Where is agriculture today?
Digitization, digital transformation, smart devices, artificial intelligence… In the meantime, these terms can no longer be imagined in the news, from conversations in everyday life or from speeches. Every entrepreneur wants to digitize or is already fully involved. But if you ask more precisely what each individual imagines under digitalization, a very heterogeneous picture soon becomes apparent. For some, digitizing already means using a computer, while another is thinking about the full automation of operations and investing in robots. If you want to deal with the topic in more detail, you should first learn about possible uses, goals and risks in order to get a clear picture of digitalization. This is the only way to plan the next steps effectively. Farmers can also take advantage of digitalisation. What may sound contradictory or nonsensical to many, and which has to be criticised, is nevertheless an asset to agriculture. Innovations enable a significant increase in productivity, less administrative burden and more sustainability.
The circumstances in which agriculture must exist today are challenging: increasing quality requirements, climate change, ever-increasing demands for animal welfare, international competition and comparability, and increasing price pressures. In this context and in some cases also the field of tension, new solutions are sought in order to be able to continue as an agricultural holding in the future. Unfortunately, successful solutions and processes so far no longer bring the desired results and disappoint expectations of customers, partners and society. Not good conditions for long-term success. This is where digitalization comes in. Data-driven solutions, accurate round-the-clock monitoring and the courageous and rapid decision-making that goes with them enable targeted action despite all these challenges. Thus, digitalization is a relief and welcome transformation for every farmer. With this article, we first want to sharpen the understanding of digitization in agriculture, to educate about the advantages and disadvantages and to show areas of application.
In order to understand the concept of agriculture 4.0, it helps to get a clear idea of digitalization. Digitization or digital transformation is also defined as a transformation of analogue to digital values. The goals of digitalization are autonomy, flexibility and individualization. It is already changing all areas of our lives and new processes and innovations are determining our everyday lives. It is often referred to as a digital revolution or digital turnaround.
Agriculture 4.0 derives from Industry 4.0, which is made possible by digitalization. It is an umbrella term for new processes and solutions and describes modern, digitized companies. The aim of Agriculture 4.0 is to optimise agricultural practices through data-driven and internet-based applications. The measurement, control and analysis of processes also play a decisive role in Agriculture 4.0. Another term in this context is smart farming.
These advances are made possible by the Internet of Things, automation and AI (artificial intelligence). This also reveals other important features of Agriculture 4.0. The networking of technologies and systems among each other is a prerequisite for reaching the “fourth stage” in agriculture. For example, irrigation systems can be linked to the weather service in order to reduce water consumption and still ensure adequate irrigation. In addition, big data, i.e. the collection and analysis of data on a large scale, helps farmers to make the best possible decisions based on data. This data-driven decision-making is a great relief for everyday work and increases productivity.
Why should agriculture digitise in the first place?
All this still sounds like future music and science fiction movies? In the meantime, however, digitalization has already advanced further than most would like to see. It is also high time for farmers to think about next steps and to address the digital transformation.
We’ll explain why this is so important here. Digitalization can save costs and resources, especially in the long run. Of course, appropriate investments are needed in the beginning to purchase new smart machines or digital management systems. But these investments will soon pay off. This increase in revenue and productivity is one of the most important reasons to start the digital transformation.
Another reason for digitisation in agriculture is the increase in quality. Machines reduce the susceptibility to error and work more precisely than humans could. Their results always remain the same, as machines are not affected by fatigue, exhaustion or lack of concentration, which can be the case in humans from time to time. This can be used to achieve a consistently high quality.
In addition, digitalisation improves occupational health and safety. Farmers experience significant physical relief as a means of the new technologies. Heavy lifting can be carried out by machines and also lighter but monotonous workflows are carried out by them. This protects against incorrect stress and has another positive side effect, since the elimination of boring routine tasks also has a positive effect on the mental condition. Robots and automation programs thus make work much easier.
The management of businesses will also be considerably simplified and improved. Here we will go into this in more detail in the next section.
Another reason why digitization is worthwhile for agriculture can be found in the course of the New Work movement. Working hours and work places are made more flexible by the use of machines, robots and smart software. Farmers do not have to be on site all the time, but can control the machines from anywhere, for example via an app. Work assignments around the clock are also eliminated by smart devices, which can take over the tasks independently, e.g. at night. This also makes it easier to find young talent, without which agriculture cannot survive in the long term. Flexible working hours and places, as well as the use of new technologies, make the profession of farmer more interesting again for young people and arouses interest and motivation to enter the corresponding company.
In addition, the welfare of animals is improved by the use of smart technology such as feeding machines. These can determine and output the optimal feed quantity and composition, as well as create appropriate analyses afterwards. Digitisation also has a positive impact on the environment, which is particularly important in times of climate change and increased attention to society. More environmentally friendly work is made possible, e.g. by precision technology.
