MILWAUKEE – A number of key drivers poised to impact the future of agriculture are taking shape, and American farmers are already feeling the pressure.
Whether they will succeed or fail all depends on if they can meet demands for increased sustainability while navigating such factors as the ever-growing skills gap, input prices on the rise and problematic weather events. Producing more with less will be a key goal in this new era of ag.
“The challenges facing our customers are growing in complexity and society is asking more and more of them,” said Garrett Goins, manager PS&C for crop care products at John Deere and chair of AEM’s Sprayer Technology Leadership Group. “The days of abundant resources in farming inputs are over. Labor, fertilizer and crop protection are all growing in scarcity and increasing in cost.”
Farmers are turning to technology to reach their goals. “We’ve evolved from precision agriculture to digital agriculture,” said Scott Shearer, PhD, PE, professor and Chair of Food Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University.
Precision ag describes farming tools that are based on observing, measuring and responding to within-field variability. “Digital agriculture is broader,” said Shearer. “It covers everything from when the seed goes in the ground until there are end products on the consumer’s table. Everything is connected to the internet.” Digital agriculture applies artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), to interpret huge amounts of data to support a farmer’s decision-making and improve the efficiency of farm operations.
LOOKING TOWARD AN AUTONOMOUS FUTURE
The lack of qualified labor for operating equipment is a significant hurdle for many farmers today, but the ongoing development of fully autonomous solutions are among the reasons to feel good about the future.
Along with productivity from being able to operate day and night during certain times of the year, Shearer said he feels autonomy will eventually enable smaller machines that will reduce soil compaction. “Compaction from large machines is increasing runoff from agriculture and compromising soil health,” he said.
“Truly autonomous farming will be possible in the very near future,” says Seth Crawford, AGCO’s SVP and GM of Precision Ag and Digital. “Our products already automate many difficult processes for operators, and that’s the first step toward full autonomy.” According to Crawford, autonomy involves far more than just automating the tractor, but also certain steps in farming. “You first have to make sure the entire job gets done right. It’s making sure that every pass, whether it’s tilling, planting, seeding and harvest, can be done to perfection with full autonomy.”
THE ROLE OF PRECISION AGRICULTURE
AEM recently quantified the environmental benefits of precision agriculture in a study and found that precision ag has improved fertilizer placement efficiency by 7%, and has the potential to improve an additional 14%. According to Crawford, variable rate technology and section control technology are right now used by about half of farmers, but adoption is very much on the rise. Variable-rate technology allows fertilizer, chemicals and other farm inputs to be applied at varying rates across a field, without manually changing rate settings on equipment or having to make multiple passes over an area.
Section control technology helps with efficiency by automatically turning off planter sections or individual rows in areas that have been previously planted, or areas designated as no-plant zones. This prevents overlap and eliminates other inputs in odd-shaped fields.
“The biggest challenge is building the technology into the machine and making it reliable and easy to use,” said Crawford. “We have proven the payback is one to two years in most cases, now it’s a matter of making it easy to use.” To increase adoption, AGCO has worked to establish test programs and identified areas where farmers are struggling.
Ultimately, the key will be applying AI and analysis to data to improve shared insights between participants across the ag ecosystem.
THE RISE OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
With a focus on improving soil health through natural methods rather than chemicals, sustainable agriculture has been gaining traction among ag advocates and farmers alike.
Mitchell Hora, founder and CEO of Continuum Ag, is on a mission to advance regenerative ag, promoting techniques that include no-till farming, the use of cover crops and grazing livestock on crop land.
Hora relies on Haney soil tests that measure both organic and inorganic nutrients, software to analyze soil data, experimentation and insights to help farmers profit from the start. His family farm in Iowa has been no-till since 1978 and utilized cover crops for the last eight years. As soon as he can after harvest, Hora plants a cover crop and continues to let it grow in the spring. “In the spring we will plant green and then terminate the cover crop later based on soil moisture data,” said Hora. Precise management of the carbon nitrogen ratios and understanding the organic nutrients in the soil is critical.
Since planting cover crops, the Hora’s have consistently maintained above average yields on corn and soybeans while using 33% less nitrogen, 100% less potassium, and 75% less phosphorous, and a 100% less lime. The amount of organic matter in the soil increased by 1.43% from over a 10-year period. More organic matter in the soil also means greater resiliency to floods and drought. Soil with more organic matter holds more water during an extreme rainfall, reducing runoff.
Hora also hasn’t had to replant crops and no longer purchases federal crop insurance. All of this improves the bottom line of the farm.
“If you enable the biology to do the work for you, you don’t have to spend money on inputs,” he added.
“The savings of precision ag are real,” said Goins. “It’s a little bit here and a little bit there, but the savings add up.”
A NEW ERA OF FARMING
To produce more with less, agriculture has become a high-tech industry and that means farmers will require new skills or will need to hire experts in various fields.
“Our role is to work with farmers to understand the issues we’re all trying to solve together – How can we increase yields with less inputs, and improve their outlook,” said Crawford. “Farmers trust their local dealers and input suppliers for a lot of advice and we work with them to ensure that’s part of the overall customer experience.”
About the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)
AEM is the North America-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide. The equipment manufacturing industry in the United States supports 2.8 million jobs and contributes roughly $288 billion to the economy every year.