4 agribusiness trends that can boost your bottom line

05/11/2018

by Elizabeth Penney

For millennia, farmers have relied on observation, skill and a good dose of luck to successfully produce crops for market. But as contemporary agribusiness trends reveal, digital data is rapidly becoming integrated into operations of all sizes, from micro-farms to corporate-owned plantations. 

Digitization helps meet the goals of precision agriculture, defined by Highland Precision AG as "a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops."

The Need for Better Crop Management

While estimates vary, one thing is certain — the earth's population is growing. According to Harvard Business Review, population estimates soar as high as 9.7 billion by 2050, and the demand for food is forecast to skyrocket. At the same time, water resources could become further constrained, with droughts impacting many areas around the globe, including the United States. In response, the agriculture industry is seeking efficient methods for production and waste reduction.

Digitization is aimed at meeting both goals through a variety of technologies. In addition, the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is boosting the need for on-farm technology. Tracking and crop identification are required to improve traceability and address food safety concerns.

When looking at precision agriculture technologies, four general agribusiness trends stand out. All of them require intensive data gathering and analysis. As has happened in other industries, agriculture associations are seeking to standardize data formats (and methods) to provide uniform output across platforms.

1. Aerial Data

The most commonly-known data collection system uses drones or small unmanned aircraft. Drones can be used to map fields and provide ongoing data about how crops are performing. Visual imaging can be coded to reveal areas that are too dry or wet or are suffering from disease, pests or weed infestation. On huge production farms, drones provide an efficient method of scanning crops, as opposed to relying on direct observation by personnel.

Satellite imagery has become incredibly detailed and is now available through subscription to farms of all sizes. Much like the information gathered by drones, satellite maps can provide a bird's-eye view of current conditions. These maps often include baseline data that is then layered with more detailed information about a specific site.

2. Field Monitoring Systems

Wireless sensors have been developed to monitor different variables, including soil and plant temperature, fertility, presence of pests and water levels. Sensors that track soil moisture have proven to be incredibly important in water management efforts. 

Especially in regions impacted by too much (or too little) water, the correct soil moisture level is critical to crop health. Monitors can be integrated into irrigation systems that then dispense the exact amount of water needed. Best of all, monitoring systems can be remotely viewed and managed.

3. Equipment-Based Monitoring Systems

High-tech monitors have also been installed on farm equipment like tractors, combines and planters. These devices gather information about conditions while also tracking seed, crop and harvest data. The sophisticated machines can automatically adjust their functions to changing conditions — including variable rate seeding — thereby maximizing farm production. Unmanned equipment is also used to gather GPS data on fields for input into maps.

4. Harvest Data and Tracking

At the conclusion of the farming season, gathering data about harvest numbers and quality is critical. Combines and other harvesting equipment are typically equipped with this capability. 

For smaller farms using manual harvesting methods, digital applications for hand-held devices have been developed. These programs track the specific location of each crate, box or bushel of produce harvested, as well as assign bar codes for tracking. This data can be used to evaluate site productivity and track the produce once it's sent to market.

As these technologies mature and adoption rates grow, costs (especially for small-scale farms) are likely to decrease. Digitization is another tool that farmers can use to improve performance and profitability while maximizing the use of scarce resources.