The world’s population is growing, but the amount of farmland available per head is shrinking. Agricultural productivity will have to increase if we want to safe-guard our food supply in the long term. Digitalization in farming can help us deploy our resources efficiently and sustainably, enabling farmers to get the best out of their fields with minimal environmental impact.
Catalã// BRASILIA. Humming quietly, the drone hovers over the field, the lens of its camera surveying the ground below it. Not 200 meters away, a twin-engined Piper stands in its hangar. The propeller plane is much faster, but the drone is better for this job. The remote-controlled aircraft’s camera delivers high-resolution images from every corner of the soy fields, much better than the Piper could. If a problem comes up, Ediney Afonso Dias can react immediately. The Brazilian agronomist can then take targeted action to control weeds, fungal diseases and pests without having to treat the entire field. “Cutting- edge, sustainable agriculture needs lots of accurate information,” says Dias. “Now we don’t have to use crop protection agents on large areas when only certain sections are affected. That’s good for us farmers and for the environment.”
Dias, a graduate of the Universidade Estadual de Goiás in Brazil, has been working on Francisco and Charles Godoy’s farm near the town of Catalão in the South American country for four ears. A look at his office reveals the 24-year-old’s structured approach to farm management. On the walls are whiteboards for each of the ten farms belonging to the Agricola Godoy company, which have a total area of 12,500 hectares. Each farm is divided into plots. For each plot, Dias has noted in detail how the soil was prepared for sowing, which soybean variety was planted, and what fertilizers and crop protection products have been deployed. The information on the walls is the roadmap for a successful harvest in 2017.
Dias’ desk overlooks the barn used to store the harvest, which is currently still empty as the big harvesters wait for their turn to get to work. Everything is well prepared for achieving ambitious objectives. Dias plans to increase this harvest’s yield by around five percent, without having to use any additional farmland. “Our objective is to increase productivity from 66 to 68 or 70 bags per hectare,” he explains. An important goal, given that the amount of agricultural land available per head worldwide is falling while the global population is growing.
New digital technologies can enhance efficiency. “We monitor our fields every day so that we can quickly intervene if there is a need for action,” says Charles Godoy, who is in charge of the farm’s operational business and 40 employees. The 43-year-old has been passionate about farming ever since he was 12. “In the old days, we would simply drive through the fields in the tractor and pull out any weeds. Now we can use data from satellites and drones to boost our productivity.”
Infrared images, for example, provide information about the status of the plants. Healthy plants have a higher chlorophyll content and appear red in the images. In addition to the satellites and drones, sensors on the state-of-the-art tractors and harvesters provide vital data on soil condition and plant health. These data flow into the digital applications that Bayer is developing to help farmers around the world pursue efficient, sustainable agriculture.
“We provide information which enables farmers to rapidly take decisions tailored to each individual field,” explains Tobias Menne, head of Digital Farming at Bayer. “It ranges from helping them to select the right crop variety to determining the ideal time for crop protection measures and recognizing plant stress factors at an early stage.” All of this information is compiled by the farm manager and transmitted to the tractors and machinery in the fields which already today are controlled using GPS technology. The driver in the cab knows at all times exactly where an active ingredient has to be applied. This is precision agriculture, with no waste of resources. “Digital farming offers enormous opportunities,” says Menne. “We can compare the current data with the values from previous growing periods, allowing farmers to react earlier to changes, initiate counter-measures in good time and thus prevent harvest losses. And it can be used by both small-scale and large operations.” Charles Godoy has just one goal: “I want to leave my two sons Charles Francisco and José Victor a farm that is operating to the highest technical standards.” And then he will just use his plane for fun.