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Machines vs. climate

Shrewd machinery purchases have always been essential on the farm, but not like this. Emerging technologies mean huge potential payoffs for getting it right, and even bigger penalties if you don’t. Think precision farming. Think surviving climate change

Intelligent, interconnected digital technologies will be the key value features of the next generation of farm equipment.

In the last two or three decades, farmers have been offered a dizzying array of new features on ag equipment. There’s more power, more capacity, auto guidance, the list goes on. Yet now, looking to the future, it will be even more crucial to make the best possible purchase decisions and to integrate your technology choices into your combined machinery and investment planning. The game is that big.

We aren’t talking options anymore. You will be asked to make technology choices that determine your farming objectives, for good or ill. So which emerging technologies should you get behind?

Chief executives at all the major equipment brands have a clear and unanimous answer to that question. They’ve thought a lot about it. After all, they’re investing billions into designing machines that will draw you into their dealerships, not their competitors’.

If you’ve got a tough job, so do they. There’s no such thing as a “go safe” strategy.

So it’s time to study their strategy. They aren’t really talking cast iron or sheet metal. Instead, they tout the intelligent digital systems that are getting built into machines that will soon give you a previously unheard of level of precision and attention to detail in the field, and one of your best hopes to counter global warming.

In their offices, the vocabulary of bigger, faster, stronger in equipment is rapidly being replaced by words like smarter, automated and sustainable. In fact, machines aren’t likely to get much bigger anytime soon.

Eric Hansotia. photo: AGCO

“We’re clearly making a shift to more and more precision ag, digital solutions and smart machines,” Eric Hansotia, new CEO of AGCO told Country Guide. “The capability of a machine with sensors on it to understand its environment, make onboard calculations and maximize its performance … we’re shifting a lot of our investment into that kind of capability as opposed to building the next bigger whatever, baler, tractor or combine. We believe the size envelope is starting to plateau now. And it’s going to be much more about more intelligence on the machine.”

That statement is echoed by senior executives at all three of the major ag equipment companies.

“Our objective as a company and our strategy is we want to leverage advanced technologies, and data in particular, to make our customers more productive, more profitable and help them do the jobs they do in a more environmentally stable way,” said John May, CEO of John Deere, during an online interview with “The Hill” in July.

“We can help customers do the jobs better than they are doing today. We can also pull a tremendous amount of data off the machines and put it in the hands of professionals, like agronomists, who can help the customers make better agronomic decisions. And we’re talking a lot of data here. If you look at what we transfer in data per day, we’re transferring about a terabyte of data per day from these connected machines in farm fields, which is around 200,000 five-minute songs or 500 hours of movies every single day. That’s 30 million data packets each day that are coming off these machines each day that we have the opportunity to add value to push back to these machines and improve their performance in the field.”

During New Holland’s European press conference in late July, Carlo Lambro, New Holland brand president, also confirmed his brand’s emphasis on data.

Carlo Lambro. photo: NH

“Intelligent farming is the way to the future we are sharing with our customers and dealers,” he said. “We believe intelligent farming is the right direction to take now. They (farmers) can plan their move, like on a chess board, based on historical data, agronomic information, managing time and resources.”

Not coincidently NH used that press conference to introduce its newest T7 HD tractors, a key feature they offer being still more digital capability to help farmers improve precision farming practices. It’s meant to fit into a new data-driven or “Intelligent” approach to farm management.

During that introduction, Sean Lennon, commercial vice-president at NH took up the precision farming discussion.

“Intelligent farming is a resource-efficient approach that provides substantial added value in terms of decision-making and more accurate execution,” he said. “Intelligent farming applications are now a technology for the whole industry, and we want to make them available for an even wider number of farmers and an even bigger range of crops. Today, we continue to roll out PLM Intelligence.

“Precision farming and digitalization really allow our customers to do more with less — less waste, less water, less inputs — and (get) more outputs. Precision farming technologies treat resources as they should be — scarce, costly and precious. Making more efficient use of all resources is the main aim of NH Agriculture’s Precision Land Management strategy. PLM marks the shift from traditional agricultural practices to Agriculture 4.0.”

What exactly is agriculture 4.0?

“(It’s) for sure a lot of different things,” Lennon explained. “But all integrated into each other. So at an operational level, Agriculture 4.0 is the sum of precision and interconnected farming, which together help farmers plan all their operations in advance, to manage in real time the behaviour and performance of each machine, and to achieve maximum precision and efficiency.”

Deere’s May had more to say on that concept, “New technologies like computer vision, advanced algorithms, artificial intelligence, that’s the new technologies that we’re leveraging to go from managing a complete field to managing every individual plant for maximized yield.”

It’s that individual plant-level management ability that is the holy grail of precision farming. All the brands are expending considerable resources in striving for it. And the word sustainability figures prominently in the comments from all thee senior executives, too. Just as farmers have been feeling the pressure from environmental groups critical of some agricultural practices, major brands are keenly aware of that kind of negative press as well.

“Absolutely,” says Hansotia. “If you look at our new purpose statement, our purpose is farmer-focused solutions to sustainably feed the world. It’s not just about getting the highest yield, it’s about doing so in a sustainable way.

