What is Precision Agriculture?
Imagine this: machinery exhaustively tearing up the grain field (an action that compacts the soil and accelerates erosion), scratched terrain due to extinct techniques such as harrowing and indiscriminate use of pesticides (causing waste of products and soil contamination). These examples were not rare some years ago.
Indeed, before Precision Agriculture (PA) became a current practice in agribusiness, situations like the one described above were part of farmers’ routine.
This is why, in this post, we will explain why you should implement Precision Agriculture solutions in the productive processes of your farm. Check it out!
How is the technological wave eliminating outdated planting methods?
The world has changed, and planting systems are also being transformed. For instance, today, tractors are widely used in agriculture, but this is pretty recent.
In the USA, a leading country in agribusiness, until the mid-1940s, horses and mules were the main sources of traction. A couple of decades later, by 1960, around 90% of the agriculture was already tractor-powered.
The mechanisation in Africa hasn’t reached yet such a ratio, but this number shows how fast technology is changing the way farmers work. In this context, producers that do not seek modernisation and technology implementation are likely to lose space in the market. We can say that it is impossible to avoid new technologies and machines in the digital agriculture era, which is why precision agriculture is so important.
On top of the new technologies available, we can mention productivity sensors, agriculture drones and autonomous equipment. In addition, Data Science is already being used in agriculture, taking PA to a new level. This revolution is comparable to the one generated by the Internet of Things (IoT) in other industries.
As a result of these new technologies, farmers can employ their inputs in the right quantity and at the exact time and location. Precision Agriculture also reduces the environmental impact of farming, promotes greater soil longevity, enhances efficiency in plague prevention, increases farm productivity and lowers costs with maintenance and technical assistance for equipment, among other countless benefits.
So, nowadays, Precision Agriculture is gaining market. In the United States, for example, a growth of 12.8% is estimated for PA between 2022 and 2030, according to Grand View Research’s study.
What is Precision Agriculture?
It is easy to explain what this new vision of farming is all about. Imagine if you had intelligent machines that, based on soil data analysis, could identify the real needs of each plot fragment? This technology would make it possible to spray pesticides in an automated way.
More than that, it would also be possible to apply pesticides locally and spread fertilisers at variable rates (different volumes applied according to the specific needs of each square meter). These few examples can already give you an idea of the scale economy of your farm. This is precision agriculture in the farming routine.
However, the PA’s approach goes beyond, including a wide range of resources that can help farmers rethink their practices. A few examples are:
- smart systems for precision irrigation, optimising the use of water;
- real-time mapping of environmental conditions, which can be remotely monitored with your smartphone;
- automatic calculation of the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to offer subsidy production estimation.
Thus, Precision Agriculture is a set of farming practices that uses technology applied to agriculture, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data analysis, geolocation, automatisation, and robotics. These resources aim to make the cultivation process more accurate, automated, smart and autonomous.
In addition to the use of precision tools, there is a change in the approach. In conventional agriculture, the productive area is seen as homogeneous, which leads producers to use average numbers to calculate the needs of inputs.
In practice, this mentality means that the same amount of fertiliser is applied over long stretches of different soils, culminating in waste and uneven productivity. Precision agriculture is a way of managing a productive field meter by meter, considering that every single piece of the farm has different characteristics.
How does Precision Agriculture work?
Today, available PA solutions are focused not only on fertiliser application but also on planting, spraying and harvesting. For this reason, this modern organisation relies on a complete farming management system, which needs to consider location, time and weather variables.
Productivity, soil analysis (chemical and physical characteristics, as well as level of compression), plague control and machine management are other relevant aspects of Precision Agriculture.
This model, which combines technology for agriculture with new cultivation strategies, has been used mainly in coffee, corn, soybeans, sugarcane and beans. And due to its success in increasing productivity, PA methods expanded to floriculture, livestock farming and irrigation.
PA has led many rural producers (including medium-sized farms) to minimise environmental impacts, increase soil sustainability, reduce production costs, increase agricultural production and, of course, has helped them boost profits. Considering the success of PA, let’s dive deeper into the topic and understand the actions and strategies used in Precision Agriculture.
How to explore data to reduce input-related costs?
In practical terms, we are talking about a system, that is, a group of changes in the farm’s production flow. And technology is at the centre of all these modifications.
If we consider the role of this digital agriculture regarding cost reduction in agribusiness (more precisely, costs related to inputs), two strategies can be adopted. We will explain them in the following sections.
This model, more basic, is oriented towards the handling of soil, with corrections based only on the information coming from a georeferenced sampling of each portion of the terrain. This is the most common strategy among medium-sized farms, especially those producing corn, soybeans and sugarcane.
With this knowledge and precision tools (such as a telemetry system) installed in a sprayer, for example, you will be able to remotely monitor, on your smartphone, the selective application of pesticides or fertilisers.
You will also have access to maps showing the volume applied and the quality of applications. This allows you to check if the volume you plan to apply is in accordance with your history of applied volume in litres per hectare.
