Where there’s much farm output there’s technology

Farming is often seen as a world of dung-spattered cowsheds and rusty tractors. But a revolution in the agriculture industry means muddy fields are now home to some of the most cutting-edge digital machinery.

Over nearly two decades, innovative German farmers have managed to squeeze nearly 2,000kg of extra milk annually from each of their cows. Roland Magunia / AFP
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When it comes to camel farming, there is a limit to the labour-saving benefits of machinery.

The beasts are so sensitive that when they are being automatically milked, they each still need humans standing next to them to keep them calm.

It is a different story with cattle. Milking machines have been a standard feature on dairy farms in developed economies for decades, and digital technology is enabling businesses to enhance productivity even further.

Here is an example. To maximise the output of a dairy cow, it must calve as regularly as possible, once every 400 days. But the window for artificially inseminating cows is quite narrow, because they are only in heat for four to eight hours every three weeks. Farmers need to spot the signs – the cows become more active, hold their heads differently and tend to jump on others. Ulrich Westrup, who runs a farm with 600 dairy cows in the village of Bissendorf in north-western Germany, was tired of spending days and nights keeping an eye on each animal.

So he decided to let the cows tell him when they’re ready – via text message. He attached radio chip collars to each of them to register the physical movements of the animals and send the data to a computer centre in France.

Whenever a cow becomes agitated the centre sends Mr Westrup a message. “It’s a liberation for me,” says Mr Westrup.

“I save labour time and I can be sure I’m not missing animals in heat even though I don’t have to conduct any intense supervision at night.”

Technical innovations have enabled German farmers to boost the annual milk production per cow to 7,200 kilos from 5,400 kilos in 1995, according to the German farming federation.

There are few industries where technical innovation is more crucial than in agriculture. The world’s population will grow to eight billion people by 2025 from 7.1 billion now, according to a United Nations projection. By 2050, it could be nine billion. Humankind needs to use its limited arable land not just to feed people but to grow bio-energy crops to help combat global warming. And at present, crop yields worldwide are not increasing quickly enough to meet global needs by 2050, according to research published this year by the University of Minnesota.

For crop yields to be sufficient, agricultural productivity will have to rise by at least 60 per cent, and may need to more than double, the researchers wrote. They found that the yields of four key staple crops – maize, rice, wheat and soybeans – were increasing by only about 0.9 per cent to 1.6 per cent per year.

That would lead to an overall increase of about 38 per cent to 67 per cent by 2050, which would only be enough to feed the population if the lower end of the estimate of yields needed and the maximum yield rise materialise. The report does not take into account climate change, which the World Bank said could lead to serious food shortages in many areas as soon as the 2030s.

Increased mechanisation could help to tackle the problem. In developed economies, machinery enabling “precision farming” is already well established. Tractor cabins these days resemble cockpits in which farmers can, and should, switch to autopilot because the machines themselves can plough, fertilise and harvest land far more efficiently if guided by GPS than if steered by human hand.

Even in good weather and with years of experience a tractor driver can only drive in precise rows for one or two hours at most, say experts. Machines do not tire or lose concentration, and hence do not miss patches of ground or waste expensive seed, fertilizer or pesticide.

“With the help of very precise GPS technology, automatic steering systems are already available, in fact they’re almost standard features in big tractors and combine harvesters,“ says Stefan Böttinger, a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Hohenheim in south-western Germany.

For more than a century, productivity in agricultural engineering has gone hand-in-hand with size. The bigger the machine, the more quickly it could work the land. If you walk around farm equipment trade fairs today you will be awed by rows of mechanical monsters on show.

To reach the cabin of the S690i, a combine harvester made by the US company John Deere, you have to climb a 14-rung aluminium ladder. Some of these behemoths have engines with up to 1,100 horsepower under the bonnet.

“We’ve reached the limits of size now, so we need to make the machines more intelligent to enhance their productivity,” says Professor Thomas Herlitzius, a specialist in farm engineering at the Dresden Technical University.

The new buzzwords are “smart farming”, in which machines communicate with each other. They can also pass the data they obtain via sensors and cameras, such as soil moisture, nutrient levels and crop yield, into a cloud-based data collection system, a kind of agricultural internet.

All the data gathered can be transmitted for analysis to specialist companies which then provide advice on planting, crop treatment, pest control and the best time to harvest. Last month, DuPont Pioneer, an agricultural seed firm, said it had joined forces with Deere to provide farmers with “precision agriculture” analyses.

“These modern tools help the farmer to achieve the same output with fewer resources or in some cases to increase their output,“ says Prof Böttinger.

There are many other applications of smart farming. Engineers have developed software that monitors the grain tank of a combine harvester and calls over a tractor-trailer before it gets full, thereby eliminating waiting times.

Fendt, a German firm, has created paired tractors in which the driver sits in one and the other automatically copies its actions in another row, halving the time it takes to work the field.

GPS technology allows harvesting machines to precisely map the land they pass over and to store data on the quality of the soil. That permits fine-tuning when it comes to spraying fertilizer and pesticide and offers huge cost-savings, as well as benefiting the environment.

For example, if the crop yield in one 10-by-10 metre patch of field is found to be lower than elsewhere in the field, that patch can be identified as needing more fertilizer when the field is next planted.

“We must use land, water, fertilizer and energy more efficiently so that we can produce the output volumes that a growing world population needs,” says Hermann Garbers, the head of research and technology at the German equipment maker Claas.

The new technology is needed to keep farms profitable in developed economies, where just 1 to 3 per cent of the population still works in agriculture. There is also a market for it in the Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, where a steady labour migration from the countryside into cities has cut the manpower available for cultivation.

But it is unsuited to many countries of Asia and Africa, where farm technology is decades behind, fields tend to be much smaller than in Europe and America and farmers cannot afford sophisticated machinery.

“The technology drivers and the big markets are North and South America and Europe, and new technology will always be introduced in these markets first,” says Prof Hitzelius.

That begs the question of how crop yields can be enhanced in the poorest developing countries where population growth is often highest. There is a danger that large areas of land – including forests – could be cleared for agriculture to compensate for the slow growth in yields, potentially harming the climate and ecosystems.

“In developing nations it’s important to raise mechanisation to a good level,” says Prof Böttinger.

But, he concedes, “The move from manual labour and animals to machinery is a long road.”