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New process not only saves money

Anyone interested in modern agriculture does not need to travel far to experience it. In the tranquil town of Jahna, the Agricon company has been involved in digital crop production for over 20 years. Managing director Peer Leithold uses a picture to illustrate what he and his team are all about. "Stand by a field on the B 169. What do you see? At first glance, probably plants that all look the same. However, if you look more closely into individual subplots or into the plants, you find that there are millions of different conditions," says Peer Leithold. "A human being can no longer grasp these many variations. If we want to produce more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way, we have to automate the production processes in agriculture," says the company founder. For automation, rules have to be created, in this case crop production rules. Precision farming is therefore nothing other than rule-based crop production.

To enable farmers to use these rules, Agricon and partner companies have developed sensors that are mounted on the roof of a tractor. The sensor analyses on the basis of wavelengths. This makes it possible to measure the chlorophyll content of plant stands. "Our forefathers also used to look at the plants and apply fertiliser based on their analysis and experience," says Leithold. However, humans cannot do this as precisely as technology. "We can measure to within two kilogrammes of nitrogen per hectare with sensor technology. A trained eye can resolve that to about 30 kilograms of nitrogen," says the agricultural engineer. The sensor system produces information every second, makes decisions and gives instructions on how to implement them. "Rule-based crop production leads to better harvest results - better than our fathers ever achieved. In addition, we protect the environment because we only fertilise as much as the plants need."


Agricon Managing Director Peer Leithold (right) and Customer Service Manager Florian Findeisen show a sensor module currently in production at the company. Photo: Dietmar Thomas


Often less is also more

In 1997, the company started in the field of plant nutrition. Nitrogen is particularly important, but also lime, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. In 2007, plant protection was added. "And the last big process we ventured into is the application of fungicides, i.e. agents against fungi. Simply put: the plants are protected against mould. No one in the world has dared to do that yet, because resistance develops very quickly," says Leithold. Nature does not tolerate absolute cleanliness, everything cannot be removed. The method of using as much as possible to reliably prevent infestation of the plants leads to intensive spraying. At some point, the economic component comes into play, because the products are also expensive. Often, however, less is more.

Last year, a series of trials was completed. "We have also been asked by our customers to start these trials," says Leithold. With an industry partner, 79 trials were started on 3,240 hectares on 21 farms in Germany, France and England. Three quarters of the trials were scientifically robust. And they showed that adapting fungicides has great potential for savings and that a major contribution is made to avoiding resistance. Not to forget the protection of the environment. It is the largest closed series of experiments in the world that has been carried out so cleanly. Last year, the results were published for the first time. "Now we are in the process of offering it to customers. The saving of funds is about 15 percent, which translates into an average of 45 euros per hectare," Leithold explains.

Technology cannot replace people

Wherever fertilisers and pesticides are used, the technology from Mittelachsen can be used effectively. Despite all the technology, however, people cannot be replaced. "The statement that digitalisation will make everyone in agriculture unemployed has nothing to do with reality," says Leithold. Rather, he said, the decline in labour is being cushioned by modern technology.

For some years now, the sensors have only been delivered with remote maintenance. "This way we can connect to the systems and eliminate the source of the error together with the farmer," says Peer Leithold, who puts his company's turnover at about six million euros per year. The devices are mainly used in Germany. In arable farming, the farm should be of a certain size to be able to use the digital tools effectively. "We consider it worthwhile from a size of about 150 hectares," says Leithold. Ten years ago, the company also went international. It has business partners in Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Moldova, Romania, Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine.

ph-value sensor

Together with the Meinsberg Research Institute, which specialises in measurement technology for environmental sensors, Agricon is now working on the next agricultural innovation: sensor-based measurement of the pH value in the soil. In addition to soil type and organic matter, the pH value is important for soil fertility. Until now, the samples have had to be analysed in the laboratory at great expense. "The goal is to measure the pH values in the soil directly in the field," says Peer Leithold. We have already made great strides in this direction. The advantage of the "online pH sensor technology" method will be that samples can be analysed directly on site and the results will be available ad hoc for further optimisation of crop cultivation.

This article appeared in the weekend edition 23/24 March 2019 of the Sächsische Zeitung.



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