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Farming advances with appliance of science to tractor technology

Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, estimates that the rigorous adoption of “precision agriculture” technology could increase yield on any given farm by about 10 per cent, compared with average global annual crop yield increases of about 1 per cent.

The combination of food demand and rising farmers’ expectations has forced agricultural companies to make big advances beyond auto-steer – introduced about 15 years ago – towards remote sensing and cloud-based data collection on the dozens of variables, from soil moisture to nutrient levels, that govern modern farming.

Agco, which says it has doubled its investment in advanced technology this year, estimates that the first fully autonomous tractors will hit the market in five to 10 years.

Recent innovations include a system that allows the driver of a John Deere tractor to synchronise the movements of a grain cart travelling alongside it as it harvests, as well as sensors within the machines that send out alerts to the farmer, local dealer and Deere if it fails.

Agco’s high-end Fendt imprint allows a single driver to control two tractors at the same time, and many systems will allow one tractor to pick up exactly where another has left off planting so as not to waste seed.

In all cases someone must be present in the remotely controlled tractor. But that is a reflection of liability issues – a malfunctioning robotic tractor tending fields along a Midwestern highway could wreak havoc – rather than any technological deficiency, says Adam Fleck, analyst at Morningstar.

“The logical next step would be removing the human from the machine,” he says. “We have the capability to do it already.”

Advances in mobile telephone technology will also have to keep pace, says Aguimar De Souza, of Agco. “In the future you may be able to use your cell phone [to control a tractor], but we may need to have something like 7G technology [instead of 4G] to make sure the signal is reliable,” he says.

While tractor makers keep their feet rooted on the ground, drones are appearing on the horizon. The drones industry says that 80 per cent of demand is likely to come from farmers, but tractor companies say they are not currently working on their own models, which are forbidden for commercial use in the US. Instead, analysts believe companies such as Deere, CNH and Agco are more likely to acquire or partner with unmanned aerial vehicle makers.

Meanwhile agricultural companies are trying to make better use of the vast caches of data that farmers generate and, in the case of yield and soil mapping, have tracked themselves for years.

“There’s a ton of information coming off of the field,” says Cory Reed, of Deere. “What’s not easy today is to take that data and analyse it and take the next steps to say what am I going to change next year.”

The industry wants to exploit better so-called “big data”, which has already allowed it to get better margins with higher prices on top-of-the-range tractors. Once technologically advanced equipment becomes standard in the US and the West, the companies will then be able to exploit the need for increased yields in the developing world as well.

In the West, that initially involved real-time yield data – a tractor that could count how many bushels it was harvesting. But it has grown to include cloud-based subscription data services that allow farmers wireless access to their data and gives them planting advice.

Earlier this month, when Monsanto announced its $930m acquisition of Climate Corporation, a data science company, chief executive Hugh Grant said data represented a potential $20bn sales opportunity for the industry.

“[Farmers] tell us they are looking to use more of the data coming from their fields and their tractor cabs to improve their productivity and profitability,” he said on an analyst call.

Climate Corp’s hyper-local weather forecasting and risk management tools will complement Monsanto’s big data product, FieldScripts, which provides farmers with seed recommendations and other data points.

Lane Arthur, of DuPont Pioneer, which offers a similar product, says for the past three years the company has doubled the amount of data it generates every six months.

The next challenge is how best to use that data while respecting the privacy concerns of typically reticent farmers. The farmer is generally allowed to opt in or out of sharing his or her data, and the industry is exploring ways to use that data more securely in order to provide better, more tailored services and products.

But some farmers see it as a way to squeeze them further or sell them products they do not need in an environment in which prices for seeds and tractors always seem to rise.

Mark Jehle, a rural mail carrier who farms about 3,000 acres with his brother about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago, illustrates the challenge.

He has adopted the latest technology, obsessively tracks his own data and calls the advances “the answer” – “anybody who doesn’t have it, I feel sorry for”. But asked about his interests in Monsanto’s FieldScripts product, which is being tested in the region, he balks.

“They know way too much already,” he says, sitting in the cab of a Deere tractor that is steering itself as he harvests a field of soyabeans. “I don’t want to give them any more than they already have.”

(Source – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a48ad98c-36c7-11e3-aaf1-00144feab7de.html#axzz391hx2fTW)

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