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12.03.2019 - Peer Leithold (Send email to Peer Leithold)

Sense and nonsense of digitalization in crop production

Currently a full on discussion on the subject of digitalization can be observed in the agricultural community. In this discussion controversial opinions meet. On the one hand there are critics who claim that digitalization does not get you any economic advantages. On the other hand, there are enthusiastic users who say that digitalization was the best thing that could have happened to their businesses.


Many (self-proclaimed) "digitization experts" from science, politics, the media and business cavort between these two positions. They mix with their opinions in the discourse, but often confuse more than they contribute to solutions in the debate. The result is a confusing convolute of conflicting opinions in our industry. According to this, there is only more confusion surrounding the digitisation of agriculture.

It is about time to bring some order and system into this discussion. In an honest discourse on agriculture 4.0, we should above all be precise. Facts, facts, facts instead of "I have heard ...", "I have read ..." or "I believe ...". We must also take the trouble to ask questions. To inquire precisely!


Digital fields of application for your farm

The term digitization covers three large areas on a farm:

  1. Partial-area-specific crop production    
  2. Automation of machines and devices (autopilot, ISOBUS, etc.)    
  3. Documentation and control (digital field file, telemetry, etc

It has to be said upfront that each area has to be developed for itself and be responsible, BUT, everything is networked. It's only useful to work with the three areas if they work well together and the data flow functions smoothly. Nevertheless, it is necessary to differentiate between the three areas and, above all, to take a closer look at them.

What is the "core" of each application? In automation, it is the quality of work, ease of work and precision. In documentation, it is probably the efficiency in work and office organization, the extension of the ability to run a business well and safely. In sub-area-specific crop production, it is the sub-area-specific use of resources.

From the administration, monitoring also comes into play more strongly here. Large corporations are more likely to think of transparent customers and new ways of leading customers to their own products in the decision-making process.

Hereafter, I will devote myself to sub-area-specific crop cultivation and examine the question of why both positions, one negative and one approving, are represented simultaneously. Why are there sources that part-area-specific crop production brings something and why not?

How can the advantage of site-specific crop cultivation be demonstrated?

Every newly conceived concept, every newly conceived, area-specific method in crop production must be tested and proven. Does an agronomic rule, which until now has been applied uniformly to the entire field, have any advantages when it comes to sub-area control? How is it possible to find out whether the new method is economically viable? The answer is simple: you have to carry out field trials. It is necessary to find out how the yield and the expenditure of the input material will change compared to uniform cultivation. This is then compared with the cost of using the method.

In Precision Farming, however, proof can only be provided by so-called OFR experiments. On-farm research trials in the general sense are trials carried out directly on the farm. An immediately recognisable advantage is that one tests under the production conditions of the farm. Much more important, however, is that you can test on entire fields. And not only can, but must! The whole field becomes a test. 

OFR- field trials

Precision farming cannot be proven with plot experiments due to the problem. Classical plot experiments are therefore small plots, repeated several times and combined into so-called blocks, so that all disturbing factors are kept to a minimum. Exactly this is not possible with Precision Farming! Because Precision Farming is the right crop cultivation reaction to heterogeneity, i.e. to disturbance factors. What the plot experimentation system has to eliminate, i.e. the "disturbing factors", is the object of investigation in Precision Farming. For this reason, a new type of experimental system is required to prove a precision farming method.

Since the year 2000, Agricon has been conducting its own tests to assess the advantage effect of part-area-specific production processes. Here this new test design was used for the first time. In the course of time, these methods were further developed and in 2016 resulted in a guideline with biometric principles for planning and evaluation of so-called "On Farm Experiments". Publisher is the International Biometric Society, German Region. Agricon was significantly involved in this guideline.

Principles and rules for OFR experiments in precision farming

For a reliable statement, these experiments must be

  • run for several years,
  • as representative as possible at different locations, and
  • with the real production technology of a practical company.


The following six basic rules apply:


  1. At least triple repetition of the test elements
  2. Random distribution of plots (randomisation)
  3. Digital spatial recording of the test facility, the application of the equipment, the yield and all disturbance factors
  4. The geostatistical evaluation must include the spatial dependence of the examined parameters/measured values (semi-varioprogram model).
  5. Establishing and testing a regression model
  6. Display of results with statistical measures such as standard error and significance (p-values)

If you adheres to these principles and rules, one can afterwards statistically assess with certainty what these procedures bring. The question now arises: have such studies been carried out on the solutions currently available on the market? Has the evidence been found in the trial?


In the past two decades we have created, carried out and evaluated a very large number of OFR trial series together with the participating plant managers and business partners from industry, consulting and teaching. These are:


  • More than 250 experiments on sensor-assisted N-fertilization, 2000 - 2014
  • 36 experiments on sensor-assisted application of growth regulators, 2007 - 2014
  • 79 Experiments on sensor-assisted application of fungicides, 2014 - 2017

All test series were carried out with the YARA N-Sensor® and the corresponding agronomic control modules.


100 € Advantage effect with the YARA N-Sensor®

The following results were obtained for the method of sensor-supported N-fertilization with the YARA N-Sensor®:

  1. 3-6% Increase in yields
  2. 6-10% N savings
  3. 0.5% higher crude protein values
  4. 12-20 % higher threshing capacity
  5. Exclusion of nitrogen-related lodging




Now perhaps the reader is inclined to say, "I don't believe that! Someone just wants to sell their product." Yes, it is true that we want to sell our product. But that's exactly what all the other providers of digital solutions want. The only difference is that Agricon is the only company that has really carried out trials between 2001 and 2014 to prove the advantages of its processes. In addition, we spared no expense or effort because a single trial costs between €5,000 and €10,000.


For all other methods discussed on the market, such as the use of other plant sensors, drones and satellite images, there are still no comparable and published systematic test results. On the contrary, YARA N-Sensor® inadmissibly concludes that the results are applicable to other technologies. However, due to the different measuring methods, the measured values and the algorithms used, this is ruled out.

This leaves the possibility to view the results of investigations by so-called independent institutions. Unfortunately, these hardly exist. If they do, then these results are worthless. An unfortunately famous example, because it was published very often, are the attempts of property Helmsdorf of the chamber of agriculture Schleswig Holstein. We publish in addition our statement again on our blog. It strikes me that our German collegues and universities are almost completely absent at present with qualitatively high-quality field tests and long-term investigations.

The readers of this article must decide for themselves whether they would like to believe in marketing statements, trust the so-called independent institutions or want hard facts from field tests before they come to a conclusion.

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