The Future of farming is digital

Last November, more than 150 agronomists from across Canada travelled to Banff, AB, to attend Bayer’s Agronomy Summit. Speakers gave the audience a preview of the science and innovations Bayer is planning to introduce to farmers in the next few years, including the exciting field of digital farming.

The adoption, by farmers, of a variety of digital technologies to better manage their operations, is one of the biggest changes in the industry in recent years. In less than a generation, progressive farmers have evolved from using tools such as GPS guidance, auto steer and precision farming to digital tech such as satellite monitoring, aerial drones, robotics, ag-based software and big data.

Digital technology has become the biggest driver of modern agricultural practices, and its adoption will continue to spread exponentially as farmers do everything they can to grow more and grow better.

In the opening address of the Summit, Al Driver, president and CEO of the Crop Science Division in Canada, told the audience how data will open windows for new innovations, integrated solutions, sustainable intensification and allow Bayer to better engage with farmers.

Bayer Canada created its digital farming team two years ago and tasked it with designing concepts, using digital technology, to augment both Bayer’s and its customers’ businesses. From these concepts, the team develops marketable products. Team leader Chris Paterson says that the team has already identified more than 30 potential opportunities.

He explained that even though there are more than 100 companies currently involved in precision agriculture and ag-tech industries, Bayer is unique because it is a seed and crop protection company first and can therefore focus its digital farming efforts on optimizing this core business. “We are finding new uses for digital technology in seed and crop protection,” says Paterson. “The potential list is very long.”

Planet Labs

There are six people on Bayer’s Canadian digital farming team and they collaborate with a number of industry partners. For example, Bayer has teamed up with Planet Labs in California to gather geospatial and remote sensing data.

Planet Labs is a small company with big plans. Until now, remote sensing data has been generated primarily from relatively large, very expensive, high-altitude satellites. Data costs were high and opportunities to gather data from a specific location throughout the growing season was limited by the small number of these satellites.

Planet Labs is working on a more cost effective remote sensing system, which consists of 180 small, inexpensive, disposable satellites that can image the whole world every day. Such an array could provide multiple images of an individual field throughout the growing season at a much lower cost.

Planet Labs already has 60 satellites orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, and the data coming back is providing Bayer with valuable information for planning, soil preparation, seeding, crop management and harvesting at research trial sites. This collaboration has already provided benefits in product development, predictive analysis and crop growth monitoring, says Paterson.

Alex Melnitchouck, Bayer’s digital farming technology lead, based in Calgary, explained how the company uses this satellite data, along with Zoner — precision agriculture web-based software — to manage variability in research trials.

Every farmer who has watched a combine yield monitor knows there’s significant yield variability within most fields. Just as yield mapping enables variable rate applications, Zoner can analyze remote data to predict both productivity and variability.

Melnitchouck illustrated this geospatial technology using two satellite photos of fields with yield variability of 507.4 per cent and 1,164.9 per cent respectively. With this much variability, he explained, research trials can end up skewed. However, predictive analysis now enables Bayer to locate its trials on the most uniform areas of a field, thereby minimizing soil and environmental factors.

“Planet Labs is just one of many vendors we are exploring new frontiers with,” said Paterson. Bayer has also announced working relationships with Planetary Resources, best known for its intent to mine asteroids, and other ag-related companies including John Deere and Trimble, which is best known for its GPS technology.

“The initial goal (of the digital farming team) is to augment the performance and user experience of Bayer products,” says Paterson. “The longer term goal is to work with farmers to define precise and accurate yield goals for each field (and eventually field zones), improve the probability of reaching that yield goal, and, over time, understand how to increase those yields toward their true potential.”

Today, with larger farm operations, increased rental acreage and hired labour operating the equipment, farmers simply do not know their fields as well as their fathers and grandfathers. Digital tools that can assist with crop planning, production and scouting are becoming more and more important to maximizing yields and profits.

Adding value

Farmer acceptance is key to the success of Bayer’s venture into digital farming. “Return on investment is usually number one,” says Paterson. “If a farmer can see the value, they will support it.” And there are other potential benefits, too, he says, such as saving time, reducing hassles and reducing risks for farmers.

Plus, said Paterson, beyond the benefits at the production level, farmers have a great story to tell. There’s improved transparency for consumers to see how their food was grown, the food industry can provide more accurate and faster traceability, and by producing more from less, the environmental footprint can be measurably lowered. “And that’s just the right thing to do.” For example, he noted that Bayer is in the final analysis of a new zone spray application technology for Proline in canola that could reduce fungicide costs and improve environmental stewardship. This new technology could be available to farmers by 2018.

At the same time Paterson recognizes that farmers have some concerns about the use of big data. Some are worried about who has access to their data and information generated on their farms and how it may be used. It’s a concern Bayer takes seriously and is working to address. Paterson said it really comes down to transparency and trust. “Bayer needs to be open with how we use the data collected and provide real value back to the farmer.”

Where does the Digital Farming team go next? Given new technologies, sensor types, data sources, efficient data transferring, and providing action to actually use this growing data — the possibilities to produce more from less are truly endless. FF technology Digital Farming: Bit by Bit www.farmforum.ca/ digitalfarmingbitbybit Bayer digital farming tools www.farmforum.ca/ digitalfarmingtools Planet Labs Inc. www.farmforum.ca/planetlabs