“We’ve got to help farming position itself in the right way,” Hansotia continues. “It was headed in a very bad direction, especially in Europe two years ago. COVID in some ways helped us, because I think the world saw how fragile the food chain is. And they had painted farmers as greedy capitalists, just out to grow maximum yields and they don’t care about the environment. And all of a sudden grocery store shelves were empty and maybe we need those farmers more than we thought.”

Getting real about climate change

What we’ve also learned in the last two years is that, somehow, this machinery is also going to have to work within an agriculture that is buffeted by a whole new era of climate variability.

Hansotia and the other executives see there’s much more to their jobs than just helping farmers create positive public perceptions. They share a realization that successful agriculture around the world may soon depend to a very great extent on technology to cope with the kinds of once-in-a-century and record-breaking weather events we’re seeing with alarming frequency.

May used the example of Australian farmers, who have routinely faced uncertain weather and growing conditions. The technology that can help them make good growing decisions will also allow many regions around the world to improve yields in difficult years.

“Unless we move managing a farm from the field level to the individual plant level, we’ll never get there (in dealing with climate change),” said May. “I think precision ag is going to play the key role in dealing with these environmental challenges we’re going to face around the globe. When you can manage every individual plant, you can manage out the variables that plant is dealing with.”

John May. photo: John Deere

Just like the major brand executives, the entire ag machinery industry is getting behind that movement toward precision farming.

“We’re living in a new age of agriculture, and today’s precision technology on equipment can have an enormous positive impact on farmers and the environment,” said Curt Blades, senior vice president of agriculture at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, in a recent press release. “One of our goals at AEM is to encourage the adoption of these technologies to more farmers, so they can all reap the benefits as we continue to focus on sustainability.”

Blades cited a recent Canadian study that found precision ag practices do make significant yield and economic differences to a farm’s operation. The study looked at key benefits achieved through precision agriculture technology adoption, including higher yields and lower pesticide use, fuel consumption and water utilization.

The study, which was done through co-operation with a number of Canadian grower associations, found “significant increases in yields and further input savings can be reached as precision agriculture technologies become more widely adopted.” 

For farmers, the job will be to put their pencils to these kinds of numbers, revealed by the AEM study:

  • Productivity increases of an estimated four per cent with the potential for another seven per cent with broader adoption.
  • Fertilizer efficiency gains of six per cent due to superior placement with the potential for an additional 16 per cent rise. 
  • Herbicide use falling by an estimated nine per cent, rising to 16 per cent at full adoption.
  • Fuel use dropping six per cent with the potential to fall 11 per cent.
  • Water use down an estimated seven per cent with the potential to further decrease another 18 per cent.

Obviously, the economic and environment impacts are clear and impressive.

“Greater adoption of precision ag technologies is a goal, and this study reinforces the benefits that so many producers are already enjoying,” said Diana Laturnus, FCC’s manager of special projects, in the same AEM press release. “We see tremendous value in sharing this knowledge with the industry so more farming operations will be better equipped to think long-term and make the best farm management choices in the interests of sustainability, productivity and profitability.”

Keep in mind that study was done using today’s level of precision farming technology, and Deere’s May says there is enormous potential for many more advancements, which will mean even more gains. But developing them will take time and money.

Buying better science

Such revolutionary changes won’t just fall into our laps, though.

“We’re working with universities here in the Midwest and a lot of universities on the West Coast,” said May. “We acquired an artificial intelligence company out in Silicon Valley to help accelerate those efforts. Artificial intelligence will take not just agriculture to the next level, it will take other industries there as well.”

And Deere isn’t done yet, he said. “We do need more investments in those areas.”

“Technology and sustainability are the pillars of our vision,” said Carlo Lambro. “And they go very well together. Intelligent farming makes it possible to feed more people by making the best use of resources. And this means minimizing the impact on the environment, too. We’re working in the perspective of carbon-free agriculture. To reach this target, we need to do more.”

Lambro then summed up the entire machinery industry’s perspective on the promise offered by advancements in precision ag.

“It’s the agriculture of tomorrow,” he said. 

It’s a big question: Could your wireless bandwidth power the next stage in combine design? photo: John Deere

Connectivity gets critical

While machinery brands continue to pour investment cash into precision ag R&D, all of them acknowledge that rural connectivity will play an even more important role in the future as technology advances. But farmers in all industrialized countries are still hampered by a general lack of it. 

At the moment, engineers are compensating for that by building intelligence into the machines they design, allowing them to make micro-decisions on their own without a connection to the cloud, and waiting to get macro updates when they pass through a hotspot. But John Deere CEO John May says more connectivity is still important.

“Data and connectivity play a very, very critical role,” May explained. “If we can’t have machines connected, it’s very difficult for us to optimize the performance of the machines, optimize the overall jobs our customers are doing by having access onboard to what’s happening on the machine.

“We have a lot of areas here (in the U.S.) that are not connected. And because they’re not connected, they don’t have the ability to leverage a lot of our tools. I’ll give you a great example. We have a technology right now called combine advisor. That combine, as it’s going through the field, is sensing all the different variables and it’s talking to the cloud, saying give me advice on how to optimize myself right now. When it gets that advice, it can outperform the best operator in the world. Unfortunately, there’s places here in the Midwest where that connectivity doesn’t exist, and that customer can’t benefit from (all of) that technology.”

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor for Country Guide.

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