The other PA methodology consists in restoring soil nutrients not only with an isolated analysis (as in the example above) but also looking at its deficiencies based on the demands of previous crops.
This strategy requires you to build a more robust dataset than the previous approach. It also demands:
- a confrontation with previous productivity maps;
- more complex information processing systems;
- greater expertise in Data Science.
This model consumes more time because it considers the production variability over the time in a specific field, but it usually provides more precision.
These strategies represent two different ways to work with Precision Agriculture, and both deliver great results. The second one is more expensive but presents fewer risks.
How to explore data in order to increase productivity in agriculture?
We must highlight that PA does not concern only cost reduction in agribusiness: productivity elevation is the central point of using data analysis and smart machines.
The so-called “Agriculture 4.0” fuses data analysis, autonomous machinery (connected to management systems) and, of course, innovations in biotechnology to increase harvest volume.
Also, the intervention in soil fertility in a precise way already helps to remedy imbalances by itself. Then, the results of PA are an effective cost reduction at first, followed by an eventual boost in farm production.
Which PA tools can be used to increase the farm’s productivity?
Here are some of the resources you can use:
- tractors, fertilisers, coffee harvesters or sprayers guided by geolocation and remotely controlled by software. An example would be the control of boom height and speed of the vehicle during a pesticide application;
- drones for agriculture that capture images to provide fundamental information to the farmer;
- sensors able to diagnose variations of soil, identifying spots, compaction, plague flows, weather differences and errors in the use of inputs;
- ground devices that can scan the terrain’s topology, bringing data about resistivity, temperature and humidity;
- telemetry resources that allow analysing if the performance and speed of the machine are inline, which also generates fuel saving.
What are the advantages of PA?
We have already shown a wide range of benefits offered by Precision Agriculture. But, for a better overview, we have listed them;
- reduction of risks related to farming activities;
- decrease in production costs;
- better control of plagues;
- faster and more accurate decisions;
- enhanced control over all the production stages with the use of high-performance computer systems;
- significant increase of the productivity in plantations;
- greater soil longevity through less use of pesticides (this is the point where agriculture meets sustainability).
However, PA also brings disadvantages, such as the high cost of some equipment and the complexity of particular software solutions. Consequently, farmers need to invest in specific training or hire data analysis specialists.
This brings out other issues: the high taxes on wages of specialised professionals and the well-known restrictions regarding the access to rural credit. Consequently, some mid-sized farmers have chosen to outsource the collection and treatment of georeferenced data.
And concerning the difficulties generated by the cost of autonomous or interconnected machines (or both!) and agriculture management systems, they are quite questionable. In fact, these present an impressive Return on Investment (ROI). Also, bear in mind that being obsolete costs way more than modernisation.
Based on all these benefits, farmers worldwide are incorporating PA technologies in their production processes. With the significant and fast improvement in productivity, it becomes easier to keep investing in modern machinery and maintain a competitive position in the market through technology. At the same time, savings become visible in the use of fertilisers, seeds, pesticides and other inputs.
What about Precision Agriculture in the world?
The first theoretical traces of PA emerged in the late 1920s in the United States. However, it became more relevant for agribusiness from the 1980s onwards, with the impulse of geolocation systems and electronic data collection and processing.
Following the rhythm of innovations in data storage and transmission, Precision Agriculture crossed US borders and gained notoriety in countries like Germany, Australia, the UK and New Zealand.
At the first moment, PA was limited to the mechanisation of processes. Afterwards, it incorporated the intelligence provided by onboard computers, productivity maps and real-time soil analysis. This evolution led to a variety of high-precision planting techniques, expanding the financial, social and environmental outputs of farming.
According to data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, back in 2012, between 30% and 50% of corn and soybean farms were using Precision Agriculture. Today, this number is likely much higher.
The USA has disseminated the PA approach with pilot projects across the country. These initiatives, led by technology businesses, aim to reduce implementation costs.
What about Agriculture 4.0?
Genetic modification and bioinformatics in pre-production, maximisation of the potential of modern inputs and equipment, costs and waste reduction, improvement in post-production logistics and transport techniques: all these strategies are getting more connected, helping decision-making and rural management. Welcome to the age of digital farming!
The increasing access to the internet in rural localities and the change of habits caused by technology intensified the agricultural revolution. If agriculture, around seventy years ago, was still relying on animal traction and rudimentary techniques, the Green Revolution experienced by the world between the 50s and 70s was marked by farm mechanisation and the incorporation of pesticides and fertilisers in the cultivation process. Then, after the Transgenic Revolution between the 80s and the 2000s, agriculture based on real-time data processing arose.
Agriculture 4.0 provides PA with machine performance control, remote production monitoring and the use of autonomous tractors. The real-time data analysis allows the machinery to self-understand the ideal spray variations on each hectare, among other features.
Now you know the disruptive power of Precision Agriculture and that it is not just for large rural producers. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the best advice and news about farming technologies and agribusiness strategies directly in your inbox!