Precision Farming- A Step towards Sustainable Agriculture

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Precision Farming refers to a management concept focusing on (near-real time) observation, measurement and responses to inter- and intra-variability in crops, fields and animals. Potential benefits may include increasing crop yields and animal performance, cost and labour reduction and optimization of process inputs, all of which would increase profitability. At the same time, Precision Farming should increase work safety and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture and farming practices, thus contributing to the sustainability of agricultural production. The concept has been made possible by the rapid development of ICT-based sensor technologies and procedures along with dedicated software that, in the case of arable farming, provides the link between spatially-distributed variables and appropriate farming practices such as tillage, seeding, fertilization, herbicide and pesticide application, and harvesting. In livestock farming, it provides a link between animal-based variables and appropriate practices in relation to animal feeding, health, welfare, behavior and production. In arable farming, the development of accurate positioning systems, principally Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), were the main enablers of ‘precision’. In animal farming systems the electronic identification of individual animals through the development of low-cost wireless sensing systems, have enabled individual animal monitoring, for instance in dairy and pig husbandry, and in small groups in poultry. In arable farming, Precision Farming has been relatively widely adopted by larger farms in Central and Northern Europe, the USA and Australia, where the main reason to adopt Precision Farming is to maximize profitability. In such conditions, straightforward Precision Farming applications such as Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) and auto-guiding systems are the most successful applications, showing clear benefits in large-scale operations. When Variable Rate Application (VRA) approaches are used, inputs are applied in response to measured variability, and the main challenges are to understand and respond properly to such variability. In the case of fruit and vegetables and viticulture, new Precision Farming methods based on machine vision in combination with GNSS have demonstrated benefits through improved fruit quality as a key to obtaining a better market position. In Mediterranean agriculture intermittent periods of water scarcity make irrigation methods, and in particular Precision irrigation techniques, essential for good management in regions that are already under socioeconomic pressure in agriculture.

In animal production, Precision Livestock Farming has enabled the automatic monitoring of individual animals and groups of animals for meat, milk and egg production control, as well as monitoring of animal behavior, health and welfare, productivity and reduction of emissions. In the course of the past three decades, farms have greatly increased in size, and they have adopted highly automated processes for feeding, milking, egg collection and other tasks. For practical reasons, farmers manage groups of animals, but variability in performance has become an impediment to increasing economies of scale. By using modern information technology, Precision Livestock Farming allows farmers to record numerous attributes of individual animals, such as pedigree, age, reproduction, growth, health, feed conversion, killing-out percentage (carcass weight as percentage of live weight) and meat quality. Current milking technology in dairy allows aspects of cow health and fertility to be monitored. Alone or in combination, each of these measured attributes can be used to trigger an individual management response such as a feed change or a medical intervention. Individual animal monitoring with precise adjustments of feed and veterinary interventions through wireless systems are now in widespread use, with millions of monitor collars being sold annually within the EU. This approach reduces the use of antibiotics, as animals can be treated individually, reducing costs and risk. In pigs and poultry, most systems rely on a high degree of monitoring and control of ventilation, cooling and feed allocation to groups of animals, to ensure delivery dates and target weight. In addition to economic goals, Precision Livestock Farming supports societal goals related to increasing food quality and safety. It can enable efficient animal farming which ensures sustainability through healthy animals with a low environmental footprint. Precision Farming plays a critical role in meeting the ever-growing demand for food, feed, and raw materials, while ensuring a sustainable use of natural resources and the environment.

Needs for Research in Precision Farming

While there has been a strong research effort on Precision Farming in topics such as technical solutions and sensors, there are still significant research deficits which are limiting adoption by farmers. In particular, there is a lack of specific cost-benefit analytical tools, a failure to facilitate the input of farmers’ knowledge to Precision Farming decision-support systems and to understand how farmers make management decisions, and an inadequate illustration of the potential environmental benefit of Precision Farming.

  • A comparison of different decision support tools in precision farming, evaluating why they do or why they do not convince farmers.
  • Developing an understanding of how farmers make decisions on a day-to-day basis and how including farmers in the development of Precision Farming technology and tools would maximize the use of their knowledge, resulting in systems that would be more readily adopted.
  • Identifying ambassador farmers (and farms) as focus points for technology development and exchange, coupled with farmer-driven discussion group approaches. These groups should identify research and technology gaps, so key barriers and challenges can be addressed.
  • Understanding the causes of variation in crop production and animal performance to develop an appropriate management response resulting in more precise targeting of inputs/actions to optimize production.
  • Cost-benefit analysis of Precision Farming components and complete Precision Farming systems, including risk mitigation, across all enterprises.
  • Develop robust methodologies for automatic decision and planning support systems, and model-based process control in Precision Arable and Livestock Farming. This includes optimal operating procedures for treating sick animals or crop diseases based on automatic early-warning systems which prevent economic losses. A better understanding of farmers’ decision-making, conditions and methods is essential for this.
  • Better quantify the actual benefits of different types of precision agriculture, including direct costs, indirect costs including work time, and physical and cognitive ergonomics (labour effects). The models used to determine the benefits should also include environmental benefits.
  • Develop economic calculators for different cropping systems, geographical areas and socio-economic conditions.
  • Developing Precision Farming best practices for small farm holdings/livestock, focusing on specific crops, and livestock systems.
  • Developing and testing sustainable infrastructures for sharing machinery, software, hardware and advisory services among small and medium-sized farming operations. Adding value by using Precision Farming on short-chain produce in specialized products
  • Developing simple, cheap and ‘plug and play’ devices; these will allow farmers to test the benefits and the interest of Precision Farming / Precision Livestock Farming in a simple and immediate way, without major investments.
  • Developing methods and tools that require a small initial investment that can be directly applicable, minimizing risk and ensuring profitability or alternatively facilitating Precision Farming contracting services.  

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