“Producers gain power over their deci­sion making”

How to get started with preci­sion farming, and how quickly does it spread in prac­tice? An inter­view with Peer Leithold, the managing director of Agricon, a consulting firm he founded in 1997.

How do you define preci­sion agri­cul­ture?

To me, preci­sion farming is about solving an agro­nomic problem under changing envi­ron­mental condi­tions and crop status. You need to start from the problem, not from the tech­nical tools as we have often done over the past 20 years. Further­more, preci­sion farming is demand oriented. Deci­sions are not based on achieving a poten­tial maximum yield, but on the actual need of the plant.

What are the most impor­tant ques­tions before intro­ducing preci­sion farming?

First of all, the farmer should ask: Which of the weak points in my produc­tion system am I most concerned about? Then the farmer should ask himself what infor­ma­tion and data are required to find an appro­priate solu­tion. Thirdly comes the ques­tion on which tech­nology provides this infor­ma­tion and trans­lates it into the appro­priate action based on agro­nomic rules? In addi­tion, the farmer needs to under­stand his own atti­tude towards risk. For people who are willing to take more risks, an online process is more suit­able, i.e. sensor-based appli­ca­tion in real time, while risk-averse farmers will prefer offline appli­ca­tion maps.

How long does it usually take until a farm that has not worked with preci­sion farming before is completely digi­tal­ized?

Once the strategic deci­sion to start with preci­sion farming (vari­able rate fertil­i­sa­tion, sowing, nitrogen or crop protec­tion) has been taken, the actual intro­duc­tion of digital solu­tions into the farm can get started. I’ll take Agricon as an example: We offer a basic training programme on our premises and then, depending on the scope of the digi­tal­i­sa­tion project, two to six days of training directly on farm (refresh­ment of agro­nomic knowl­edge, data manage­ment and machine oper­a­tion).

Preci­sion Farming gives the producers power over their deci­sion making, as they can solve an agro­nomic problem scien­tif­i­cally.

Based on this frame­work, farmers are 95% self-suffi­cient in each preci­sion tech­nique after one year. It gives the producers power over their deci­sion making, as they can solve an agro­nomic problem scien­tif­i­cally. Around five years should be allowed for a complete conver­sion to digi­tal­ized or auto­mated crop produc­tion.

What trend do you see in prac­tice? How fast is preci­sion farming spreading?

Reading the press often gives the impres­sion that preci­sion farming is a common prac­tice on many farms. Reality is, we are just getting started. In Germany, a country that is at the fore­front in Europe, I esti­mate that only 10% of the farms regu­larly use preci­sion farming tech­niques, although the adap­ta­tion is accel­er­ating over the past few years. Being opti­mistic I would predict that in ten years we will be at 50%. We will most likely see a gener­a­tional effect as young farmers in the age between 25 and 35 who are taking over farms grew up with modern infor­ma­tion tech­nology. They are open to new tech­nolo­gies and say: why should I do all this work on paper or in my head?

The Furrow visits Agricon: The company employs around 100 people and manages the data of its customers. For data processing the company has devel­oped its own manage­ment soft­ware.

Will we see a para­digm shift?

Yes, but in the end, it’s just a return to farming’s roots – a high-tech version of the agri­cul­ture of yester­year.” Just as it was then, today it is again a matter of keeping a close eye on the entire farm, every field and every sub-site as an oper­a­tions manager. Only then can they make a rational deci­sion as to whether, when, where and how the resources are used econom­i­cally. The careful analysis of site-specific data serves as a basis for rational deci­sion-making, which must then be imple­mented consis­tently.