How technology can help the farmer

Technology is the key to the future of agriculture, often in ways we do not expect, according to Jason PH Brantley, managing director of John Deere: sub-Saharan Africa. He spoke to Gerhard Uys about recent trends.

How technology can help the farmer
Jason PH Brantley
Photo: Gerhard Uys
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How will technology help to increase a farmer’s margins? What’s different today?
Smart application of new technologies can help farmers increase margins in several ways. Technology has always been a part of agriculture and used widely to reduce costs.

Electronic control of machine systems allows for larger machines that cover more ground in a day, saving fuel and time and improving the return on the farmer’s capital investment.

What’s different today is the growing trend of technology that helps improve revenue at the same time. For example, the information technology available in our products today allows farmers to predict the impact of various fertiliser and chemical treatments more precisely, which can save on inputs and improve yield across the land.

Why is this important?

Farmers, like other business owners, have to make trade-off decisions. The challenge is this: what can be measured and what can actually be controlled? Today, a great deal can be measured and controlled, and this empowers farmers to better manage for specific outcomes.

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How will newer technologies do this better than old technologies?
For one thing, new technologies are connected. Some call this the internet of things. The real game changer is that as everything becomes connected and more data about the farm is available, farmers can leverage third-party services to optimise anything they are interested in.

And perhaps the best thing about this revolution is that a lot of it is happening at a fast rate and at lower costs than in the past because of devices such as smartphones and tablets.

What types of new technology will help increase margins more than before, and how do they work?
Analytics are getting more advanced every day. Many people believe that analytics will be the driver that unlocks the yield potential needed to feed a growing world. The bonus to that is we’ll be able to do more with less, which can help a farmer make more money.

You recently said that as soon as something is replicable, it can make a difference, and that technology is not necessarily about labour. Please explain.
A lot of technology does save time and labour, so that can be part of the value a customer sees. Repeatability – being able to do the same thing in the same way every time – allows farmers to vary an input or treatment and know that the difference in yield or cost really comes from that management decision, not something random. That’s a big deal.

Large parts of Africa are not yet mechanised. Should farmers here mechanise, what would the effects be?
Even basic mechanisation brings repeatability – seed spacing and depth, consistency of tillage and timeliness of application. So the effects can be pretty amazing. There are many examples where mechanising a farm and improving basic things such as fertiliser use and seed singulation can increase yield by two or three times, or even more.

Where technology is concerned, we’re not necessarily talking about tractors. You recently said cheap sensors can be placed in anything from seed bags to fridges. How will data from this technology help producers?
Yes, it’s about more than tractors. As the industry creates more capabilities to offer decision support and increased precision through new technologies, it creates more demand for data. Much of that data comes from sensors. There’s a lot of investment in multiple industries that will bring new and lower-cost capabilities over time.

How is technology in farming in 2015 helping more than it did in, say, 1950?
In the past, many innovations dealt with a part of the system, a new type of tillage tool or a more fuel-efficient tractor. Those are certainly good and still happening today. What helps even more, though, is that many innovations today have an impact on the whole system. For instance, look at telematics and how that helps farmers with logistics and more cost-effective fleet management.

How do you convince farmers to invest in data-collecting technologies?
It’s not about convincing farmers because they know the value of data. Farmers have kept crop records and analysed their operations for hundreds of years, both formally and informally.

They’ve been making data-driven decisions for a long time. A lot of the conversations are more about concerns with data compatibility and ease of use of the services, which is why John Deere has created a platform called FarmSight.

This is open to third parties and uses open standards so that the farmer is in control of the data and can chooose to share it, too. The farmer also gets the reassurance that all of this technology will work together.

How does one get tractors, storage facilities and all the rest to talk to each other and share data?
Telematics is the revolution driving this. Telematics functions like a mobile phone attached to the machine, collecting information and sending it to the cloud via a cellular link. Once the data is in the cloud, it can interact with other machines or be analysed by humans or computers to speed up decisions and actions. When a particular action is determined, the data pertaining to it is sent from the cloud back to the machine, which will act on it.

Who analyses this data? And what is done with it?
There are a growing number of service providers that analyse, sort and optimise this data. What is key is that farmers can choose whom they work with, what data is shared and how they implement the plans on their farms.

What technologies that we haven’t applied fully will have an impact on agriculture in the future?
Automation technology stands out. Many think this refers to robotic driverless tractors, but that’s not what it’s about. Automation technology allows farmers to leverage all this data in real time while operating the farm. For example, a farmer can’t check the planter multiple times and make minor adjustments to ensure optimal performance, but automation technology can.

Automation technology can be used to make electrification of a system a more viable solution than current mechanical systems. And if you do install electricity, engineers will not be constrained by current machine architectures. With a new architecture you might be able to improve the agronomic value of a solution.

All this builds on each other and will increase in the future, giving farmers more choice in how they manage their operations. The ExactEmerge planter that we’ve introduced provides a picture of what I’m talking about. We’re in an exciting phase of innovation and one that will help increase the output of agriculture globally.

In terms of mechanisation and data, how will technology help Africa?
I’ve talked about the impact of basic mechanisation. Once that’s in place, things such as basic AutoTrak, an auto-steering technology, can save fuel and inputs while increasing yield and paying itself off quickly.

Mobile technology such as smartphones will enable better analysis and decision-making at low cost. Companies like ours are making more solutions available through mobile platforms in some markets, and that puts technology within reach of more customers over time.

Email Jason PH Brantley [email protected]

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Gerhard Uys grew up as a real city lad, but spends his free time hiking and visiting family farms. He learnt the journalism trade as a freelance writer and photographer in the lifestyle industry, but having decided that he will be a cattle farmer by the age of 45 he now indulges his passion for farming by writing about agriculture. He feels Farmer’s Weekly is a platform for both developed and emerging farmers to learn additional farming skills and therefore takes the job of relaying practical information seriously.