How digitalization is improving agriculture

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Machine-to-machine communication is no longer confined to factories. M2M solutions can now be found in the agricultural sector as well, simplifying workflows and streamlining processes – in areas such as cultivation of fields and animal husbandry.

Facing tough economic competition, and seeking to meet the world's ever-growing demand for food, farmers today are following technological trends, including the move toward machine-to-machine communication, or M2M. Automated data exchange in M2M streamlines processes and simplifies workflows.

One out of every five farms is now using the new digital tools
Nearly 20% of all farms are now using digital applications. Among farms with 100 employees or more, one third are using them. This was the finding of a representative survey carried out under commission to the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (BITKOM). BITKOM now expects digital applications to boost value creation in agriculture by three billion euros over the next ten years.

In spite of such optimistic forecasts, some farmers are still skeptical about whether digitalization can provide a bountiful harvest. "Small farms in particular are often concerned that they would never be able to recover the necessary investments," explains BITKOM CEO Bernhard Rohleder. "But we are already seeing many cases in which farmers are cooperating on ventures, such as purchases of high-tech tractors, that open the way to the benefits of M2M networking."

The intelligent combine
In one relevant example, Claas, a maker of agricultural machinery, has developed an intelligent combine that significantly improves the harvest process. In a typical configuration, the combine, along with all supporting equipment, such as tractors, is linked with the Deutsche Telekom cloud, to allow fast data exchange between all units.
As soon as the combine's grain bin is full, a tractor is automatically called for an offload. Such systems enable all equipment to operate at maximum efficiency, with virtually no unproductive waiting time or empty runs. Because modern harvest equipment is expensive to rent, purchase and operate, such efficiency translates directly into cost-efficiency for farmers. And "expensive" means "expensive": a state-of-the-art combine can easily cost up to half a million euros, and disruptions in logistics chains can quickly cost farmers 1,000 euros per hour.

Electronic worktime recording
The future will bring such connectivity to other areas of farming as well. In the town of Lohmar, near the city of Cologne in the German state of North-Rhine – Westphalia, the "Krewelshof" farming operation is using an electronic worktime recording system provided by the firm of MobilZeit. New minimum-wage laws have considerably increased administrative overhead for farmers, and the worktime recording system keeps the Krewelshof's administrative costs safely under control.

With the system, the farm easily complies with its worktime-recording obligations. At the same time, the farm benefits from a business-management perspective, because the system can allocate worktime records to separate relevant areas. Worktime in the farm's own shop and in field-harvest operations are two such areas that the system can precisely differentiate and allocate in accordance with management criteria, for example. To enable the system to identify different worktime categories, employees carry an RFID transponder on their keychains that looks somewhat like a shopping-cart chip. RFID technology (the letters stand for "radio frequency identification") is used for contactless data collection at short ranges.

Intelligent dosing of water and fertilizer
M2M solutions support farmers in precisely dosing the water and fertilizer they apply to their fields. In relevant systems, sensors record parameters such as temperature, pH and soil humidity. The systems also control the valves in automatic irrigation systems, thereby reducing water consumption by 30 to 50 percent, on average. Similarly, they can reduce fertilizer consumption by up to 30 percent.

Constant control over conditions in stables and silos
M2M solutions also help farmers optimize climate conditions in their stables and silos. The systems thus help prevent the sorts of animal diseases that can be triggered by rapid temperature fluctuations, for example. Digital silo-monitoring systems keep track of silo fill levels, via special sensors, and automatically order refills as necessary. Such systems can also include temperature and humidity sensors that provide the data needed to control silo climates to prevent spoilage. When temperature and/or humidity levels fluctuate irregularly or exceed certain thresholds, the systems automatically inform the farmers via text or e-mail and thereby enable them to take the necessary action.