By Tobias Menne
Digital technology is transforming global agriculture around the world. From high-tech sensor technology to smartphone apps, farmers around the world are using digital solutions to help them grow healthy crops, while using inputs more efficiently. Tobias Menne, Global Head Digital Farming at Bayer, tells us more.
What is digital farming?
Digital Farming enables large farmers to grow their crops with less physical inputs – such as crop protection and fertilizer – while also increasing their efficiency. For smaller growers the benefits are even stronger: They use digital farming products to increase their production of fruits, vegetables and everything else they grow. Digital Farming enables better agriculture.
Is this what is meant by precision agriculture?
For the bigger farmers: Yes. Traditionally farmers have considered each field as having a single state of agronomy. Satellite and drone imagery allows us to analyze a single patch of land at a resolution of just 30 centimeters – the granularity of the information we can now access is truly unprecedented.
Using this digital technology farmers can now be more precise allowing them to view a field as an area of land comprised of 100 or more smaller fields. It gives them the ability to make rapid decisions, tailored precisely to individual areas of each field – from selecting the right crop variety and applying exactly the right fertilizer dose, through to determining the ideal time for crop protection measures, and recognizing plant stress factors at an early stage.
How do farmers benefit?
Take the process of applying fungicides. It’s very hard to determine the best possible time to apply them, and as a farmer you need to constantly monitor crop growth, sensitivity to disease and weather.
Our ‘Field Manager’ tool uses satellite imagery to calculate the field’s biomass. Since this can vary greatly across a field, the tool divides it into segments that are then classified according to their amount of vegetation. Based on the result, we can develop a map to determine the fungicide application rates for the different areas. The resulting data can be fed directly into the tractor’s terminal to control the spraying device. This helps farmers get the most out of every drop of their fungicide. The tool is currently being tested in Brazil, Canada, France and Germany.
Is digital technology available to smallholder farmers?
In general, smallholder farmers will benefit the most from digital technology, as they tend to be the furthest away from optimum farming practices. Small rural farmers in remote areas of the world can’t afford to buy sensor technology for $40,000, but they can use smartphones; which are already essential to their business.
In Africa and Asia, for example, we can bring knowledge and help improve their farming operations. We have developed an app called ‘Xarvio Scouting’ and ‘Weedscout’ which allows growers to identify weeds, insects, crop diseases and even the nutrient status of plants – as well as how to tackle them – by taking a picture with their smartphone. By using this technology, farmers help broaden its automatic image recognition system, making weed recognition even faster and more reliable in the future. The product is now used in 60 countries by 250,000 farmers.
How do digital tools help integrated pest management?
Integrated pest management (IPM) is absolutely critical to sustainable agriculture. Digitalization can and will help growers access the full toolbox of crop protection measures, so they can treat individual problems with the appropriate tool as part of an IPM strategy. For example, if a machine sensor knows what weed it is faced with, the sprayer can mix a solution and apply the proper herbicides. In practice this could mean, if a field contains a number of different weeds then various herbicides could be used to control the weeds. This will help prevent the use of one single product and will be useful in tackling issues such as resistance.
How will digital farming progress over the coming years?
I believe we are at the beginning of a journey to more digital farming. We will see incredible developments over the next 3-5 years, faster than anything we have seen before, and it will be founded on connectivity improvements and digital storage capacity. It will be unbelievable. However, we need to remember digital farming is not a substitute for hard work and generations of knowledge. It helps minimize the risk of making sub-optimal decisions – allowing farmers to be at their best from planting to harvest. Digital will also change our industry. We will see companies linking their services to outcomes – instead of selling a bottle of crop protection product; we will sell a field with controlled weeds and healthy crops, offering that as an outcome. It is an exciting time to be involved.
Tobias Menne is Global Head of Digital Farming at Bayer.