When we talk about digitalisation, everyone is essentially referring to something slightly different. This is why discussions regarding the benefits not infrequently culminate in black-and-white statements. So it is high time to take a more selective look at things. The topics of digitalisation, robotics and smart farming will be one of the focal points of the technical and exhibition programme at AGRITECHNICA.
There is hardly any other topic in which euphoria and frustration clash so violently as that of digitalisation. For some, it offers solutions to many of the current problems prevailing in agriculture. Others categorically reject the use of digital technologies because they are simply overwhelmed by their application and are unable to gauge the consequences. Or they have 'fallen flat on their faces' while trying them out. However, digital applications are increasingly infiltrating all areas of life, making it virtually impossible to ignore this development. Fear is a poor counsellor in this case. Instead, we would be better advised to 'sort out' what we are actually talking about. This provides orientation and helps to break down psychological barriers, because digitalisation has a vast number of facets.
Where do we stand in practice?
Roughly classifying various applications into three categories helps to answer this question (graphic):
- Smart farming. This involves technologies that automate work in the barn and on the field, and which simply make work easier for the user. These technologies include steering systems, feeding computers or apps for machine settings, for example.
- Precision farming. Here, digitally collected data is linked to crop production decisions. One example of this is calculating the quantity of fertiliser with the aid of plant sensors.
- Farming 4.0. This area essentially encompasses the networking of machines and sensors. The objective is to generate an added value by linking and evaluating as much information as possible.
In the area of automation, many applications have now become commonplace in farming, as is the case on the jointly operated Seelmeyer & Woltering farm in the northern Münsterland region, for instance. "In the barn, the computer controls the ventilation system and feeding. The heating system for our chicken fattening sheds, which consists of a biomethane CHP, a wood chip heating system and a gas heating system, essentially runs automatically. And we've also installed alarm systems. If anything isn't working as it should, a message is sent to my smartphone. That makes the work far simpler", says Michael Seelmeyer. On the field, automatic steering systems with headland management and automatic section control have now become part of his daily routine. "They're all simple electronic solutions that automate processes. They usually function perfectly, and the cost/benefit ratio is appropriate", says the farmer.
In his experience, 'simple communication' between the tractor and implement via ISOBUS is now relatively unproblematic as well. "However, problems still arise if too many components and factors are involved", he says. This is also confirmed by Christian Münchhoff, an arable farmer from western Saxony-Anhalt. "Communication via the ISOBUS has generally become significantly better in recent years, but it occasionally happens that a fertiliser spreader and tractor no longer understand one other simply because of a new software update", he states. In his opinion, the technology is now approaching its limits. "ISOBUS wasn't originally designed for the volumes of data that have to be collected and processed by the machines now and in the future. I think more intensive work is needed on alternative data transmission systems like Wi-Fi, for example", says Münchhoff.
Precision farming goes even further. It necessitates 'intelligence' and an understanding of crop production. "In the past, it's unfortunately been the case that the technology has often developed at a faster pace than agronomic knowledge and consulting in this regard", says Christian Münchhoff. So far, the additional benefit has proved too little for the majority of farms. "It doesn't matter how well you plan sowing, fertilisation and crop protection. If the weather doesn't play ball, the whole process comes to nought", adds Michael Seelmeyer.
Nevertheless, both farmers are of the opinion that the importance of precision farming will increase. "The regulations concerning crop protection and fertilisation are becoming increasingly restrictive. If we can apply the nutrients and crop protection agents more specifically where they're really needed, that's environmental protection in action, and it's documented at the same time", says Seelmeyer. This means that focus will be placed more on the economically sensible use of farm inputs than on yield maximisation in the future.
There are essentially two possible approaches in precision farming: either humans decide which measures are to be implemented or the machines do. In this context, Münchhoff and Seelmeyer both agree that the technology is only as good as the person using it. "Sensor, satellite and camera recordings as well as the relevant programs for producing application maps are extremely helpful. They help us to make decisions. Nevertheless, it's been shown time and again that you can't just switch your brain off. There are simply too many imponderables in agriculture for that", says Münchhoff.
The farmers' enthusiasm is very constrained as regards the topics of networking and data transfer. "There's still quite a lot of work to be done in this area", says Seelmeyer. "I haven't yet come across a farm management system that functions perfectly." Problems arise time and again during data consolidation and processing as soon as multiple suppliers are involved. 'The file cannot be read' – unfortunately, this message is still seen far too often on computer monitors. "Sometimes, a full-stop or a comma in the wrong place is more than enough to cause utter confusion", says Münchhoff.
At the end of 2019, the EU 'ATLAS' (Agricultural Interoperability and Analysis System) project was launched in order to improve data exchange between various software and hardware components and suppliers. Subsidised to the tune of €15.6 million, the project is scheduled to run until 2023, and brings together 31 players from the agricultural industry as well as research institutions from eight European countries. Michael Seelmeyer and Christian Münchhoff are also involved in the project. "There's still a massive amount of potential in networking machines and fleets", states Münchhoff. "During harvesting, for example, the combine harvester could let you know when and where it needs to unload, while a drone regulates the harvester's forwards speed by registering the biomass." So far, such a scenario is completely futuristic. However, a breakthrough could be achieved if it proves possible to develop standardised and flexibly extendable interfaces for data exchange – as long as all manufacturers play along.
Michael Seelmeyer is particularly pleased that animal production is also playing an important role in the project, because he is of the opinion that this aspect has so far been neglected in the debate as a whole. "The material flows have to be recorded, documented and analysed better. Particularly in this area, high requirements are made on us animal producers", says Seelmeyer, who fattens bulls and chickens on his farm. For instance, cameras, sensors and scales can possibly be used to further improve feed efficiency. And thinking ahead, if we knew which quantities of nutrients the animals consume and excrete, it may enable the NIRS sensor to be pre-calibrated when spreading liquid manure. This, too, is merely a pipe dream at present, but it shows what potential lies in the collection, consolidation and analysis of data.
Network coverage in rural areas remains a challenge – not so much for controlling machines, but for communication and data exchange. However, the farmers are confident in this regard. "Quite a lot should be going on in this respect in the near future. 5G expansion is fully underway. And a lot of companies are looking at alternative solutions above and beyond the technologies that are familiar and available today in the area of telecommunications", says Münchhoff.
How can more farmers' enthusiasm for digital applications be fired in the future? Three aspects are particularly important in this regard: practicality, user friendliness and a good cost/benefit ratio. "It's important to approach the farmers on their level", says Michael Seelmeyer. "On the other hand, they have to show a certain degree of willingness to open up to new technologies. We can't expect everything to function perfectly right from the word go. That isn't the case with other innovations either." Politicians and manufacturers therefore (still) need to provide that farmers with more guidance as regards this issue.