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Fields of the future: The new era of digital farming

March 04, 2019

Digital technology is changing the face of agriculture, helping farmers get the best out of their fields while minimizing the environmental impact.

Each farm is different. Every field unique. Farmers must rely on their knowledge and experience to maximize the potential of their plot whilst using as few resources as possible. And they are experts at doing so.

Corn farmers in the U.S. Midwest, for example, know that timing is critical. They have learned to read specific signs when it comes to judging the perfect time to harvest, from squeezing cornstalks to spotting the ‘black layer’ in the kernels. They even have a saying, “knee high by the 4th of July,” that indicates whether they are in for a bumper crop.

And yet for all their expertise, farmers across the world are under huge pressure to improve their harvests each and every year. By 2050, the global population is predicted to hit nearly 10 billion ­– that’s an extra 2.2 billion mouths to feed. At the same time, climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events like droughts, heatwaves and floods.   

It falls on our farmers to grow the crops that will feed the future. And to do so in a sustainable way that doesn’t require using more land and ever greater resources.

A 21st century problem requires a 21st century solution – farming is going digital.

The data driving farming’s future

Sitting at the heart of this new age is the increasing role of big data in agriculture. Farmers can now obtain real-time data to help them better understand the critical factors that contribute to their crop’s performance. Whether it is gaining a detailed picture of the variability within each field, knowing the optimal number of seeds that should be planted, or monitoring a crop’s health throughout the growing season.

At every point in the farming supply chain there are now tools that collect and analyze data to help growers make better informed decisions and ensure the most productive harvests.

From planting to picking, digital technologies are helping farmers get the most out of every single crop:

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It all starts with seeds. Choosing the right ones are essential to achieving better harvests, and digital technology is increasingly helping farmers achieve this. Researchers are now using computer modeling to improve seed breeding and produce beneficial traits in plants far quicker and more effectively. Digital farming company The Climate Corporation is developing predictive seed selection and placement technology that uses machine learning to assess the best performing seed for the specific conditions of each field.

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Even in a single field, a soil’s quality can vary greatly. The more a farmer knows about the soil, the better they can keep it healthy and select the right seed varieties to sow. Soil sensors can provide real-time data on the levels of moisture, nitrate and acidity. This enables farmers to accurately map soil variability across their fields and decide what to plant and when to irrigate, fertilize and harvest their crops.

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Combining the data of in-field sensors with satellite and drone imagery gives farmers the ability to continually monitor their fields and see how they evolve through the growing season. Vegetation maps mean they can monitor biomass over time, and scouting maps help them identify issues such as weeds or crop disease early and quickly act. Farmers can also use digital maps to compare critical field data such as soil health, seed application and historical yields, helping them make better decisions for both the current and future harvest.

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Autonomous tractors and robots in farming are increasingly becoming a common way to automate time-consuming tasks and free the farmer from the machine. And they come in all shapes and sizes. Hands-free guidance systems are already available for existing tractors, but they will soon be joined by driverless tractors that are both programmable via tablet and able to make real-time in-field decisions. At the other end of the scale, engineers are developing a swarm of tiny six-legged crab-like robots that could autonomously plant seeds across a field and if required spray individual crops with fertilizer or herbicides.

The face of farming’s future

Digital technology has the potential to transform farming at every level, helping growers not only deploy their resources more efficiently but more sustainably. This isn’t just for the benefit of large-scale farmers in the developed world, smarter digital solutions are supporting smallholder farmers in emerging economies as well. There is a new face of farming.

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