New technology delivers 10% increase in farm yield

Precision agriculture technology can increase yield on any farm by about 10%.

That’s according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, quoted in a recent Financial Times feature on the impressive march of high technology on the world’s top farms over the past 15 years.

The 10% yield boost is ten times the average global annual crop yield increase (1%) of recent times.

The FT feature is by Neil Munshi in Chicago, not too far from the fields where US farmers have been harvesting on tractors that map the field, drive themselves, and precisely calibrate their movements within inches, to minimise wasted fuel, fertiliser or seed.

Recent innovations included a system that allows the driver of a John Deere tractor to synchronise movements of a grain trailer travelling alongside, and sensors in machines that alert the farmer and local John Deere dealer when a malfunction occurs.

A single driver can control two Fendt tractors at the same time, and many systems allow one tractor to pick up exactly where another has left off planting, so as not to waste seed.

In all cases, someone must be present in the remotely controlled tractor, due to liability issues — a malfunctioning robotic tractor in fields along a highway could otherwise wreak havoc.

But the first fully autonomous tractors will hit the market in five to 10 years, according to the Agco tractor company, which has doubled its investment in advanced technology this year. The auto-tractor will depend on advances in mobile telephone technology — perhaps 7G technology for a reliable signal (4G is being rolled out in Irish cities at the moment).

Drones were in the news recently, with Amazon saying it will use miniature helicopters with electric motors to deliver small packages, within five years.

But the drones industry expects 80% of demand to come from farmers.

Auto-steer was introduced about 15 years ago, now a new wave of technology involves remote sensing and cloud-based data collection on soil moisture, nutrient levels, and all the other variables that influence farming. Yields and soils have been tracked for years, and can be combined with “hyper-local” weather forecasting, risk management tools and other data from the internet, to super-compute farming decisions on the spot, according to precision farming service providers.

* US crop farming leads the technology race, but there is also high-tech help at hand for Irish livestock farmers who use traditional methods to measure grass availability, herd demand, and winter fodder requirements.

Teagasc researchers combine satellite observations of vegetation with other data such as weather forecasts, holding out the hope of pasture monitoring to alert farmers well ahead of repeats of the 2012/13 fodder crisis.

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