Increasing yields while maintaining top quality and minimal resource use has always been an important goal in agriculture. With the advent of smart farming methods, this goal is now closer than ever. One of these methods is the so-called site-specific crop management. This method combines detailed plant production knowledge, state-of-the-art agricultural machinery and control technology, and sophisticated software in order to work fields in the best way possible. In a way, this precision agriculture makes fields talk.
Africa at the end of 2018, Mubuyu Farm, 80 kilometres south of the Zambian capital Lusaka. With precision down to the centimetre, the tractor pulling the fertiliser spreader covers the sections of the wheat field. A digital map to the right of the driver, Esturd Phiri, displays exactly how much fertiliser needs to be spread in which area – precision which results in higher yields, protects the soil and reduces fuel consumption. Welcome to the world of smart farming!
This world combines plant production knowledge, machinery know-how, energy management and software expertise to create a finely harmonised process chain. The result: The plot produces higher yields in the long term. Sustainability is one of the principles of smart farming. The so-called application maps are, on the other hand, one of the basic instruments. These maps meticulously display the soil conditions of a given section of the field. Together with the control software, the maps create the digital foundation for precision agriculture with enormous potential.
Satellite data is the raw material for application maps
With smart farming methods, not only tractors can be controlled within centimetres, but also the entire cultivation cycle – from field preparation to seeding to care and harvesting. Important factors: The yield potential of an agricultural plot is always estimated. This plot is broken down into its site-specific features square metre for square metre and then cultivated accordingly.
This type of field cultivation is on the rise in several regions of the globe. Remote sensing data from satellites acts as the raw material for creating datasets such as the application maps of the so-called “talking field base maps”. These “talking” maps (in a figurative sense) precisely display the biomass cultivation of the last few years or even decades. This data can then be used to determine site-specific actions for fertilisation, seeding and plant protection, i.e. a bit more fertiliser here, less over there, more water here, less there etc.
Leading regions in site-specific crop management are the USA, Great Britain, France and Germany. Other regions are catching up quickly though, for example Africa.
With site-specific crop management, farmers can achieve significantly higher amounts of coverage per hectare by optimising seed usage. The same applies to fertiliser and water and the use of pesticides, having a positive effect on the environment in addition to the economic benefit. On the Mubuyu farm in Zambia, site-specific crop management was a great success economically in 2018: Although the farm had around a third less water available than in the previous year due to excessive drought in recent years, it was able to harvest up to 25 percent more wheat thanks to targeted irrigation. At the same time, less water and energy was used for this irrigation technology.
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Profitable for plots starting at two hectares
Up until recently, generating raw data and the application maps was still very time consuming and expensive, making site-specific crop management profitable only for very large plots. Advances in remote sensing – and thus the generation of data – have changed a lot since then: Now, farm land starting at two hectares is also profitable for site-specific crop management.
The most advanced factor in this type of cultivation is fertilisation, but seeding has also shown large advances recently. Seeding trials with corn (see box) have been particularly promising over the last few years. Site-specific crop protection based on satellite data, on the other hand, is still in the testing phase. But even here, experts are working on finding ways to use significantly fewer herbicides through location-specific variable use of pesticides.
There is no doubt that site-specific crop management has left the trial phase; and in the near future we are sure to see more and more new business models on offer. Based on the equipment already available, experts say that a good third of all German agricultural operations are suited for site-specific crop management. Smart farming is certainly not purely an export model. Esturd Phiri, the tractor driver on the Mubuyu farm, already has several colleagues in Germany. And that number is growing constantly.