There are also many programmes and grants that support digitisation in agriculture. So there are many good reasons to digitise your own farm. In this way, the company becomes fit for the future and gains a competitive advantage. This will remain at least until all other companies also digitize. It is better to be a pioneer here than to lag behind later and let yourself be overwhelmed by the wave of digitization.
Benefits of digitization in agriculture
In general, the advantages of digitization in agriculture can be described by the terms efficiency increase and increase in turnover. However, we want to look a little more closely at how this comes about and look at the potential sizing of digitization in detail.
As i.e. briefly mentioned, administration is greatly simplified. Although bureaucracy is increasing in the present day, digitalisation makes it possible to facilitate the workload. Documents can be created, sent and stored automatically, and less space is needed to store documents. Communication with authorities etc. can be done by email and reduces waiting times and scheduling. These examples show how the discharge in the administration makes it possible to put more focus on the actual activity again. For many farmers, this means more fun at work, as office work is often annoying and time-consuming.
New machines, such as automatic milking or steering systems, also bring a number of advantages. These machines have built-in smart software that takes over the control. This means that work no longer has to be done manually. This saves resources, as farmers can take care of other important tasks over time.
The use of drones also brings a lot of progress for agriculture. Before mowing, for example, the field can be searched for deer kittens and then started the mowing process without worry. This ensures seamless and faster workflows.
Precision agriculture also creates potentials for saving fertilisers or plant protection products. With the help of new technology, this only deals with where exactly it is needed and this in the optimally adapted quantity. This has a positive impact on the environment and on the cost of the business.
Finally, digital learning is also a key benefit for farmers. Information can be obtained at any time and from anywhere. In case of problems, it is possible to remedy the situation and it is not necessary to search for the right solution. Online courses for further education are also usually much cheaper than face-to-face courses. The exchange with other farmers beyond their own region is also greatly simplified by social networks and forums and enables new insights and insights.
Finally, evaluations can be created and retrieved more easily. This is where big data comes into play again, enabling data-driven decisions. These are often more concrete and show the best possible option for action. An example would be feed analyses, which are available digitally and are evaluated by artificial intelligence and contain corresponding recommendations.
What are the new technologies for agriculture?
First of all, there is a wide selection of new technical hardware. These can be satellites that work with GPS, but also robotics, diverse sensors or drones.
An application example here is drone mapping. It allows you to take aerial photos of a field and plan subsurface-specific applications.
In addition, there are countless innovations and useful applications in the software sector. Apps that control the hardware and process analyses or online networking platforms are one option here. But farm management platforms are also becoming increasingly popular and making everyday life easier as a farmer.
Also a mixture of hardware and software, so-called smart machines, should definitely be looked at more closely. Here, intelligent software is built into the machine, for example to control it automatically. Feeding machines or high-tech agricultural machines with driving assistance are further examples here.
A popular implementation option here is the digital (cow) stable. The milking is taken over by milking robots, the ingredients of the milk are then measured automatically and the movements and activity of the cows are monitored and recorded. This significantly increases animal welfare and efficiency, while reducing the amount of work involved.
Will skilled workers and workers now be replaced by machines by digitalisation in agriculture?
This depends on the respective activity. Routine tasks, both on the field or in the barn, as well as in administration, are often automated and thus replace the human being. But this is exactly what creates new tasks, as these automations need to be set up and maintained. The demand for skilled workers and workers is also likely to increase in the area of SMEs. Thanks to digitalisation, small and medium-sized enterprises in particular will once again have more opportunities and better support. They can compete better if they take advantage of the potential of digitalisation and have another chance against large companies. This also makes it possible to increase the need for human labour.
Figures on the current status of digitalisation in agriculture
Despite the many opportunities that digitalisation offers farmers, there is still much to catch up on. In the German-speaking countries, for example, less than 10% of farms use precision farming systems and less than 20% of arable land is managed by technology controlled by GPS. Only one in six farmers can imagine an investment in this area. Milking robots have also been used in large companies. So there is still a lot of catching up to do here. Younger farmers tend to see the potential of digitalisation better and are more likely to imagine investing here. It is therefore worthwhile for farms to listen to their perspective on new technologies. In cooperation with the so-called digital natives, exciting and meaningful applications can be found for the achievements of digital transformation.
If you look at not only the use of special technologies, but digital applications in general, the picture looks much better. The first steps towards digitization,such as the creation and storage of digital documents, are already being implemented by more than half of farms and more than a quarter are planning or at least considering digitizing their business.
There is no way around digitisation in agriculture
As a farm, therefore, digitalization cannot be dispensed with. In addition to the positive impact on our own operations, the digital transformation, provided it is implemented with a strategy, also makes a positive contribution to regional development. In addition, animal welfare will be improved and the environment will be spared. This is what farms of the future look like!