How to start implementing precision farming in agribusiness

About 30% – this is the ratio of agriculture producers in Ukraine that implement precision farming technologies today. However, they usually limit this innovative technique to a single feature – an autopilot or a guidance system to avoid overlaps and gaps in the fields.

This trend is starting to change now. Agrarians, who no longer have to introduce precision agriculture from scratch, more often become our Clients nowadays. We assist them in developing their present achievements and bringing them to a new more efficient level.

Where precision farming is necessary

Precision farming can be utilized both at the largest agro-holdings of the country and at small enterprises. Precision farming becomes affordable and efficient with a land bank of 500 to 1,000 hectares.

Intertilled crops, including sunflower, corn, and sugar beet, are the most suitable ones to start using precision farming technology.

Know the issue

«I have been bothering with this thing for 7 years, so, if you do nothing with it, this precision farming can jog on», — one of the Client said, meeting us. Mistrusting the promising but still developing technological direction is the main setback on the way toward its popularity. The buyers’ lack of awareness also brings the growth of demand for precision farming to a standstill. Farmers often acquire expensive equipment without delving into the finer points of its features. And when the new toy doesn’t live up to their expectation, they start scolding its supplier.

In addition, the team gets acquainted with new gadgets unwillingly because it is easier and more habitual for them to work the same old way. The staff is reluctant to undertake additional duties which involve analyzing the data acquired by onboard computers and studying charts on monitors.

The far it goes, the messier it gets. While visiting one of the farms, we came across the following: the PPP application chart showed excellent result and the same situation was with fertilizer application charts, but the yield map spoiled the overall ideal image. As it turned out, the sprayer applied water instead of fertilizers and PPP. Actually, they were embezzled.

Find out the reason

We can explain all these unfortunate happenings with one phrase – precision farming elements are introduced randomly. However, the exclusively systematic approach will lead to success.

Do you want more? A customer bought a precision steering sensor for sugar beet interrow weeding hookup for 20 thousand Euros. It is very useful machinery – if the cultivator swerves off to either side for at least a couple of centimeters, it will damage a lot of root crops. Well, in our case, the tractor itself is not moving along the set course even though it is equipped with a self-steering device worth 15 thousand Euros. As it turned out, the company forgot to timely pay the telecommunications provider for signal transmission, so it stopped providing it. Consequently, there is no use either of the autopilot or the camera installed on the cultivator.

In most cases, people have a hard time assessing their effort results when resorting to precision farming technology. For instance, a company invested its assets to reequip seeders to utilize precision sowing. We asked them, “What are the results?” They answered with uncertainty, “It sows better.” This answer is an example of an agronomists’ subjective assessment. When we talk about objective efficiency evaluation, we mean percents, money, or seed units.

Therefore, before engaging in precision farming, it is better to:

  1. Develop a clear action plan: what processes we want to optimize, who will do things, and who will be responsible for the result;
  2. Develop the algorithm to assess the results.

We have summed up everything we were discussing above in a chart showing the initial characteristics of enterprises where precision farming is planned to be introduced.

initial data

Now we’ll exemplify optimization of all the processes one by one – driving, sowing, spraying and fertilizer application.

The first step is parallel driving

The guidance system or autopilot with or without RTK signal, using third-party services or own RTK station, is a minor issue. These options help farmers avoid specific issues, like gaps and overlaps. The high-priority task is parallel driving since with well-mastered parallel driving these issues are almost completely eliminated. The technique reduces costs and machinery utilization, speeding up farming operations.

Another issue is the quality of the inter-row spacing, which is especially important for intertilled crops. Even and quality interrows with sufficient width reduce the threat for the plants to be trampled by machinery.

Hexagon onboard terminal

Hexagon onboard terminal in the tractor cab

If the signal is necessary for more than five vehicles, it is more advantageous to install your own RTK station. It has the signal coverage spanning 30 km. So, one or two stations for an enterprise with a land bank of 20 thousand hectares would suffice. If the plot is in the “pit” and there is no signal there, the mobile station could be applied. It receives the signal from a fixed station and distributes it locally.

Farmland cultivation

To cultivate lands, parallel driving even using a free signal is usually sufficient. It helps eliminate overlaps and gaps, allowing you to save significant assents on machinery wear, fuel, and time necessary for field operations.

However, deep soil tillage can be significantly improved exclusively by measuring the soil compaction before the operation. It is not too difficult to manage the process – all you have to do is to lay out the field into several parts and mark the different tillage depth. This is a tangible optimization, as extra tillage depth leads to fuel consumption and equipment depreciation.

Sowing

It is necessary to take the machinery employed in the process into account, as well as the kind of crop rotation. When sowing, the simplest option is to cut off the seeder sections on overlaps. If the fields have irregular shapes, this option will save 2 to 3% of the seed material. Since the farm will get correct data on the amount of grain sown, this will allow saving $5,000 onseed units for every 1,000 hectares and ensuring accurate data used to account the use of tangible assets not according to the standard rate but according to actual consumption.

