Farming is well on the digital journey that printing has only just begun. The collection, analysis and use of data to help farmers make better decisions has been underway for almost a decade – and preparations began several years before that.
US tractor producer John Deere has been developing machines which gather data about yield since 1998, and automatically guided vehicles since 2002. In 2012, it brought the data together in a portal called My John Deere. This has become an increasingly sophisticated platform for farmers to store data, to communicate with chosen third parties, to link to John Deere and its dealers and to analyse when to plant, when to feed and when to harvest.
It is needed, as marketing manager Chris Wiltshire explains: “We have to increase farm productivity in some form or another. The amount of land available for agriculture is not going up, populations are increasing and we need to produce more food”. In short, agriculture has to become more efficient and more productive. And this is not so far removed from printing. The pressure to become more productive is on.
Autonomous vehicles are only part of the answer. The cab on a tractor or combine harvester is dazzling combination of dials and screens for cameras posted around the machine. Speed is adjusted automatically according to crops, terrain and conditions, the driver’s position is kept level, the rate of insecticide or fertiliser sprayed on crops is managed by the data. GPS data can control the vehicle, deciding when to make a turn to maximise the field area harvested in the least time. And data about the performance of the vehicle can be uploaded for comparison with other farmers or maintenance. John Deere calls it Precision Agriculture.
“We are giving farmers the tools to measure what they do and making that data readily available on demand,” says Wiltshire. It is up to the farmers to decide how much data to share through the My John Deere portal. This can include outside agronomists and chemical companies supplying feed and fertiliser and APIs have been developed in collaboration with John Deere to make this seamless. Just who sees what data is decided by the farmer.
In farming, the advice from agronomist consultants who are often linked to the chemical companies, so there is no great difference to print, where advice about running the press can vary according to whether the conversation is with a plate supplier, inks or paper provider.
Down on the farm, this is changing. The data is enabling John Deere and its network of dealers to begin offering fully independent advice on fertiliser rates and frequencies, for example, because they have access to the flow of information.
And the data can be interpreted down to a field and crop levels, comparing inputs to yields. Thus data about settings can be sent directly to the forager to set the rate of application, recording those settings for further analysis.
It is about helping the farmer lift production levels. It is not about replacing the human decision maker. “At the end of the day the system cannot tell if you are doing a good job. It is information to make decisions more relevant to the information providers. We will still need farmers to make the final decision.”
My John Deere was launched in 2012 and has been gathering pace in the last five years. Some farms, generally the larger ones, have seized the opportunity. Others, with a more traditional outlook, have lagged or have stuck to a pre existing business model. For some, says Wiltshire, the digital way of working has become second nature and is simply what they do.
“It takes time for farmers to believe this and to trust the data, but over the last five years we have started to see big changes in farming with many farmers mapping their business to the data. Now they are starting to see the value in the data.”
It may be about selecting the optimum time for planting or harvesting, it may be about minimising chemical inputs and reducing waste.
It extends to maintenance agreements when purchasing a new tractor or other vehicle. The dealer can schedule maintenance and by comparing telemetrics data with the same machines operating in the same conditions around the world, can either spot signs of failure before this occurs, or can identify areas to improve effectiveness.
It is perhaps too soon to measure the overall impact of Precision Agriculture and John Deere’s transition to becoming a digital company, there are simply too many variables to be able to isolate its role.
Precision Agriculture: with tractor cabs containing an array of dials and screens for cameras posted around the machine, adjustable speed based on crop type, terrain and conditions, and GPS controlled vehicles, data collected over time makes for greater efficiency as farmers know when to plant, when to feed and when to harvest.