The changing environment
Farmer's Weekly|May 14, 2021
The Internet of Things, where machinery and devices (often fitted with sensors) share data online, has enabled tractors and other agricultural machinery to become far more efficient and easier to operate. This, combined with mechanical innovations, is helping farmers produce more with less. Glenneis Kriel reports.
Glenneis Kriel

Precision farming was born in the 1990s, with farmers initially making use of grid sampling to obtain a better idea of the fertilisation requirements of different areas of the same land. From there, the technology steadily became more advanced, with satellites and thereafter drones being used to identify variations and areas where soil samples should be taken.

While farmers initially had to adjust inputs manually according to soil analysis results, farming equipment soon evolved to produce differential feeding, allowing for the automatic adjustment of applications. Farming equipment and these technologies have since become even more advanced, providing more detail and information.

“Machines these days can tap into much more information, for example climatic conditions, soil moisture levels and crop-related data such as the difference in the volume of grain harvested at specific locations. This enables farmers to save costs by helping them make better-informed decisions,” says Patrick Roux, managing director of equipment at agricultural services company AFGRI.

Along with this, new sensor technologies and the use of machine learning means that farming equipment can analyse lands in finer detail than ever before.

“In 2017, for example, John Deere invested in Blue River Technology, which allows for the identification of particular weeds. This enbles them to be removed with more specific herbicides to overcome the problem of herbicide resistance,” says Roux.

AUTOMATION

It might still be some time before unmanned tractors become mainstream, but agricultural machinery is becoming increasingly automated and user-friendly. Roux ascribes this to the scarcity of skills to operate agricultural machinery, as well as rising labour costs, not only in South Africa, but across the world.

“With the emergence of smart learning, artificial intelligence and global positioning systems, most new-generation tractors can function independently. Instructions and inputs can be entered remotely, resulting in fewer inputs being required from operators. The role of operators, in effect, has become more supervisory; they’re merely there to ensure smooth operation and for safety reasons,” he says.

Automation is also increasing the efficiency of even the most skilled operators, and enables them to pay more attention to the farming activity at hand instead of the driving of the vehicle.

Automation began a little over two decades ago with the introduction of GPS-led technology that enabled tractor and combine harvester operators to steer in a straight line.

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