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News & opinion

2 APR 2019

Precision farming

From dealing with short-term variability in the weather to differences in the soil quality, precision farming technology is helping farmers tackle some of their biggest management challenges.

At a basic level, one of the most common – and well-established – examples of precision technology on farms is GPS. The navigation system is used to measure land and pinpoint specific aspects on the ground, such as drainage, hedgerows and watercourses. The same technology can guide tractor operators or control steering, allowing for greater accuracy, which saves fuel and reduces the risks of overlaps in planting seeds or spraying chemicals.

Now, with the addition of correction signals, 3D elements can also be built into the measurements, allowing land managers to add information such as gradients, sheltered areas and exposed areas, which are prone to flooding or frost damage.

Differences in soil quality are one of the biggest reasons for variability in crop performance, and getting a detailed picture of the soil is one of the principal benefits that precision farming technology provides. Via sensors attached to tractors, soil can be analysed in real time, creating soil mapping data that can tell a farmer about soil types and zones within a particular field. 

Combine harvesters
Looking ahead, all farmers are likely to adopt precision farming methods in some form

What’s more, the technology is becoming so sophisticated that it’s now possible to analyse the specific chemicals within the soil, allowing farmers to manage in-field variability more precisely than ever.

From an agricultural perspective, the use of this technology is only going to become more important, particularly given the new environmental and subsidy schemes that will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit. Farmers already have to use accurate land data when making subsidy claims or entering into environmental schemes; but with the government moving towards an environmental-based subsidy system, they will be required to provide even more data on their activities.

As most farmers now have access to some form of GPS, and with many more upgrading to tractors that have GPS as standard, the next step for producers is to build up the levels of information – and make sure they are using it. Farmers may have yield monitors to understand what they are collecting in real time during harvest, or they might employ someone to map soils on their farm, but too often that data sits in the filing cabinet. By layering the information, producers will be better able to understand the potential of their crops and land, helping them to get the best from their farm.

A recent trend in precision farming is the increased use of drones, particularly in conjunction with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to build up detailed 3D images of the land.

Farming and the internet of things

Recent advances in technology have brought an improvement in the quality of data that sensors collect, as real-time information can be harvested and used in conjunction with the internet of things (IoT). In farming that might mean monitoring temperatures inside a grain store, or the moisture content of soil to help determine whether a field needs irrigating. IoT can also improve machinery management – to provide alerts to people in the farm office if a tractor is running low on oil in the field, for example. It’s about linking all of the elements into a central hub from where they can be managed.

As with any new technology, some of these tools are expensive, but as uptake increases prices will drop and their use will become far more commonplace. There is funding available for farmers who can demonstrate environmental and production efficiencies, which is helping bring the technology to more businesses.

Farm irrigation system
Sensors can be used to monitor the moisture content of soil to help determine whether a field needs irrigating

A more recent trend in precision farming is the increased use of drones, particularly in conjunction with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to build up detailed 3D images of the land it is measuring. LiDAR has proved particularly helpful for forestry professionals, who use it to measure the biomass of timber, assess the potential yield of woodland, map water flows and monitor soil erosion. It can also be used in remote areas to assess crop health, nitrogen requirements, water stress and identify any health issues in crops, or in livestock production to monitor pasture. Plus, when integrated with historic weather data, the 3D maps can enable farmers to make informed decisions about how different parts of a farm might be managed.

Looking ahead, all farmers are likely to adopt precision farming methods in some form: small farms might only make use of GPS, while larger operations will use a range of solutions to maximise efficiency and improve the quality of their produce. Regardless of the systems in which farmers invest, the technology will have to go hand-in-hand with traditional farming skills to ensure the decisions being based on data are the correct ones.

  • Davina Fillingham MRICS is partner and head of agribusiness at Stephenson & Son in York.

This article originally appeared in the Good Issue of Modus (April 2019).