There's more to smart farming than steering tractors

There is now so much more to Smart Farming than simply using satellites to steer tractors or combines, according to organisers of the Agritechnica 2015 machinery trade fair in Hanover, Germany, this week.
There's more to smart farming than steering tractors

“We are now truly at the stage where digital records can be used to make the most important strategic decisions about how crops are managed,” according to the Digital Cropping team at Agritechnica, the world’s leading trade fair for farm machinery.

Compared to Digital Cropping, the traditional farm notebook, where crop data was recorded and used to inform future growing plans, can be likened to managing your business by looking in the rear-view mirror, say promoters of the new methods.

The head of the Agritechnica 2015 Digital Cropping section, Dr Klaus Erdle, says many precision farming systems were offered to farmers in the past for collecting information about their farming operations, but there has been a lack of supporting tools to turn the data into sensible decisions or outcomes.

“Smart farming should help farmers make decisions to improve their production,” he says, “and software tools should support them by helping to interpret soil maps or crop data offered by satellite pictures or sensor data.

“Digital cropping is about closing the gap between information and implementation, by offering solutions to support decisions for taking the right measures in crop management.”

Dr Erdle says precision farming was mainly about collecting information — but the next step of how to use the information was barely comprehensible to farmers.

“You could scan the field with a crop sensor to assess plant growth,” he says.

“In some parts of the field, the crop growth was compromised, and sensors showed that nitrogen was missing at these specific sites.

“However, the sensors can only accurately predict a nitrogen deficit if all other nutrients are not missing, for example, phosphate and potassium.

“So, is applying more nitrogen really the answer?”

Now, using multiple sources of information – including soil maps, application maps of measures taken earlier in the year, yield maps of previous years, and weather data combined – in a suitable software package, a farmer may discover that the sandy soil at specific sites does not support nitrogen uptake, and drought might be the reason for poor crop growth.

“A decision might be made to decrease fertiliser input, because even high input rates will not lead to high yields on this part of the field,” Dr Erdle says.

“By decreasing nitrogen, the farmer optimises the input-output ratio and avoids ecologically harmful losses of fertiliser or pesticides.”

At Agritechnica 2015, the “Digital Cropping. Decode your site – understand your yield” special feature helped farmers to choose the right system out of different technologies for data collection, and various approaches to combine and analyse the data to optimise their individual management system.

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