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31.05.2019 - Peer Leithold (Send email to Peer Leithold)

Thinking from the plant's point of view


For years now, farmers have been involved in the digitalisation of arable farming. New products from established suppliers and from start-ups seem to appear on a weekly basis. The highlight of the digitalisation hype was this year's International Green Week in Berlin; another is scheduled at the Agritechnica in Hanover in November. German farmers are certainly pioneering in Europe in the application of intelligent technologies. Mind you, the numbers of people who wonder whether all the offers actually fulfil the suggested potential increases. This scepticism has found particular expression in a trade article written by the DLG President, Hubertus Paetow and in statements from Michael Horsch, from farming machinery manufacturers Horsch (read "Ich will wachrütteln" [I want people to wake up in agrarheute 5/2019 from page 48).

They both report from their own experience. How digitisation has failed to meet all their expectations and only matched them to a very limited extend. Admittedly, many formulations have been somewhat exaggerated, but I can confirm the underlying criticism from my own experience. Yet I remain convinced that digitalisation will continue to have its place in the businesses – namely where its usemakes sense and where the benefits are demonstrable.

Currently there are three areas, in which digitalisation is visible:

  1. Precision farming: The object of site-specific precision crop cultivation is to produce more with less expenditure, in other words to save on working capital, increase yields, minimise impact on the environment and to make decision processes objective.
  2. Automation: From the horse to the machine, from mechanical to electrical, from manual to (partly) automatic and at some stage to autonomous.
  3. Management and accounting: Every company has to manage resources, record processes and calculate costs and sales.

That means wearing several different hats at once. Each hat has to fit and ideally, there should be a smooth exchange of data and information in these areas. Unfortunately, to date this does not always work, inter alia because some market players think that they are the most important and that all the others should take their cue from them. On the other hand, the importance of this topic is simply under-estimated. Therefore, in practice what we now see are some farmers who are enthusiastic about sensors in pest control, while others are rather disappointed and are relegating technology to the back of the cupboard. To all intents and purposes, this is normal; we learn the hard way. Currently a selection process is taking place. Not everything that was and is on offer fulfils the user's expectations. If we take a closer look and analyse our errors self-critically, we can all learn something.

Previously, we organised arable farming and crop cultivation more or less according to the trial and error approach. However, if we keep in mind, that the weather changes from year to year, that each field differs from another, that statistically the soil conditions change every 50 m x 50 m and the condition of crops changes every 20 m x 20 m, then it becomes clear that we cannot apply inflexible formulas. Everyone who has grappled with multi-year yield maps or exact assessment can testify to that. When nitrogen fertilising 100 ha of winter wheat, we have to adjust the application rate 2,500 times, if the purpose is optimally nourished crops and minimising nitrogen losses. That cannot be done with inflexible concepts.

Precision farming is the correct response to these differences; it is intended to reduce environmental risks to a noticeable extent, improve management decisions, take the burden off operations managers and employees and provide security. Access to this sophisticated production technology can only be created by automation.

To be precise:


  • Selection takes place in digital applications.
  • Applications that are demonstrably useful to the farmers are implemented.
  • Sophisticated production technology on arable land is possible only through automation.
  • The arrival of digitalised crop cultivation is imminent.


Turn the issue tipsy-topsy

This claim may seem outrageous to many as it distorts our self-image, which states that the farmer is the only one who knows what is correct. Admittedly, this is not an objection as such, for the power of observation, the knowledge and the ability to make decisions of very competent arable farmers can be used for automation. This is the very crux of the matter. Up to now, the market has been driven more by the availability of technology or software, and less because of agronomic problems or economic use. Therefore, precision farming must now be turned topsy-turvy. To put it another way, we have to start thinking from another end, the plant. Which arable application do I want to improve? What agronomic information do I require to do this? According to which rules must I use this? These are all the first questions we should ask in arable farming.

That’s not the end of it. What are the results of this in terms of crop cultivation and financial considerations? The answer can be higher yields, less working capital, a positive impact on the environment or more security. The issue of technology comes right at the end. Which technologies are required? What do they cost? Will they turn out to be profitable?

Faktors for success

In the digital world all the information required to make a decision on crop cultivation is translated into agronomic rules, known as algorithms. Here, an algorithm is therefore nothing more than a bundle of good agronomic rules, which unite the best available know-how on this topic – you might almost call it the best state-of-the art of agricultural science.

At this point most of the suppliers leave the playing field. Their opinion is that the farmer will soon find out the lay of the land. However, reality shows a different picture. Every farmer should know and understand these rules and be prepared to act by them and he must know to which field of application the rule belongs, that is, from what point the rule, if need be, should be disregarded again. The quality of a rule is tested in large-scale field trials. If the suppliers of one of these digital applications is in regular, direct contact with the users, they receive sufficient feedback to be able constantly to improve the algorithms. If users receive regular updates, they participate in the acquisition of knowledge. However, if users were unable to overcome the love-hate relationship, they would be better off to leave digitalisation well alone. Precision farming creates formidable volumes of data and therefore it is not easy without data management. The only cost-effective way to manage this is in the Cloud. As a rule, every supplier can guarantee data protection and data security. As a user however, you should ask yourself a decisive question: Could the supplier have a further financial interest in using my business data for other purposes?

My many years of experience have taught me that to ensure that a precision farming solution works sensibly and the operator works comfortably and successfully with it in practice, robust information technologies, good agricultural science, smooth data management and comprehensive introductory advice must come together.


Progressing gradually

Think of precision farming as a system! Gradually you will convert all your arable and crop cultivation processes to digital operations. Start somewhere with the first operation. If that is successful, move on to the next operation and so on and so forth. Finally, your crop cultivation is completely or partially digitalised. The opportunities are great; the risks, if you go about things sensibly, are manageable. Escaping from the dilemma of producing efficiently and cost-effectively under conditions in Germany while satisfying the environmental regulations, which sometimes reach immeasurable proportions, will only be achieved successfully with digital production methods.




Take advantage of support

The introduction of digital production processes into farming poses huge challenges to every operations manager. Such an operation changes the management process fundamentally. Believing that this can work in a "do-it-yourself" mode is a great illusion. That is indeed what marketing promises; however, this is far away from reality.

In industry, no one would contemplate converting to digital operations without taking advice and if you build a barn or renovate a house, you obtain the services of an architect or a building expert. It is imperative to have the support of external specialists in the conversion process in farming as well. This includes basic training in the theory and implementation and consultancy on site to ensure that the operation yields its positive effect in the very first year. Beginner's mistakes are avoided.

It therefore makes sense to learn from the mistakes of others, to avoid these as best you can and to be able to use the maximum power of the operation to the full as rapidly as possible. This does not just apply to you as operations manager. The training must include your employees, for no one is closer to the application, closer to the production process than the person who works in the field. Since there is (as of yet) no vocational training in Precision Farming, you must ensure that your employees are qualified. Attend seminars along with them, send them on a further training course!


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