Farming is a risky business. And it’s getting riskier, says Tobias Menne, business lead for digital farming at Bayer’s Crop Science division. ‘The risks for farmers are growing,’ Menne says, ‘because of the need for increased productivity, regulations, weather extremes brought about by climate change and current volatility on commodity prices.’
That in turn is making life on the farm more difficult. And making it harder for farmers to decide how best to respond when there’s a potential problem.
‘In future, what farmers really want is yield guarantees,’ according to Bayer board member and president of the Crop Science division Liam Condon, speaking at the company’s annual press conference in Leverkusen earlier in 2016.
Down on the modern high-tech farm, agri-tech providers and IT experts are playing an ever bigger part in day-to-day decision-making – advising farmers what types of seed to sow, which fertiliser or pesticides to select, and where and when and how much is needed. Yield guarantees would go even further, Menne explains, by linking the company’s earnings to how well its agrochemical services and products perform out in the field - a bit like the drug reimbursement models recently introduced by Big Pharma. Essentially, the company would share some of the risks with farmers.
While yield guarantees are still some years away, digital technologies are already making a big impact. From self-steering tractors to satellites, sensors and drones that silently collect and store away information about the risks of pests and diseases, the quality and nutritional status of soils and even plant health; information that promises to help farmers plan and manage every small area of farmland for optimum productivity – to produce more crops with less agrochemicals.
Digital farming is ‘vital not only to improving a farm’s financial performance, but also to meet the food needs of an expanding population,’ say the authors of a 2015 report – Digital agriculture: improving profitability – by consultancy firm Accenture. By 2020, the market for precision agriculture is expected to reach $4.55bn, they report – growing at 12.2%/year starting from 2014 (www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/precision-farming-market-1243.html).
‘For me, what’s really helpful about digital farming is it enables us to deliver our best agronomic know-how to every acre,’ Menne says. ‘Wherever farmers are furthest away from optimisation it will help most.’
Crop productivity varies enormously, he points out, with yields often two to three times higher even for the same crops given the same inputs grown in different parts of the same field. Digital technologies don’t just improve productivity, but also sustainability – by better directing fertilisers, pesticides and other agri inputs only when and where needed.
In recent trials in the UK, France and Germany, for example, Bayer researchers reported using 30% less volume of fungicide when applied under the guidance of new sensor technology, while a separate study found less than a third of the quantity of herbicides and fungicides were needed when targeted only at weeds rather than sprayed over the entire crop.
DuPont Pioneer marketing director, Eric Boeck reports a similar success story for the company’s Encirca Yield platform. ‘We ran more than 80 innovation trials on actual farms this year where growers could compare their traditional management practices to the Encirca Yield Nitrogen Service recommendations,’ Boeck says. ‘The Encirca recommendation won 77% of the time. And in those winning trials, growers achieved a $30 return (before service fee); averaged a six-bushel per-acre yield advantage; and used 5Ib less nitrogen/acre on average.’
The company has just introduced a new Encirca Yield Nitrogen app that lets the grower see real-time, and in-the-field, nitrogen levels for their operation by field – and by distinct ‘Decision Zones’ that help growers manage in-field variability, Boeck continues. ‘We’re continually building upon and refining our model. It becomes more and more powerful with each data set we have to draw upon.’
Digital farming should be better for farmers and for the environment. But farming organisations are urging caution. A 2014 survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), for example, found that ‘an overwhelming majority of farmers’ – 82% of the 3400 respondents – were unaware what happens to all the data being generated about their farms. More than half of the farmers surveyed were also unclear whether their data could be shared with an off-farm company’s third party, business party or affiliate.
‘Harnessing proprietary information for field level efficiency and effectiveness is the key that will unlock more profitability and the greater adoption of precision agriculture. That’s good for business and the environment, too,’ says AFBF president Zippy Duvall. However, ‘farmers must retain ownership and control of the private agricultural data that originates from the work they do in their fields.’
A new Agricultural Data Coalition (ADC), launched in March 2016 by the AFBF and other agricultural stakeholders, attempts to address the problem by building ‘an online repository where farmers can securely store and control the information collected by tractors, harvesters, aerial drones and other devices,’ the AFBF reports.
Over time, these data can then be scrubbed, synced and transmitted only to third parties – researchers, crop insurance agents, government officials, farm managers, input providers or advisers – of the farmer’s choosing.
‘The key is that farmers are in complete control, and they decide who is allowed access to their data,’ explains ADC interim executive director, Matt Bechdol. ‘That’s what sets ADC apart. This is not about profit for others; it’s about streamlining data management, establishing clear lines of control, and helping growers utilise their data in ways that ultimately benefit them.’
For commercial IT providers and agri-tech suppliers, too, however, data security is a major issue. ‘At BASF we take data privacy issues very seriously,’ says Matthias Nachtmann, global manager of business development in BASF’s crop protection division.
