Digital Tech­nology Reduces Agriculture’s Climate Foot­print

Prof. Peter Pickel, respon­sible for future tech­nolo­gies at John Deere’s Euro­pean Tech­nology Center in Kaiser­slautern, explains new ways of combining effi­cient agri­cul­ture and envi­ron­mental protec­tion.

Digi­tal­i­sa­tion is prob­ably the biggest revo­lu­tion in agri­cul­ture after mech­a­ni­sa­tion, and I am convinced that it will recon­cile economy and ecology. Agri­cul­ture has a very special respon­si­bility as a cause and problem solver of climate change. Prac­tice, industry, and research must succeed in reducing green­house gas emis­sions. For this we have four mech­a­nisms:

  1. Increasing machine effi­ciency
  2. Opti­mising agronomy – producing more with less
  3. Opti­mising the use of existing machine capac­i­ties (automa­tion – autonomi­sa­tion)
  4. Using renew­able energy

Increasing machine effi­ciency

Since agri­cul­tural machines have been around, engi­neers have been working to make it more effi­cient. A lot has already been achieved here, but we have to stay real­istic. A fuel consump­tion reduc­tion of 1 to 3 % is a tremen­dous engi­neering achieve­ment given the high effort required to reduce exhaust emis­sions. Essen­tially, it succeeds by reducing trans­mis­sion losses, as we will see later in the example of the 8RX tracked tractor.

The effi­cient drive trains and the slip-reducing tracks of the John Deere 8RX help to save fuel and reduce CO2 emis­sions.

Opti­mising agronomy

In the overall CO2 balance of agri­cul­ture, fuel usage plays a secondary role. The poten­tial is much greater in arable farming measures. The produc­tion of mineral fertilisers causes high emis­sions of CO2, while at the same time there is a surplus of organic fertilisers in some regions. So, if we can use resources more effi­ciently in this area and in this way produce more sustain­ably, we can signif­i­cantly reduce our ecolog­ical foot­print.

The goal must be, above all, to move from uniform area treat­ment to small-scale appli­ca­tion, broken down according to soil vari­ability. Here, I would like to refer again to the example of Industry 4.0, in which industry is replacing mass produc­tion with indi­vidual produc­tion. In agri­cul­ture, this will take place in the treat­ment of each indi­vidual crop: We consider each plant as an indi­vidual and care for it accord­ingly. The biggest chal­lenge is to opti­mise fertiliser appli­ca­tions, crop protec­tion and other measures based on data, expe­ri­ence, and analysis.

The John Deere Oper­a­tions Center gives the user access to a wide range of site-specific data and infor­ma­tion.

Full use of existing machine capacity

Let’s move on to the third lever; the better util­i­sa­tion of machine capac­i­ties – in other words, a further minimi­sa­tion of losses. Prac­tical studies show that, espe­cially in the case of combines, often only 60-70% of the installed power is utilised. Thanks to automa­tion, however, we have made progress here in recent years. The auto­mated combine sets-up itself and oper­ates fully auto­mat­i­cally.

The X9 combine harvester has many auto­mated assis­tance systems that enable the driver to make full use of the installed machine capacity.

This brings us to the entry into autonomi­sa­tion. According to Autonomy Level 3 of the passenger car stan­dard, autonomous driving or oper­a­tion means the machine oper­ator can focus on tasks other than oper­ating the machine for a longer period of time. The next Level 4 will be inter­esting if the shortage of qual­i­fied drivers continues to grow. The prereq­ui­sites for this, however, are a corre­sponding legal basis and the avail­ability of 5G internet in rural areas.

Renew­able energy

Let’s move on to the final, but very crucial, point about reducing green­house gases in agri­cul­ture: We will achieve this using alter­na­tive forms of energy. First of all, elec­tri­fi­ca­tion.

John Deere Multi­fuel tractor at the Green Week in Berlin

Unlike in the passenger car sector, mid-range and high-end trac­tors with purely battery-elec­tric drive will not be avail­able in the next few years. Readi­ness for series produc­tion depends on the capacity of the batteries. Today, a 250hp tractor would have to carry a 10-ton battery to provide enough power for a full day’s heavy work – having about eight full load hours on board without recharging. However, the push for elec­tri­fi­ca­tion in the passenger car and commer­cial vehicle sectors is likely to provide a boost to inno­va­tion. In addi­tion, agri­cul­ture could become self-suffi­cient if elec­tricity from its own biogas, wind power or solar plants is used to power farm machinery.

Unlike all-elec­tric power­trains, a very rapid reduc­tion in green­house gas emis­sions would be possible using alter­na­tive fuels. With so-called multi-fuel engines, trac­tors can run not only on diesel but also, for example, on biodiesel, rape­seed oil or other non-ester­i­fied vegetable oils. This allows CO2 emis­sions to be signif­i­cantly reduced and breaks ties to fossil fuels – a benefit for the envi­ron­ment and the farmer’s budget. However, the polit­ical course would have to be set for this and incen­tives would have to be created for farmers.

Tech­no­log­ical progress in agri­cul­tural engi­neering is making it possible to consider a combi­na­tion of envi­ron­mental protec­tion and economic effi­ciency

Prof. Peter Pickel

Allow me to summarise: Tech­no­log­ical progress in agri­cul­tural engi­neering is making it possible to consider a combi­na­tion of envi­ron­mental protec­tion and economic effi­ciency. Agri­cul­ture can take respon­si­bility for sustain­able and envi­ron­men­tally friendly produc­tion and in this way ensure the trust of society. This makes envi­ron­mental protec­tion a compet­i­tive factor. The result: The opti­mi­sa­tion of agri­cul­ture using high-perfor­mance digital tech­nolo­gies continues, and the pres­sures on farmers are trans­forming into a vibrant growth envi­ron­ment for the future.