Experts call it a revolution in agriculture. Digital technology is intended to kill several birds with one stone: making work easier for farmers and more environmental protection. Everybody is talking about so-called smart farming.
GPS-controlled machines, drones in steep vineyards, sensors for precise fertilisation or watering – digitisation does not stop at agriculture. Rather, it is on the advance here. Smart farming, agriculture with modern information and communication technology, is designed to reduce crop failures, conserve resources and the environment, and save pesticides. Despite all its advantages, it is changing the farmer’s job profile considerably, also entails risks and sometimes comes up against very practical limits.
“I see the digitization of agriculture as a great opportunity both for farmers’ everyday working lives and for environmentally and climate-friendly farming,” says Volker Wissing (FDP), Minister of Agriculture for Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. His federal counterpart, Julia Klöckner (CDU) from Rhineland-Palatinate, emphasises that digitisation is not an end in itself, but can solve conflicting goals and enable a more sustainable production of food. Problems with young people could be alleviated – “not only because manpower and resources are saved, but also because fields and stables are now ‘high tech’. This makes the job attractive for the smartphone generation”.
Digital control and digital data management are central concepts of Smart or Digital Farming. This is precisely why a new professorship is now being established at the Technical University (TU) Kaiserslautern – in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering, which is also located in the city. The GeoBox infrastructure was developed at the Service Center Ländlicher Raum (DLR) in Bad Kreuznach. Official data on soil, weather, erosion, pests, field outlines or topographical conditions converge in it and are made available to farmers – according to the open source principle, i.e. basically free of charge.
Farmers can use the data in relation to individual fields and will soon be able to integrate it into a messenger developed by DLR. The Conference of Agriculture Ministers recently decided in Mainz that the offer for nationwide use should be extended. DLR Service Manager Michael Lipps says: “We have moved away from analog consultants in the field to data service providers.
Warnings of hailstorms or fungal infections are becoming increasingly important in times of a changing climate, says Herwig Köhler, who is head of department at DLR’s Technical Centre. “In the past, the rule of thumb was that there was a hailstorm every seven years. Now you have that every year.” Lipps adds, “Geodata enabled agricultural machinery to be precisely controlled in order to make the best possible use of fields and to comply with distance specifications, for example for water bodies. “In the past, the farmer used to drive ‘pi times thumb’, today he is GPS-controlled,” says Lipps.
Especially in vegetable growing, precise driving and the exploitation of the land are very important, says Wolfgang Schneider, who is an expert in digitisation at DLR. According to DLR, sensors for local control of equipment or width alignment are more important in special crops such as orchards and vineyards. Sensors detect plants and open nozzles above them for spraying with crop protection agents, detect the flower density on fruit trees and control their thinning.
Fertilizing with support from above
The tractor of farmer Christian Glahn from Zweibrücken is also controlled by satellite when spraying crop protection agents, soil tillage or sowing. He saves about one percent of seed, explains Glahn. With a 100 hectare farm, this is quite something. “You can go on holiday from this. Thanks to technology, he can also drive straight rows, which reduces wear and tear, saves time and diesel – “a win-win situation for the environment and the wallet”.
Glahn’s system steers the machine over the field with an accuracy of about 20 centimeters, as he explains. A SIM card in the tractor can be used even more precisely, and a correction signal via mobile phone ensures that the machine is driven to an accuracy of about two centimeters. This requires the 2G mobile radio standard, but it is not available nationwide.
Lipps from DLR goes one step further: “Where I want digital agriculture, I need 5G. That will be a challenge.” A network at all would help farmer Markus Bamberger with his areas near Steinhardt in the Bad Kreuznach district. “What good is all the technology if it doesn’t work,” he says. While he has reception at altitude, nothing works at lower altitudes. There is a radio gap between Waldböckelheim and Bad Sobernheim. “There I am.”
The technology is expensive
In addition, the new technology costs quite a bit. “This can break a company’s neck,” says Lipps. The joint, inter-company use of machines makes sense. That in itself is a good thing, says farmer Elmar Kremer from Buch im Hunsrück. But then you have to be able to rely on the fact that machines are treated with care and are ready for use when needed. He has already tested a GPS-controlled tractor, but hasn’t bought it yet, which is quite an investment.
According to Köhler of DLR, smart technology is particularly worthwhile in large areas and can promote the industrialisation of agriculture. Farmers must be careful not to disclose all data and experience free of charge in clouds and thus make it accessible to large investors. “That’s the farmers’ capital,” says Köhler. “But many don’t recognize that.