellite navigation, robots, networking - all this technology raises the question of affordability, especially for smaller farms, and for regions that consist almost entirely of smaller farms like Baden-Württemberg. Machine rings and service providers are playing an increasingly important role when it comes to machine utilisation and cost-efficient operation. “A farmer needs to be able to filter out information from the electronic field records relevant to his or her individual needs,” says Oliver Martin, a farmer from the Kraichgau area, describing the often complex coherences between the different factors that need to be taken into account. He works extensively with digitisation without losing sight of efficiency. To make it easier for farmers to become involved in precision farming, Oliver Martin and Marius Sauer jointly founded the consulting and service company FarmBlick Oliver Martin & Marius Sauer GbR in 2017.

"The amount of data that every farmer needs and uses on his or her farm is as different as the individual use of smartphones." But big data can become "smart data", i.e. the intelligent processing of large amounts of data using semantics. Service providers such as FarmBlick advise and provide solutions tailored to farmers’ specific needs. Rental options, sensor trips, technical installations and data management can considerably simplify the day-to-day work of the company’s customers. Farm management platforms such as 365FarmNet can be used for digitally processing data. This way, time-consuming steps such as the creation of automatic field records, documentation, operational analysis and applying for subsidies are made easier. The recommendations for action generated from the data can be used and implemented for further measures. Oliver Martin recommends investing in small steps, e.g. starting off with yield potential records and obtaining advice on the efficiency of certain measures. "In order to meet the requirements of sustainable agriculture, supplying farmers nationwide with free field records and satellite maps has the potential to ensure the survival of small farms in particular."

Many companies own older agricultural machines from different manufacturers with different operating terminals. Integrating work processes does not necessarily require purchasing new tractors or implements. A standardised ISOBUS terminal can replace various device terminals. This allows complex information to be exchanged among the mobile devices and the equipment used. The user platform Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF), an initiative of international agricultural machinery manufacturers and associations, focuses on the application and further development of ISOBUS, amongst other things.

Data protection has the highest priority when it comes to using operational digital information. “Data are tradeable goods with high economic value," says Griepentrog. "Unlike the industrial sector, the natural ecosystem creates different conditions every day, and the farmer can choose between taking corrective action or opting for a digital solution." So despite progress made in farming machinery and operations, farmers are irreplaceable. The data must belong to the farmer and only he or she should be able to authorise its use. Ultimately, responsibility for the farm and the environment remains in the hands of the farmer.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/precision-farming-climbing-aboard-the-digital-high-tech-tractor