The future of agriculture is digital: robots milk cows, drones map fields and sensors measure the nutrient content of the soil and vital data of animals. As in so many other industries, this is primarily about increasing efficiency and optimizing your own operations. However, issues such as sustainability and environmentally friendly management are also increasingly becoming the focus of farmers.
Balancing both aspects – more efficiency and more environmental protection – is becoming increasingly important. Because the challenges for the agricultural sector are increasing – this applies worldwide. Experts estimate that an additional three billion people will have to be fed in 2050. This means that more food has to be produced in a smaller area and with less use of natural resources. The digital transformation can be the key to this.
Many experts at Agritechnica in autumn 2019 concluded that economy and ecology are no longer a contradiction, but two sides of the same coin of efficiency. “Intelligent machine, process and operator solutions that produce more output with less CO2nd, Producing nitrogen oxides and ammonia, sensible companies can no longer come by, “said Bernd Scherer, managing director of the Association of German Mechanical and Plant Engineering.
In fact, many farmers are open to the digitization of their farms. More than eight out of ten agricultural companies in Germany already use digital technologies and applications such as high-tech agricultural machinery, agricultural apps, sensors, robots or drones. Another ten percent plan or discuss the use, according to the results of a study commissioned by Bitkom, the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) and the Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank (LR), for which around 500 farmers in Germany were interviewed in spring 2020. “Digitization is everyday life in agriculture,” stated Bernhard Krüsken, General Secretary of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV). Newer digital technologies such as AI, machine learning and big data would also be used successfully. “At the same time, they provide a good approach to objectify the public discussion about agriculture and to create understanding and acceptance of modern agriculture,” said Krüsken.
The advantages of digitalization include above all a higher production efficiency (81 percent) and physical relief (79 percent). Almost all respondents say that digital technologies help to save fertilizers, crop protection products and other resources. A good two thirds emphasized that digitalization is in principle a great opportunity for more sustainable agriculture and can contribute to an increase in animal welfare.
Even though almost three quarters of farms see digitalization as an opportunity, six out of ten farmers also point to major challenges that this entails. The first step here is the investment costs associated with digitization. The willingness to take money in hand is likely to be low, especially in uncertain times such as the corona crisis. DBV President Joachim Rukwied spoke of a persistently difficult economic situation and a high level of uncertainty among farmers. The farmer official warned that a quarter of German farmers want to postpone planned investments indefinitely. A third see the corona crisis facing market problems.
Nevertheless, the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) speaks of a strong dynamic through digitalization. Data acquisition via sensor technology, the processing of this data with the help of algorithms and various forms of artificial intelligence as well as ever more efficient data transmission are the driving factors. Agriculture can particularly benefit from this, the farmers’ representatives say. This has to do with the fact that with soil, water, air and animals, more data can mean more knowledge and thus lead to even more targeted resource and climate efficiency and further improve the welfare of animals.
Digitization is a huge opportunity for agriculture, emphasize the DBV representatives. It creates new and exciting tasks for entrepreneurs and employees alike, enables more flexible work arrangements that are tailored to the personal needs of the individual, and offers the opportunity to greatly increase productivity. Thanks to digitization, the use of soil, water and air can also be made more environmentally friendly and the welfare of animals improved.
Further practical examples for digitization projects can be found here
However, this only works if the necessary infrastructure is available. This is exactly where the association and Bitkom see a need to catch up – especially in rural areas. “With the advancing digitalization of all economic and life areas, the demands on the networks increase day by day,” stated DBV General Secretary Krüsken years ago.
After all, something seems to be moving at this point: At the end of 2019, the president of the farmers’ association Rukwied assessed the decision of the Federal Cabinet on the mobile phone strategy as fundamentally positive: “The decision of the federal government is an important signal for the people in the country, at least 4G mobile phone (LTE) To be guaranteed everywhere in the area – in households and companies, on roads, railways and expressly also on agricultural areas. To do this, the necessary conditions must now be created quickly, in particular the expansion of the transmission masts. At the same time, the necessary area-wide expansion to the new 5G -Standard to be tackled emphatically. “
In order to give the topic of digital farming additional momentum, the farmers’ association wants to work more closely with the Federal Association of German Startups in the future. The aim of this cooperation is to transfer knowledge from agricultural research into practice more quickly and to network agriculture technology (AgTech) startups more closely with agricultural businesses.
“In view of globalization, climate volatility, scarcity of resources and increasing social requirements for environmental and animal protection as well as for the quality assurance of food, agriculture needs to put scientific knowledge into practice quickly,” said Benedikt Bösel, farmer and spokesman for the start-up’s AgTech platform Association.
In the meantime, a lively startup scene seems to be developing around AgTech. Young companies are researching innovative animal feed, applications to improve animal health, and the intelligent networking and management of geographic and climatic data to enable farmers to work faster and more precisely.
Through the development of food platforms and e-commerce, the farms are also to be supported in the purchase of raw materials and the sale of their products. In addition to efficiency, the eco-balance should also play an important role, confirm the startup representatives. For example, technologies are to be developed that support the natural properties of plants and thus require less chemicals and toxins.
