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Information overload: Making the most of precision farming data

ABOVE: A modern farmer must be able to easily access important and understandable data required for informed management decision-making. ADOBE STOCK

Erik de Vries, a director at precision farming consultancy Agri Technovation, says the number and diversity of data points generated by precision agriculture technologies require capable central platforms to allow the information to add value.

Article published online, Farmer’s Weekly (South Africa), 30 Aug 2019

By its nature, a commercial farming business generates substantial quantities of data in the form of hand-written notes, hard and digital copies of documents, and, in the cases of more technologically advanced operations, a stream of data from an array of electronic sensors and user inputs.

A challenge faced by many South African farmers is to efficiently and effectively consolidate, store, analyse and use this often disparate, potentially bewildering, but valuable information to make informed management decisions.

“It doesn’t help that there are already over 100 companies offering an ever-increasing array of technologies and associated products to monitor, measure and facilitate diverse aspects of modern farming businesses. These aspects include farm management software, precision agriculture and predictive analytics, sensors, smart irrigation, animal and crop data and analysis, robotics and drones, marketplaces, and now even next-generation farms,” says De Vries.

Agriculture and the Internet of Things

According to a 2016 report by IoT Analytics, it was estimated that 6% of the Internet of Things (IoT) globally was already being used on farms around the world. Another report, this time published in 2015 by international business research company Business Insider Intelligence (BI Intelligence), estimated that in 2020, 75 million IoT devices would be shipped to farms globally, more than double the 30 million figure for 2015. Even more astounding is that the same report by BI Intelligence also projected that by 2034, the average farm globally would be generating 4,1 million data points daily, originating from cell phones all the way to harvesters. Back in 2008, this figure was estimated to be zero.

De Vries says farmers globally are struggling to cope with the volume of information. Unless there are platforms to consolidate this range of data inputs into a format that is easy to understand, manage and utilise, the problem is going to grow, to the detriment of what the technology is trying to achieve, namely being cost-effective, profitable, sustainable, and to increase food and fibre production using fewer resources.

“Technology may be nice to have, but it’s useless if it doesn’t generate some form of value for a farming business,” he says. “For example, a precision farming software programme or sensor should ideally be able to pay for itself multiple times over via the savings or profits that it’s supposed to generate on the farm.”

A data-handling collaboration

One such data-handling platform already available to South African farmers is MyFarmWeb, a design, supply and support collaboration between precision farming and crop protection products supplier and consultancy Agri Technovation, Laeveld Agrochem and mobile telecommunications company Vodacom, through its subsidiary, Mezzanine.

De Vries says it is critical to have a mobile telecoms company as a partner in MyFarmWeb because mobile connectivity is an essential component for the wireless transmission of data between a farm business’s IoT devices, the MyFarmWeb platform, and the business’s managers and independent consultants, who access, analyse and respond to this data. He adds that Vodacom realised the importance of connectivity as an enabler of precision agriculture solutions and services, and made available a range of data communications services to farmers and agribusinesses that do not have Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication coverage on their farms or at their business premises.

There are a number of services linked to MyFarmWeb in South Africa and other countries. One such service is precision soil classification, using grid sampling and geographic positioning.

In South Africa, this totals 800 000 ha, and it is capable of generating soil characteristics for differing zones within single fields. The information derived from this allows for the correct placement of soil moisture probes, matching the most profitable crops to specific fields, identifying shortfalls in soil nutrients and moisture, and then applying the exact quantities of these using variable rate application equipment, checking the health of soil life, and determining optimal seeding rates and plant spacing.

“The soil moisture analysis service, which is also linked to MyFarmWeb, has found that many farmers tend to over-irrigate their crops, which is wasteful of both water and production costs,” says De Vries. “Farmers using MyFarmWeb now know exactly when and where to irrigate, and to apply only the necessary water volumes.

“This system can even monitor the quality of the irrigation water and advise on the treatments needed to improve the quality of this water. Another existing service is precision pests and diseases monitoring, which locates specific problem areas within a crop for targeted, instead of blanket, treatment.”

On their own, the precision agriculture systems highlighted by De Vries generate such a vast quantity and diversity of data that without a platform such as MyFarmWeb to convert it into an understandable format, farmers would be swamped with information.

And yet there are additional services that are being linked, or will be linked in the future, to MyFarmWeb. These services will generate even greater quantities and diversity of data, which will further improve on the goals and outcomes of precision farming. And again, it is vital that platforms like MyFarmWeb are in place to present the results of this data in an understandable and useable format to their users.

“The faster you can make farm management decisions and the more accurate these decisions, the lower the risks for the agribusiness,” he says.

“An added benefit of the MyFarmWeb platform is that if the farmer is still confused or unsure about the information being presented by the platform, this information can be quickly shared, via the Internet or other digital means, with fellow farmers, agricultural consultants and other knowledgeable people for them to consider and then respond to the farmer with any advice they may have.”

In both the near- and far-future of precision farming in South Africa are a host of further advances in the relevant technologies.

MyFarmWeb will soon integrate with what De Vries describes as the “revolutionary” Verde remote sensing and processing solution, designed and implemented by international aerospace giant Airbus.

One of Verde’s capabilities, using Airbus’s satellites, is generating more frequent, calibrated biophysical parameters or indices from satellite images for MyFarmWeb users at competitive prices. A further benefit of this system is that increasingly informative interpretations of the biophysical parameters are being developed for specific crops, and that MyFarmWeb users can access for more meaningful and precise information – down to a particular grid within a single field – to help them make better farm management decisions.

‘ The faster you can make decisions, the lower the risk’

The Verde results can locate areas of stress within a crop, and guide the farmer or agricultural consultant to the exact spot for ground-level investigation of what the cause is. A targeted and appropriate resolution of the stress problem is then possible.

Keeping tabs on resources

De Vries explains that other precision agriculture technologies being developed for linking to MyFarmWeb include a day-by-day farm activity planning and monitoring service that will enable a farmer to remotely allocate tasks and keep track of how these are progressing, a tracker to monitor the movements and effectiveness of farm machinery and equipment during their allocated tasks, a smart layer yield map that can monitor variations in crop yields between mapped grids within a field during harvesting, and the wireless transmission of data to in-field farm machinery and equipment, such as auto-steer tractors, and variable rate seeders, fertilisers, sprayers and irrigation systems, to instruct them with specific information of exactly when, where and how much to apply of the relevant input.

“There is also a service being developed for MyFarmWeb that can monitor levels in all of a farm’s water resources and pressures in associated pumping, water transfer and application infrastructure. And then there is a weather-monitoring service to help a farmer plan and manage for weather-dependent activities, and a service for monitoring and comparing the brix content and general quality of the fruit in horticulture operations and packhouses.”

Key to maximising the potential and benefits of every existing and future precision agriculture technology is having the developers and suppliers of these technologies be willing to partner with central data management platforms, like MyFarmWeb. This negates the need for the farmer to undertake the time-consuming, laborious and often confusing task of jumping from one company’s website to another’s to access, analyse and interpret the relevant data before being able to come to an informed management decision.

“Fortunately, most precision agriculture technology companies are willing to link their products to a central data management platform for the benefit of farmers”, De Vries says.

Phone Erik de Vries on 021 300 0543, email info@agritechnovation.co.za, or visit agritechnovation.co.za.

This information is from a presentation at Laeveld Agrochem’s 2019 Seil Safari, held from 1 to 5 April.

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