Smart Data

Smart Farming: Digitalisation in agriculture

In addition to the disasters in the country itself, the attack on Ukraine is also creating new worldwide challenges. Russia announced an export ban on grain in mid-March, and Ukraine will not be able to deliver any more because of the war damage – many fields are lying fallow due to the war. The consequences are dramatic, as both Russia and Ukraine are among the world's largest wheat exporters. Ukraine in particular has often been called the “the granary of Europe”. Due to the situation, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) fears a global humanitarian catastrophe. In numerous emerging and developing countries, a stop to wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine would lead to shortages. In addition, there is a risk of a long-lasting interruption of fertiliser production and thus a massive price increase. 

Fertiliser shortage becomes a real problem

Rising energy costs are also increasing the price of fertiliser. This is mainly due to high gas prices, which account for about 80 percent of the cost of producing nitrogen fertiliser. Many farmers are therefore hesitant to buy and hope for an easing of the situation. Therefore, demand has been steadily declining lately and manufacturers have been curbing production. Consequently, fertilisers became rare, which in turn meant an increase in prices.

Russia also plays an important role when it comes to fertilisers: as a supplier of natural gas, nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Together with Belarus, the country is one of the largest potash producers in the world. An alternative to the expensive and scarce mineral fertilisers could possibly be natural fertiliser. However, when urine and faeces from farm animals mix, ammonia is produced, and nitrogen is released into the air when manure is spread. Research has therefore been going on for years and solutions have been sought as to how different additives can reduce these emissions.

The overall situation thus poses a huge challenge to the food sector and the global agricultural economy. Rapid innovation is needed. Now, technological solutions could drive the industry forward. For example, as Innovation Origins writes based on a study, controlled-release fertilisers are part of a sustainable approach to agriculture. This approach is also known as precision farming. It aims to improve crop yields and minimise nutrient release using data analytics, artificial intelligence and various sensor systems. In this way, it is possible to determine exactly how much fertiliser and water plants need and when. Autonomous vehicles will be used to distribute the nutrients according to precise specifications. However, this is still very cost-intensive. Fertilisers with controlled release, on the other hand, are already quite inexpensive, the article continues.

How technology is already being used in agriculture

In April 2021, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture published a brochure on the state of the art in agriculture in Germany. For example, tractors that are at a high technological level are already in use. Automation, data management and documentation tasks are among the technical features of such a tractor used in crop production.

The use of data obtained with satellites is also already well advanced in the agricultural industry. For example, a tractor with satellite navigation and correction signal can be steered with an accuracy of up to two centimetres by means of steering aids and track guidance. This means that several work steps can already be carried out with just one tractor in a single operation. The processes are coordinated, set-up times and multiple field passes are eliminated. This reduces the burden on the environment and saves time, fuel and other operating resources. 



The digitalisation of production processes is also making great progress in the field of animal farming. Autonomous components and fully automated systems are already widespread in barns in this country: For example, milking robots, slat cleaners, ventilation systems or automatic feeders are in use. Feed distribution is controlled via tablet or smartphone. Robots are designed to help weed and scatter seed. According to an analysis by the Curatorship for Technology and Construction in Agriculture (KTBL), the use of automatic milking systems leads to an average seven percent higher milk yield.

Robots are also used in animal farming - namely in feeding and cleaning as well as for relocating pasture fences. In principle, digitalisation has the potential to help optimise processes and the organisation of agricultural work, as well as in the areas of crop protection, fertiliser and feed production. Costs for products, inputs and services can be reduced with the help of digital systems. This means that the journey is definitely going further and further in the direction of smart farming.

What does "Smart Farming" mean?

Devices, machines and systems are to be networked with each other and create data bases for forecasts and decision-making assistance in order to optimise processes in agriculture. Smart farming also means that the harvest can be brought in fully automatically. The farmer then only has to monitor the process on the computer and, if necessary, take over quality control directly in the field. For this, agricultural machinery must be able to drive autonomously. Although this would already be technically possible, it has not yet been implemented on a broad scale in Germany. This is due, among other things, to the still unresolved legal situation in the event of accidents. So far, the driver has to control the machine remotely or sit in the cab himself, even if the vehicle drives autonomously.

In short, smart farming or precision farming refers to the combination of information and communication solutions (ICT). This includes, for example, the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, geo-positioning systems, sensors and actuators, drones, robotics and much more.

Opportunities and challenges in "Smart Farming"

The digital possibilities in agriculture are complex and present many farmers with new challenges. Many of them are also asking which systems are suitable for their own farm and how they can be linked together. The NRW Chamber of Agriculture, together with the German Ministry of the Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection, has set up the Centre for Digitisation in Agriculture for all questions relating to digitisation.

The opportunities in digitisation in agriculture lie in the optimisation of time and financial efforts, especially in times of crisis like these. Several work processes can be merged and thus simplified. Faster and more efficient farming means more independence from suppliers. New possibilities, for example in the use of sensors, are offered by the mobile phone standard 5G.

The major challenges for smart farming include both data ownership and data security. According to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), farms do not want to commit to one manufacturer when putting together their fleet. It is much more important to them that the digital tools of the equipment can be combined with each other. If there is no compatibility between machines from different manufacturers, this could lead to competitive disadvantages. zwischen Maschinen verschiedener Hersteller nicht gegeben, könnte das zu Wettbewerbsnachteilen führen.

Data security must also be granted. It must be ruled out that manufacturers or traders use sensitive farm data to gain advantages over competitors. In order not to undermine the trust and acceptance of smart farming, data ownership and data sovereignty of farms must be respected, also with regard to trade secrets. Only in this way is further development possible.

Security is also an issue. Attacks by hackers or technical malfunctions could endanger the security of the farm. In agriculture, this can lead to major problems and even damage with regard to feeding, milking or harvesting. 

Conclusion

Digitalisation in agriculture offers far-reaching opportunities to simplify workflows, reduce effort and create more efficiency. This also means increasing independence from importers and the possibility to react quickly to crisis situations if necessary. Along with this, technical requirements for different operations and data security must be granted. The willingness for increasing digitalisation in agriculture is obviously existing. According to a representative study commissioned by the digital association Bitkom, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) and the Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank (LR), eight out of ten farmers already relied on digital technologies in 2020. At that time, the Corona pandemic showed how important a functioning agricultural and food industry is. Awareness of the opportunities offered by digitalisation has grown. The current situation shows again how crucial the topic is.

Text: Mirjam Wilhelm