‘If the farmer asks us for advice specific to his farm, we apply intelligence on their data. However, data from the farm is owned by the farmer. We apply the latest IT/highest level security technologies to ensure all of this information is safely protected.’
BASF’s new online agricultural platform Maglis, for example, is designed to be accessible to farmers and BASF agricultural experts throughout the growing season, the company reports. The first tools are currently being rolled out in the US and piloted in Canada: Maglis Crop Plan and Maglis Sustainability Assessment are aimed at farmers, while Maglis Customer Navigator is targeted at BASF sales advisers and promises to bring them rapidly up to speed with detailed real-time data about a particular field or farm situation to improve recommendations for farmers.
‘Maglis helps farmers to think differently,’ enthused Fredric Scott Kay, vice president of BASF’s US Crop business division, speaking at the launch event at the farmers’ Commodity Classic conference in New Orleans in March 2016.
‘For example, are there different decisions that can be made at each cropping stage? How do we navigate new decisions and move into places we’ve never been before? And record those [experiences] and learn from them and then move forward again.’
Another recent BASF project, with tractor and farm equipment maker John Deere and other public partners, aims to develop a new smart sprayer designed to help farmers comply with regulations by avoiding contaminating surface waters or nature areas.
The project, which won a gold medal for innovation from the German Agricultural Society in 2015, combines all of the steps of a crop application process in one IT-based solution. It includes a Pesticide Application Manager that connects sprayers with machine-readable application maps identifying legal buffer zones where spraying is prohibited.
New technologies will be essential to boost productivity, Nachtmann adds. ‘A hundred years ago my grandfather’s farm was 10 ha – so small he could manage each field himself. Today farms can be 10,000ha or higher and that would be impossible. Digital farming will help manage more acres more soundly and sustainably.’
Specialist IT firms, not surprisingly, are in the driving seat when it comes to new digital farming innovations. Recent deals include Bayer’s acquisition of plant health diagnosis service provider proPlant, announced in February 2016. A spin-off from the Institute for Geoinformatics at Munster University, ‘proPlant software will give farmers a heads up on where insects and diseases are occurring,’ explains Menne.
‘The aim is to give growers in the EU four to six days’ notice about upcoming pests and diseases so that we can reduce the amount of unnecessary field scouting for the farmer and free them up to do other more important jobs.’
The proPlant deal follows Bayer’s acquisition of the Zoner geoinformation system from IntelMax in Calgary, Canada, in 2015 – aimed at providing farmers with tailored recommendations for action at the level of individual sub-plots. And it also comes after a flurry of other deals, including most notably Monsanto’s $1bn acquisition of Silicon Valley startup, The Climate Corporation, back in October 2013, which led to its prescriptive planting system FieldScrips, The Economist reported in an article, ‘Digital disruption down on the farm’.
That takeover reportedly allowed Monsanto to combine terabytes of data from its own vast seed collections with Climate Corp’s billions of soil and weather observations across all 25m fields in the US. The net result, The Economist reported, was to create ‘a map of America that says which seed grows best under what conditions’.
But not all digital technologies have been so rapidly adopted by farmers. While remote sensing tools and modern satellites currently provide a field level resolution of 10cm x 10cm, for example, ‘that’s not relevant for agriculture as machines can’t digest that granularity of information,’ Menne points out.
‘What farmers really need is data at the actionable level – currently around 15m x 15m. Any solution for farmers needs to be press one button and see a proven return on the new technology.’
Cost is also an issue, according to the authors of the Accenture report. Although variable-rate sprayers are widely available from suppliers, the report cites US Department of Agriculture findings that ‘less than 20% of acreage is managed using such technologies due to the high cost of gathering precise field data’ (www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2015-04-20/precision-agriculture-revolution).
All of this, however, is now changing, said Bruce Erikson, agronomy expert at Purdue University, US, speaking at the Maglis launch event: ‘Technology advances are enabling IT advances in agriculture.’
Twenty years ago, when digital technologies were first introduced, soil mapping and other field positioning technologies were slow to take off as they were difficult to understand and interpret, Erikson said.
But things have now vastly improved, he continued, thanks to big gains in computer processing speeds – up from 100MHz in 1995 to about 3.5GHz today – along with the introduction of cloud computing, telematics and sensors.
And unlike other farm equipment such as tractors: ‘IT technologies are not necessarily scale dependent like machines,’ Erikson said. Which means that today’s digital technologies can benefit farmers everywhere from a 300,000 acre Brazilian sugar cane plantation to a 300 acre farm in the Netherlands.
Nor do they need to be expensive or difficult to access and use, as the recent explosion of freely downloadable training tools and apps demonstrates. Among the most memorable is Rothamsted Research’s award winning ‘Farm Crap’ app, which helps farmers to decide how much manure to spread in order to meet different crop requirements.
‘We are listening to the needs of the farmers and agronomists,’ says Rothamsted senior scientist Toby Bruce. ‘We know that they are the experts for their local fields and we are aiming to give decision support not decision making.’