5 Ways How Digital Farm Technology Is Transforming Agriculture

Jan 17, 2019

by Tim Sprinkle ASME.org

Old McDonald’s farm, like many things in our high-tech age, has gotten a lot smarter.

As crop information is increasingly tracked, digitized, and synced with other variables like soil composition and weather forecasts, farm equipment and processes are becoming more agile. Commonly called precision agriculture, new technologies that harness the power of data are revolutionizing how agriculture is managed and how food flows through the supply chain to your table.

Here are five ways that modern agriculture is embracing digital disruption and how these tools are changing the industry.

Seed Location Via GPS

An example of agriculture farm management software. Image: Trimble Advanced Positioning

A farmer’s ability to know the precise location where seeds are planted is incredibly valuable; it allows them to come back to that same seed with the appropriate amount of water and fertilizer at the various stages of its development.

“Imagine you put a penny in the middle of your driveway and you wanted to use a GPS monitor to find it;you couldn’t with uncorrected GPS. To have that level of accuracy, you have to use ancillary paid correction signal,” said Chad Pfitzer of Trimble Advanced Positioning, which provides a corrected signal (as do companies like John Deere and New Holland). “GPS, which gives you the ability to position seeds more effectively and mark their precise location, is a pillar of precision farming.”

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At its outset in the late 2000s, GPS was applied to farm equipment with aftermarket products. It was pretty much like buying a navigation system for your dashboard versus having a navigation system integrated into your car.

This equipment and GPS-enabled functionality has becoming increasingly integrated by the industry. Today, the precision possible through GPS mapping is making farmers more knowledgeable than ever about their crops, which is helping them to strategically manage more acreage and grow more crops.

Data-driven Guidance

When automated guidance steers a tractor – no hands required— along a row to plant seeds and fertilize them, it can create and manage fields with incredible accuracy. Far more accurate, in fact, than when humans do the job.

GPS allows farmers to mark the placement of the seed with incredible accuracy, come back to it with fertilizer, and carefully track its yield as needed.
Chad Pfitzer, Trimble Advanced Positioning

“It’s expensive to farm,” Pfitzer said. “One 50-pound bag of seed might cost $500 and only cover one or two rows. Now, imagine a seed in a row like a penny in the driveway. GPS allows farmers to mark the placement of the seed with incredible accuracy, come back to it with fertilizer, and carefully track its yield as needed.”

Guidance, driven by big data analytics, is also a great physical help for the farmer.

“Driving the tractor for row after row over ten thousand acres with one or two people is like driving from Denver to Des Moines in one day,” Pfitzer said. “It’s exhausting. Guidance allows the farmer to have free hands, to use their time in the tractor focused on farm management, or to read a book if they like.”

That totally changes the physical aspects of the job, transitioning farming from a task that involves driving heavy equipment all day to one that allows farmers to spend more time focused on high-level management.

Smart Irrigation

Imagine a center pivot irrigation system – those large watering sprinklers that move in circles over fields – that knows exactly how fast to move and where water is most needed at any given moment.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually in service now thanks to Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) technology. VRI systems gather field data including crop type, development stage of the crop, soil type, grade of the land, and weather information, and use that information to distribute water as effectively as possible. This allows farms to control water distribution by zone, speed, and individual sprinkler at each degree of the 360 degree circle, which prevents watering areas that don’t need it.

“If you are going to get six inches of rain tomorrow, the center pivot will know not to irrigate,” said Andrew Oerman, with Valley Irrigation, one company that’s working on VRI systems.

It is almost like another set of eyes in the field, automatically maintaining soil moisture, especially with critical crops.

“It gives us the opportunity to make some educated, quick decisions as to whether we need to turn on or shut off and what it looks like forecasted out four or five days, so we can actually make some good irrigation management decisions,” said Greg Juul of G2 Farming in Hermiston, Ore.

Digital Pasture Management

By using GPS enabled ear tags, ranchers can better manage their pastures, move livestock strategically for rotational grazing, and quickly troubleshoot issues.

While cattle tagging has long been industry standard, electronic tags are more convenient and make it easier to identify and manage animals remotely. The rancher just has to scan the tag with a reader and their phone will light up with all the details they need about that particular animal. That’s a lot easier than reading a visual tag or tattoo number.

“As cattle are being worked or loaded into a trailer, their EID tag can be scanned while they are in the chute or loading alley,” said Kristen Evans of Cattle Tags. Think of it as the “FedEx” style tracking of large animals.

Currently, only about 5 percent of cattle have electronic tags, as there are no mandatory tagging requirements. But that’s changing as the industry moves to address supply chain risks and food contamination.

“The trouble is that when there’s an outbreak of e. coli, for example, it can easily be traced to the producer (the meat plant), but not the source (the exact farm),” said Jim Matheson, assistant director of the American Bison Association. “If an animal is tagged, you should be able to track a piece of meat that you buy at a store back to the animal of origin.”

Blockchain and Farm to Table

A blockchain ledger is a unique code that carefully tracks goods through all parts of the transaction.

“Let’s say you have a small coffee shop that wants to know where the coffee they are purchasing came from to verify that it’s fair trade,” said Shalom Ben Or of Avenews-GT, which provides a digital trading platform for verified agri-businesses, farm and other ag transactions. “The digital platform easily allows the seller to give a guarantee that coffee is being sold, how much was paid, quality, etc.”

By providing a trusted, universal proof of ownership, blockchain technology is also helping to expedite purchases of food and other products, minimize risk to buyers, and protect consumers.

These days, fitness trackers have invited a tech into everyday life, collecting details on sleep patterns, steps, heart rate, etc. with the goal of improving health and wellness.

This functionality is also at work on the modern farm. Except there thedetails are being tracked, analyzed, and applied to make agriculture more productive. Once the goods leave the farm or the ranch, their trail istracked to the retailer, which makes the consumer smarter.

All of this new technology is helping one of the oldest industries on the planet scale up to meet the demands of a growing world.

Tim Sprinkle is an independent writer.

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