Precision FarmingDigi­tal­i­sa­tion is a funda­mental prereq­ui­site for sustain­able agri­cul­ture

Lithuanian young farmers are joining the green trajec­tory with preci­sion tech­nology and smart farming helping them lead the way.

Gedas Špakauskas studied trans­porta­tion science at Gedim­inas Tech­nical Univer­sity in the capital of Vilnius – and it’s serving him well in the pursuit of building smarter farming systems and a busi­ness fit for the future. Computers and computer science have always fasci­nated me, but I decided to take a different path, says Gedas. “I’m now in my seventh year of farming.”

His interest in tech­nology hasn’t gone anywhere and he’s applied his knowl­edge and curiosity to the digi­tal­i­sa­tion of his farm busi­ness as part of his ambi­tion to build a sustain­able arable oper­a­tion that is fit for the future. “I have a very young family, and while I don’t want to push them into a profes­sion, I do want to make sure that if they want to go into farming then they are able to take over a modern, produc­tive enter­prise,” he adds.

Detailed infor­ma­tion with the John Deere Oper­a­tions Center

Taking over the family farm six years ago after his father passed away, he has grown the farm in Degučiai, part of the Pakruoj district of Lithuania, from 150ha to 280ha, using a combi­na­tion of prac­tical and tech­no­log­ical deci­sions and prin­ci­ples. The 280ha is a mixture of owned and leased land; in its entirety it comprises 30 sepa­rate parcels of land. Given the rising lease prices, he aims to buy as much land as possible in order to secure the long-term future.

All oper­ating infor­ma­tion is stored on the smart­phone.
Gedas Špakauskas runs his family’s farm.

Using the John Deere Oper­a­tions Center, Gedas has total control of his enter­prise; recording and reviewing farm gener­ated data – all from his computer or mobile phone. “I haven’t used a note­book for a long time and I can’t imagine recording so much infor­ma­tion by hand,” he remarks. “I can look at a field on the mobile appli­ca­tion and I can see what work has been done; when it was sprayed or fertilised, I can iden­tify errors made either by myself or others; correct them and analyse the data.”

Gedas’ fleet of trac­tors and imple­ments are kitted out with John Deere’s preci­sion ag tech­nology with ISOBUS section control. Allowing, for example, auto­matic steering and appli­ca­tion of fertiliser, which is applied according to each field’s specific fertiliser map, drawn up on the basis of inputted soil analysis. In the field, his fleet also records rele­vant infor­ma­tion like travel speed. “When someone asks me about fertiliser appli­ca­tion rates, I never answer with approx­i­mates and instead I can give precise infor­ma­tion,” he adds.

Char­ac­ter­is­tics of sustain­able manage­ment by Gedas Špakauskas

  • Year-round plant cover protects the soil from erosion and exces­sive sunlight
  • Targeted fertil­i­sa­tion is the basis for the nutrient balance in the soil and reduces the discharge of excess fertiliser into the envi­ron­ment
  • Targeted use of plant protec­tion chem­i­cals means that fewer chem­i­cals are released into the envi­ron­ment
  • Precise, satel­lite-assisted auto­matic steering prevents over­lap­ping during field work, saves fuel and reduces CO2 emis­sions
  • 4% of the farm area serves as fallow land. In spring, plant mixtures are sown that produce a lot of green mass and also loosen the soil in deeper layers. The nutri­ents from the plants are later returned to the soil. These areas are partic­u­larly attrac­tive to birds
  • Cultivation of catch crops after harvesting the main crop in the fall
  • No cultivation at a distance of less than 3 m from water­courses and streams
  • Annual crop rota­tion, legumes are grown on 10% of the area, which natu­rally supply the soil with nitrogen.

Gedas feels that invest­ment in preci­sion tech­nology is worth­while. He advo­cates for farmers to consider equip­ping trac­tors with satel­lite-assisted auto­matic steering and to purchase intel­li­gent imple­ments, like seed drills, fertiliser spreaders and sprayers with part-width section control, to not only better manage input appli­ca­tions but also for the contin­uous collec­tion of infor­ma­tion on field work, appli­ca­tion rates and yield data.

Getting started is easy

Edvinas Navickas, head of preci­sion farming at DOJUS-agro – John Deere’s Lithuanian distri­b­u­tion partner – describes preci­sion farming as a simpli­fied system which removes a lot of the guess work and increases effi­ciency and data accu­racy. “The farmer creates a field job digi­tally in the programme and sends it to the machine, for example, fertil­ising a field according to a vari­able prescrip­tion map,” explains Edvinas. “When the tractor approaches the intended field, the oper­ator only has to confirm on the oper­ating monitor that work is to begin.

All equip­ment on a sustain­able farm must be intel­li­gent.

“The fields are culti­vated, sown, fertilised and sprayed according to vari­able prescrip­tion maps. The harvesting machines, which are also connected to the Oper­a­tions Center, record the harvest quan­ti­ties, which then provide the basis for yield maps,” Edvinas continues.