Additionally, as part of re-equipment processes, it is possible to install improved seed-sowing devices which will perfect sowing quality and speed. Here we have not yet included the increase in yields due to the improved sown grain application.

Onboard controller during sowing

Onboard controller during sowing

Map of nitrogen fertilizer application

Map of nitrogen fertilizer application, controlled using TI5

However, we advise you not to re-equip the entire seeding machine park in one go. It would be more efficient to install the seed monitoring systems on all the devices, to re-equip one seeding machine, and leave one without the upgrade. This way we will be able to fulfill the second point of our plan which will allow us to assess the results. This approach will provide necessary data on the general amount of seeds, sown by each sowing machine, on the number of gaps and so on. After that, it is best to fly a drone over the field: nowadays, data collected by agricultural drones allow to estimate the number of sprouts. This service belongs to a fairly accessible segment, costing about 20 UAH/ha.

Based on calculations, it is worth making a decision on the profitability of other seeding machines re-equipment.

Sunflower sprouts calculation

Sunflower sprouts calculation. This orthophotomap was created using the DJI Mavic Pro drone, the flight altitude is 20 meters

Spraying

This field operation is the source of multiple problems and ways of solving them. The difficulties are classified into the actual field introduction and water and PPP logistics. Our partners, who provide PPP introduction services, spray 800 or even 1,000 hectares a day while the average farmer manages to treat just 300 hectares a day. The company providing the services actively uses the sprayer for 40 minutes with 20 minutes idle time due to the logistics and the company’s machine operators’ professionalism. Alas, the things are still reversed at most agribusinesses, though they have to pay 300 thousand Euros for the self-propelled sprayer.

The key spraying machine re-equipment task is to have a possibility to disable sections on overlaps, as this not only increases the PPP consumption rate but also damages the crops and reduces yields. Automatic section control will save from 10 to 20% of the PPP, depending on the field geometry and relief. There was a case on this topic – we re-equipped 6 sprayers for our Client. Having modernized the machines, he could save 15% of PPP utilized. Within one season, the farm applied PPP worth 20 million UAH and was able to pay back the project.

A spraying machine with no autopilot and no inter-row driving tramples up to 3% of the crop. As it turns out, just the autopilot with a radio signal, a skilled sowing, and side-dressing save $3,000 in yield for 100 hectares of a corn field.

Fertilizer application

When implementing precision agriculture, such element as fertilizer application raises most of the questions. Firstly, it is rather difficult and resource-consuming to re-equip the available machinery to use differentiated fertilizer application. To purchase new machinery is the most efficient solution. Secondly, the precision farming successful implementation in this respect depends on many factors which have to be considered. This includes application technique, application time, types of fertilizers used, and the farming method used by the company to grow crops – lots of variables.

The laboratory research itself already poses difficulties. Scientists and advisers insist that the fertilizer application rate should be calculated taking agrochemical analysis into account. However, as part of our practical experience, we come across the fact that different laboratories provide different results with the same sample sets. Moreover, not only the indicators differ but also zoned field maps showing particular element content are different.

Different ways to compile a map showing magnesium application

Different ways to compile a map showing magnesium application. On the left, the map was compiled based on data array from all fields. On the right – on a particular field

Why is this happening? Apart from the human factor, different laboratories utilize different research techniques and equipment. So, to get consistent data, the farming enterprise should stick to the results obtained from the laboratory, which they addressed initially. Which laboratory services the farm will resort to is not so important. What we are talking about is the risk of changing agrochemical data. It loses its correlation with the old ones accumulated earlier.

Here is a critical point – foreign farms often start working on a differentiated fertilizer application model but not with an agrochemical map. Initially, a relief map is compiled (since fertilizers are always washed from the slopes and accumulate inside the pits). Then the soil structure, its density, and electrical conductivity are analyzed. Thus, plots with sand, loam, clay, etc are revealed on the field.

Exclusively after the soil structure analysis is done, the micro- and macroelements content map is created. And the compiled grid will not be the same all over the field. The prescription map will contain different norms within the zones with different soil structure. As it is a time-consuming and expensive process, this technique is not so popular in our country.

Summarizing all the above information, we have compiled a chart to help you follow all the steps necessary for modern technologies being introduced into the farming enterprise working process:

How to implement pricision farming

Nonetheless, all the auxiliary gadgets and re-equipment operations will not provide any results without the main tool for the agrarian – the relevant fleet of agricultural machinery.

Machinery

Nowadays, on the world market, there are five leading manufacturers of special equipment necessary for precision farming: Trimble, Raven, Hexagon, John Deere, and Precision Planting. Agricultural machinery manufacturers have partner agreements with these highly specialized giants. Therefore, there are additional obstacles in the precision farming introduction processes if the farm has machinery produced by different manufacturers. We advise you to acquire machinery not equipped with various “smart” gadgets. This way you will reduce the risk to overpay for unnecessary technology. In the first place, it will be more efficient to determine which technologies and for what objectives the farm needs most and to additionally purchase equipment for them. Otherwise, you could conduct a detailed research on the subject and order the machinery equipped according to your individual requirements.

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