Farming smart for the future

August 15, 2023

Michael Gomes, vice president of business development at Topcon Agriculture, writes about how technology will future-proof farms for the next generation.

How technology will future-proof farms for the next generation

By: Michael Gomes, vice president of business development at Topcon Agriculture

Farming is one of those professions that’s taught and passed down from generation to generation. Because of this, there are parcels of land across the world that have been farmed for hundreds of years by the same families. This means that not only are these farms a huge part of their local economies and communities, but they are also a source of vital income and immense pride for those who own and run them.

Despite this, with agriculture being an industry steeped in tradition, the rate of digitalization has been notably slower than other sectors. However, as technology advances, so does the opportunity to increase yield and crop quality, which in turn could revolutionize the outputs of independent agriculture businesses and vastly increase profits. And, with a younger generation of farmers rising through the ranks – people who increasingly rely upon and demand technology in other aspects of their lives – the pressure for the sector to embrace innovation continues to mount.

A new era

According to the 2016 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service report[1], in the early 2000s, the adoption rate for precision agriculture in the U.S. was only 22 percent. By 2013, this had grown fairly significantly – 45 to 50 percent of U.S. farms were purported to be using precision farming techniques. Across the pond, however, a 2016 study by the European Parliament[2] estimated that just one in four EU farms were using such technologies, highlighting the need for quicker uptake of innovations globally.

With a worldwide market size worth more than $9 billion[3], the potential for digital transformation within agriculture is huge. Yet the challenges facing the farming industry are well documented – from the uncertain future of agricultural subsidies, to the need to adapt to the effects of the climate and feed a growing global population with dwindling resources. It’s very clear that a degree of change is required within agriculture and the pace with which that change needs to take effect requires the industry to adopt new ways of doing things – and soon.

Results-driven farming

Precision agriculture has been used as a general term for decades. However, the tools that put the concept into practice are developing exponentially. Products are now readily available to allow farmers to make important operational decisions in real time.

Precision measurement technology supports every phase of the crop cycle, from soil preparation to harvest and everything in between. These solutions are all designed to provide operators with what is arguably a modern farm’s most valuable asset: data. There are numerous types of data that can be collected and interpreted to build up a clear and accessible picture of how efficiently a farm is run, covering a variety of factors including patterns in soil and weather conditions, seed viability, topography, nutrients, disease history, row distance and planting depth.

[1] ERS Annual Report, FY 2016  

[2] Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe

[3] Forecasted market size of precision farming worldwide 2018-2023

By using GPS technology to provide farmers with a more spatially precise understanding of tractor operations, machine guidance systems and accompanying correction services underpin successful data-led agriculture and are putting farms on the path to increased productivity and higher yields. GNSS receivers and controllers use satellite networking to help farmers steer according to plan, customizable in-cab consoles keep drivers informed, correction services provide precise positioning accuracy and compensating for any inaccuracies caused by external triggers, and supporting software and platforms help farmers unlock the true potential of their farm through connectivity and data organization. It’s a no-brainer.

What’s more, having centimetre accuracy, whether planting, spraying or harvesting, means no more overlaps or gaps – precision that can lead to untold improvements in productivity. Modern guidance systems are also completely flexible, offering a huge degree of scalability, with easy upgrades available as needs grow and change.

These advanced devices and robotic systems have been developed to complement the invaluable traditional skills handed down from one generation to another, while making life easier for farmers and ensuring their businesses are fit for the future. They identify areas where costs can be lowered and processes streamlined to make farms more profitable, efficient, safe and environmentally friendly.

Reaping the benefits

The benefits of investing in guidance systems are clear cut – cost reductions, time savings, higher yields, minimized wastage, less fuel usage and fewer worn parts. Reduction in operator fatigue and stress, and improved quality of work are also valuable byproducts of investment in agricultural technology.

According to research by McKinsey and Company[4], if connectivity is implemented successfully in agriculture, the industry could tack on $500 billion in additional value to the global gross domestic product by 2030. This would amount to a seven to nine percent improvement from its expected total and would alleviate much of the present pressure on farmers. Without a solid technology infrastructure, however, none of this is possible. Adopting precision farming technology such as guidance systems and making better use of the data it generates is a strong step towards making this future a reality, but as many farms operate right on the profit line, initial investment can seem like a daunting prospect. With the right technologies in place, though, return on investment can be realized almost immediately. The data gathered from smart farming solutions can help farm operators and agronomists learn where their efforts are best spent,

[4] Agriculture’s connected future: How technology can yield new growth  

what produce is performing best and which areas of land could be better utilized. This then helps farmers to get the most out of their land, with advanced tools enabling complete measurement for improved management of farming operations.

Of course, no two farms or farmers are the same, so guidance solutions are built with a modular, open architecture platform that can be integrated seamlessly into different brands and across machine types and scaled as an operator’s needs. This means investment can be staggered and no changes in existing machinery are required. And, importantly, the technology isn’t there to reinvent the way farmers are doing their jobs; it acts as a layer of support which will enhance their unique way of working and allow them to take full control over their soil and crop health, while future-proofing operations for generations to come.

Game-changing technology

Accurate positioning is the cornerstone of site-specific management. It is not only required for accurate operations, but expansive data collection, enabling farm professionals to compare different types of information – such as yield, soil type, and fertility – for better decision making. Such smart farming is therefore big business and as demand from the industry grows, more complex and sophisticated innovations are being brought to market.

The technology provides farmers with the right fit for their operation with accuracy on demand. Calibrated to accuracies of within two centimetres, the new correction services provide reliable pass-to-pass precision. Through a constantly improving network and variety of cost-effective subscription models, the service delivers reliable connection stability across the globe.

When it comes to future-proofing farms for the next generation, it’s about changing mindsets in a changing world. Though much is unknown about how exactly the future of farming will look and work, one thing is certain – digitalization, resilience and sustainability are going to be core principles of viable businesses. Those that embrace innovation and invest in smart technology will not only survive what’s on the horizon but thrive for years to come.

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