“All work and its quality para­me­ters are docu­mented and stored so that it can later be analysed by the farmer.” The appli­ca­tion of a full preci­sion system means that machines know which lanes they are trav­el­ling on and how the imple­ments need to be set. “The operator’s task is to ensure that no warning light comes on, that the nozzles are not blocked and that there is always enough seeds, fertiliser and crop protec­tion chem­i­cals – it really simpli­fies the systems and helps reduce oper­ator error.”

To date, DOJUS has sold or retro­fitted around 4,500 self-propelled machines with the satel­lite-supported auto­matic guid­ance system. “Approx­i­mately 2,000 of them are connected to the Oper­a­tions Center. Every minute they send around 800 data records, i.e. infor­ma­tion of all kinds, which can even be used to assess the tech­nical condi­tion of the machines them­selves and predict a possible failure,” says Edvinas. “Some­times farmers are surprised when our service vehicle comes to the farm or field during oper­a­tions because we find out before the oper­ator that a repair is needed.”

Direct seeding requires preci­sion

High preci­sion systems are partic­u­larly bene­fi­cial for no-till farms. “No-till and preci­sion farming go hand in hand,” says Edvinas. “In conven­tional farming, a tractor will typi­cally pass a field eight to nine times during a season, while no-till farmers typi­cally have a much lower pass rate.

Due to spring frosts, the number of pests and rape blos­soms has decreased for the third year.

“If conven­tional farmers make a mistake, they can often correct it later. No-till farmers usually do not have this option. Non-crop farming requires special preci­sion every time, every work step has to be very well planned, thought through and executed. “No human on a tractor can do it as accu­rately as a satel­lite-controlled machine.”

Gedas is one such farmer who chooses not to plough. In his opinion, the most impor­tant thing is to sow quality – looking at both seed quality and how the seed is sown. “Seeds must be of good quality to achieve good germi­na­tion and sowing must be done accu­rately as well; seed rate and sowing depth and time.”

Before sowing, the germi­na­tion capacity of the seeds is tested in the labo­ra­tory. “If you make crucial mistakes when sowing, no measures or even the most favor­able weather will help,” stresses Gedas. “Another impor­tant point is correct and precise fertil­i­sa­tion. The soil may have enough of every­thing, but a certain balance of nutri­ents is also required for good plant growth.”

What needs to be fertilised also depends on the time of year, for example, potas­sium is needed in spring when active vege­ta­tion begins, while phos­phorus is often required in the autumn. As well as soil testing, he also uses fresh leaf analysis to deter­mine his nutrient fertiliser appli­ca­tions, with results avail­able around five days after sending his samples.

Preci­sion farming and the Green Deal

Edvinas also sees a close connec­tion between the EU’s Green Deal policy and preci­sion farming. Auto­matic guid­ance alone saves around 10% on fuel, time, fertiliser, seeds and crop protec­tion chem­i­cals, according to Edvinas, adding that

Auto­matic guid­ance alone saves around 10% on fuel, time, fertiliser, seeds and crop protec­tion chem­i­cals, according to Edvina, adding that “only as much mate­rial is applied to the soil as is neces­sary for the plants and the desired yield.”

Legu­mi­nous crops are grown on 10% of the land. Beans must be protected from wild geese, which are on the red list.

The gradual imple­men­ta­tion of new tech­nolo­gies in the Oper­a­tions Centre has resulted in a stan­dard­ised system; combing many auto­mated func­tions and managing all the neces­sary oper­ating data. Farmers can down­load, free of charge, the soft­ware to their smart phone or access it online using any browser, and can see what’s happening on the farm in real time.

“It’s not absolutely neces­sary to buy our machines in order to use this programme,” explains Edvinas. “We can also provide indi­vidual system elements, for example the StarFire receiver, the guid­ance system and the oper­ating monitor can be installed in any tractor. “In this way, it becomes part of the system that enables preci­sion farming and the asso­ci­ated bene­fits.”

The idea of sustain­able agri­cul­ture

The protec­tion of nature and the envi­ron­ment is promoted by both Lithuanian and EU agri­cul­tural policy. Finan­cial support is provided on the basis of certain rules which favours farms that prac­tice sustain­able agri­cul­ture. Gedas admits that he has made his busi­ness sustain­able because it pays off for him. “I work within the rules. Like others, I’m moti­vated by the finan­cial gains – but not all measures pay off,” he says.

A 3m wide strip along water­courses and ditches remains unculi­vated.

Perma­nent greening prevents soil erosion.

“So I look for ideas on how I can run my busi­ness sustain­ably with nature in mind. I exper­i­ment a lot, and look for the best solu­tions; exchanging ideas and knowl­edge with other farmers and people in the industry. “Those of us who farm the land cannot just stand by and watch, we need to make changes towards sustain­ability.”

According to Edvinas Navickas, a gener­a­tional change is currently taking place among farmers in Lithuania. “The older gener­a­tion gener­ally doesn’t make the switch to new, digital tech­nolo­gies,” says Edvina.“However, older farmers do encourage their chil­dren to take an interest and grad­u­ally take the reins them­selves. Young people are willing to digi­tise their farms and make the most of intel­li­gent manage­ment programmes – which is a posi­tive move for farming.”