What should I know about agriculture

digitalization

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, it is primarily about more efficiency and optimizing your own operations. But topics such as sustainability and environmentally friendly management are also moving more and more into the focus of farmers.

Balancing both aspects - more efficiency and more environmental protection - is becoming more and more important. Because the challenges for the agricultural sector are getting bigger - that applies worldwide. Experts estimate that another three billion people will have to be fed in 2050. This means that more food has to be produced in less space and with less use of natural resources. The digital transformation can be the key to this.

Economy and ecology are no longer a contradiction in terms, but rather two sides of the same efficiency medal, so the conclusion of many experts at Agritechnica in autumn 2019. "Intelligent machine, process and operator solutions that generate more output with less CO2"Generate nitrogen oxides and ammonia, well-established companies can no longer ignore them," said Bernd Scherer, Managing Director of the Association of German Mechanical and Plant Engineering.

Farmers rely on digital technology

In fact, many farmers are open to digitizing their farms. More than eight out of ten agricultural businesses in Germany already use digital technologies and applications such as high-tech agricultural machinery, agricultural apps, sensors, robots and drones. Another ten percent are planning or discussing the deployment, according to the result of a study commissioned by Bitkom, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) and the Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank (LR), for which around 500 farmers in Germany were surveyed in spring 2020.

"Digitization is part of 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 are already being used successfully. "At the same time, they provide a good approach to objectifying the public discussion about agriculture and creating understanding and acceptance of modern agriculture," said Krüsken.

The main advantages of digitization for farmers are higher production efficiency (81 percent) and physical relief (79 percent). Almost all respondents say that digital technologies help to save fertilizers, pesticides and other resources. A good two thirds emphasized that digitization is in principle a great opportunity for more sustainable agriculture and could contribute to increasing animal welfare.

Even if almost three quarters of the farms generally see an opportunity in digitization, six out of ten farmers also point to the major challenges associated with it. First and foremost are 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 wanted to postpone planned investments for an indefinite period of time. A third see market problems as a result of the corona crisis.

Digital change as an opportunity for farmers

Nonetheless, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) speaks of a strong dynamic through digitization. Data acquisition via sensor technology, the processing of this data with the help of algorithms and various forms of artificial intelligence as well as increasingly powerful data transmission are the driving factors. Agriculture could benefit from this to a particular extent, say the farmers' representatives. This has to do with the fact that more data for soil, water, air and animals can mean more knowledge and thus lead to even more targeted resource and climate efficiency and further improve the welfare of animals.

The representatives of the DBV emphasize that digitization is a huge opportunity for agriculture. It creates new and exciting tasks for entrepreneurs as well as employees, enables a more flexible work design that is tailored to the personal needs of the individual and offers the opportunity to greatly increase productivity. Thanks to digitalization, the use of soil, water and air can also be made more environmentally friendly and animal welfare improved.

You can find more practical examples for digitization projects here

However, this only works if the necessary infrastructure is available. This is exactly where the association and Bitkom see a lot of catching up to do - especially in rural areas. "With the advancing digitization of all areas of business and life, the demands on the networks are increasing day by day," stated DBV General Secretary Krüsken years ago.

At least something seems to be moving at this point: At the end of 2019, the President of the Rukwied Farmers' Association assessed the Federal Cabinet's decision on the mobile communications strategy as fundamentally positive: "The Federal Government's decision is an important signal for people in rural areas, at least 4G mobile communications (LTE) to be guaranteed everywhere in the area - in households and companies, on roads, railway lines and expressly also on agricultural areas. 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 addressed vigorously. "

Cooperate with startups

In order to give the topic of digital farming additional momentum, the farmers' association intends to work more closely with the Federal Association of German Startups e.V. in the future. The aim of this cooperation is to transfer knowledge from agricultural research to practice more quickly and to network start-ups in Agriculture Technology (AgTech) more closely with agricultural businesses.

"In view of globalization, climate volatility, scarcity of resources and increasing societal demands on environmental and animal welfare as well as food quality assurance, agriculture needs rapid implementation of scientific findings in practice," said Benedikt Bösel, farmer and spokesman for the startup'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 geospatial 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 purchasing raw materials and selling their products. And in addition to efficiency, the ecological balance should also play an important role, affirm the startup representatives. For example, technologies are to be developed that support the natural properties of plants and thus require fewer chemicals and toxins.

Digital techniques on the farm

The range of digital possibilities in agriculture is becoming ever wider. This starts with data-driven, for example Farm management: Automatic documentation saves time and leads to transparent and efficient operational processes. With the help of data analyzes, travel and operating times, machines and operating resources as well as key cost drivers can also be identified in detail and thus precisely planned. Smart data is therefore a key task for intelligent farm management, say experts.

Data is also about Precision farming: Agricultural experts consider the "area-specific cultivation" of fields to be one of the most promising approaches for more sustainable and efficient agriculture. Since fields mostly have uneven soil conditions, small-scale cultivation is much more sensible than evenly plowing.

The principle of precision farming is based on collecting data from the soil, plants, the water supply and the agricultural machinery used. Combined with GPS positions, the method allows more targeted sowing, fertilization and irrigation of the plants - in this way, precision farming could, for example, lead to savings in operating resources, energy consumption and working time. Due to the reduced use of herbicides and mineral fertilizers, nature is also less polluted with environmental toxins.

Also with the robotics there has been great progress, even though milking robots, for example, have long been established. Many livestock farmers are now using robot-assisted systems to automatically clean stalls, adjust the feeding individually to their animals or for quality control of the milk. The robot is currently being tested as a "helping hand" in the field.

For example, according to experts, vegetable cultivation can be carried out almost completely automatically: Robots plant the seeds, document the exact position of each individual plant, and drones monitor the growth of crops and weeds in the fields. With the help of image and sensor data, harvesting robots could already recognize whether fruit or vegetables are ripe and bring them in 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.

Sensors monitor ecological systems

An important part of robot systems is that Sensorswhich is also playing an increasingly important role elsewhere in digital farming. Measuring and controlling the precise measurement and control of changes in (environmental) technical, biological and ecological systems helps to cultivate fields as needs-based as possible. In this way, yields can be optimized permanently and consistently, so the 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' own computers via a cellular 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 an exact fertilizer recommendation, which can be communicated directly to the on-board computer of a tractor, for example.

In animal husbandry, sensors monitor the health 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 farmers, 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 relating to the digital farm are based on high-performance networking, which is ultimately what Internet of Things (IoT) in agriculture. Experts are certain: In the 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 driving autonomously across the fields at exactly the right time, in order to pick up a load of grain or potatoes and transport them away. 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 economy in this context. They support farmers, service providers and contractors in coordinating their resources and machinery and using them as efficiently as possible - especially during harvest and in transport logistics.

BayWa positions itself as a digitization partner for farmers

In addition to the startups, the traditional partners of farmers have also recognized the trend towards digitization and are increasingly offering corresponding services. For example, BayWa AG wants to offer farmers new digital services in addition to the classic e-business portal so that they can work more easily, more efficiently and in a way that conserves resources. To this end, BayWa CIO Tobias Fausch has also pushed ahead with digital change within the group - for example, standardized master data within the group, harmonized IT systems and initiated a change process in order to transform established processes into digitized processes.