The range of digital opportunities in agriculture is becoming ever wider. That starts with data-based, for example Farm management: Automatic documentation saves time and leads to transparent and efficient operations. With the help of data analyzes, it is also possible to identify route and application times, machine and operating resources as well as essential cost drivers in detail and thus plan them precisely. Smart data is therefore a key task for intelligent farm management, experts say.
It’s also about data Precision farming: “Field-specific management” of fields is one of the most promising approaches for agricultural experts for a more sustainable and efficient agriculture. Since fields mostly have uneven soil conditions, small-scale cultivation is much more sensible than uniform tilling.
The principle of precision farming is based on collecting data from soil, plants, water supply and the agricultural machinery used. Combined with GPS positions, the method allows more targeted sowing, fertilization and watering of the plants – in this way, precision farming can lead to savings in resources, energy consumption and working hours, for example. The lower use of herbicides and mineral fertilizers also means that nature is less polluted with environmental toxins.
Even with the robotics there has been great progress, although milking robots, for example, have long been established. Many animal farmers now use robot-assisted systems to automatically clean stables, adjust feeding individually to their animals or also for quality control of the milk. The robot is currently being tested in the field as a “helping hand”.
For example, experts say that vegetable cultivation can be carried out almost completely automatically: robots spread the seeds, document the exact position of each individual plant and drones monitor the growth of crops and weeds in the fields. Today, harvesting robots could already use image and sensor data to detect whether fruits or vegetables are ripe and introduce them automatically. Robots can also support farmers in logistics: with modular containers that adapt to yields, sensors that check weight and quality, and lasers that seal packaging.
An important component of robot systems is that Sensors, which also plays an increasingly important role elsewhere in digital farming. The precise measurement and control of changes (environmental) technical, biological and ecological systems to measure and control helps to cultivate fields as needed as possible. In this way, yields can be consistently and consistently optimized, as digital technology promises.
It works like this: sensors under the surface of the field measure the moisture and temperature of the soil. The values are either sent to the cloud from where the farmer can call them up, or sent directly to the farmers’ in-house computers via a mobile phone connection. On the basis of this data, the irrigation and fertilization of plants can then be adjusted in a much more targeted manner. Nitrogen sensors can also use light waves to record the leaf color of plants and give a precise fertilizer recommendation, which can be communicated directly to the on-board computer of a tractor, for example.
In animal husbandry, sensors monitor the health status of sick or pregnant animals. Highly specialized software evaluates the vital data determined by the sensor, makes recommendations and thus supports the further decision-making and treatment process. For the farmer, sensor technology ultimately means more location independence and time savings: in the future, you will no longer have to be personally present to monitor the health of animals or the degree of maturity of plants.
All scenarios around the digital farm are based on high-performance networking, which is ultimately just that Internet of Things (IoT) enabled in agriculture. Experts are certain: In future, production processes will largely control themselves, machines will communicate with machines (M2M) and vehicles will be controlled autonomously. Example: efficient use of machines at harvest time.
In this way, transport vehicles could be directed via GPS to harvesting machines that autonomously leave the fields at exactly the right time to pick up and remove a load of grain or potatoes. Platforms such as 365Farmnet, FarmTune, Trecker.com or US startups such as Farmlogs and Granular.ag are likely to play an increasingly important role for the agricultural industry in the future. They support farmers, service providers and contractors in coordinating their resources and machinery and using them as efficiently as possible – especially during the harvest and in transport logistics.
In addition to the startups, the traditional farmers’ partners have also recognized the trend towards digitization and are increasingly offering corresponding services. For example, in addition to the classic e-business portal, BayWa AG wants to offer farmers new digital services so that they can work more easily, efficiently and in a way that conserves resources. For this purpose, BayWa-CIO Tobias Fausch has also promoted digital change within the group – for example, standardizing the master data in the group, harmonizing the IT systems and initiating a change process in order to convert established processes into digitized processes.
The first services are already available: One example is “VariableRain”, a service available worldwide to optimize the irrigation of fields in grids of ten by ten meters. For this, weather data are correlated with information on crop types, sowing date and soil conditions. In a model, plant growth is simulated using various parameters such as carbon, nutrient and water balance and compared with real satellite data. As a result, the farmer receives an accurate irrigation map for his fields.
Farmers’ expectations of digitization are high. They want to become more efficient and productive, deal with the natural resources
of water, soil and air in a more environmentally friendly manner, and take animal welfare more seriously. According to DBV General Secretary Krüsken, agriculture has always been open to innovation and further development. “Digital technologies, new breeding methods and modern data management systems offer great innovation potential that agriculture must use if it wants to remain internationally competitive and to meet the diverse societal requirements.”
Ultimately, consumers also benefited. According to Krüsken, the transparency and traceability of the cultivation and production chains would be significantly improved and more information made available through innovative solutions. “But we can get even better here,” the farmers’ representative admits self-critically. “To exploit the potential, we need more practical relevance in agricultural and nutritional research.”
Politics at the federal and state levels are also required at this point, and everyone involved agrees. They had to set up test platforms with close contact to practical agriculture and offer tailored financial aids and technical advice to found AgTech startups.