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Plan before you plant: How precision ag helps farmers plant smarter

With summer’s end, the savviest farmers plan to harvest more than crops alone. They will also be harvesting troves of valuable data to help them better plan for the planting season ahead.

Farmers have always relied on careful planning and cutting-edge tools to maximise the productive potential of their land. The latest in this long line of innovations is the burgeoning field of precision farming.

Leveraging powerful sensors, processors and techniques, precision farming empowers farmers to start planning and optimising crops well in advance of when traditional approaches would allow.

Continuous monitoring of crop conditions, weed growth and soil quality leads to smarter planting decisions that maximise future yields. Here’s how precision agriculture promises to bring unprecedented intelligence to planting.

Harvesting data

The raw material driving precision agriculture is data. Sourcing and collecting the right data in high enough volumes is crucial. Luckily, tools for agricultural data collection and processing keep getting better.

Everything from air and water quality to soil pH and plant health can now be tracked at a level of fidelity and accuracy unimaginable just 10 years ago

Breakthrough advances in micro-electrical mechanical systems (MEMS) have produced a dizzying array of tiny, cheap and sophisticated sensors. Everything from air and water quality to soil pH and plant health can now be tracked at a level of fidelity and accuracy unimaginable just 10 years ago. Armed with powerful new sensors, smart hardware now supplies farmers with all the data they need.

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Smart, sophisticated tools for measurement and analysis enable farmers to become far more proactive in fortifying their crops against weeds - Photo: Galama Media
Smart, sophisticated tools for measurement and analysis enable farmers to become far more proactive in fortifying their crops against weeds - Photo: Galama Media

Intelligent, connected equipment

Leading manufacturers like John Deere are already pioneering intelligent, connected equipment able to collect data during the harvest. Smart irrigation systems monitor moisture and temperature during operation, then store this cumulative data to inform watering and planting decisions in the seasons to come. This allows farmers to treat their land not as a single entity, but to instead divide fields into multiple sub-zones, each with their own unique planting and management needs.

GPS-enabled drones

Complementing sensors at ground level will be GPS-enabled drones flying overhead and processing field-level imagery. What’s more, all of these smart technologies will be able to communicate and interface across the internet of things (IoT). This will funnel all this granular data from multiple sources to wherever and whenever it’s needed.

For example, farmers using John Deere’s MyOperations app can have full visibility into everything from historic crop performance all the way down to figuring out which tractor axle is busted right now.

Strengthening AI algorithms

However, what is perhaps most exciting about all this data is the ability to channel it towards strengthening AI algorithms. The predictive power of artificial intelligence can help farmers become more accurate and proactive in their planting and planning decisions.

Though there are myriad applications for precision agriculture technology, a particularly salient and relevant example is that of battling weed infestation.

Beating Weeds

According to the UN, the leading source of crop loss is weed infestation, which costs farmers worldwide $ 95 billion each year. These staggering losses come at a time where pressure on food security is forcing farmers to maximise yields and minimise waste.

Though these challenges are daunting, precision farming offers reason for optimism

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by almost 40% to 9.7 billion. Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates feeding these people will require growing 70% more food on just 5% more land.

Though these challenges are daunting, precision farming offers reason for optimism, especially when it comes to helping fight weed infestations.

Good time management and organisation

Planning an effective weed-control program starts with good time management and organisation. Smart, sophisticated tools for measurement and analysis enable farmers to become far more proactive in fortifying their crops against weeds. The ability to begin informed planning in the preseason can guide more strategic planting decisions, grant time to prepare interventions well in advance, and give farmers crucial insight into what type of problems to look for.

Even more exciting is the fact that there are multiple innovative tools and techniques for fighting weeds already available today.

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Using data, farmers can divide fields into multiple sub-zones, each with their own unique planting and management needs. - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet
Using data, farmers can divide fields into multiple sub-zones, each with their own unique planting and management needs. - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet

Weed Identification Engine

Using technologies such as Taranis’ Weed Identification Engine which combines computer vision, satellite and drone imagery, and AI to tell farmers what kinds of weeds are attacking their crops and what their exact distribution in the field is. This enables farmers to fight back and choose the right herbicide in the precise quantity required before unnecessary damage is done.

The platform can also generate automated weed reports, build performance zones for accurate herbicide spraying, and provide automatic prescriptions to be applied per detection.

Precision agriculture is set to reshape the future of farming

With over 8,000 known weed species, the ability to automatically detect and intelligently address each one frees farmers up to focus on more important things. Indeed, this is the true promise of precision agriculture technologies as whole.

The hope is not that they will replace farmer judgement or intuition, but rather that they will serve to supplement and enhance farmers’ ability to make informed decisions.

Precision agriculture is set to reshape the future of farming – and while these transformations will apply all year-round, some of its biggest benefits will take fruit in the preseason.

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