Regular attendees to the world’s biggest agricultural machinery shows will be familiar with the excitement and enthusiasm that infuses such events.
While new tractor models receive their first public showing, implausibly shiny implements take centre-stage, and unveiled new features are variously labelled ‘cutting edge’ or ‘state of the art’, visitors are wooed and wowed at every turn to impress upon them the latest productivity or efficiency gain that a particular model promises to deliver.
Yet the farm machinery of tomorrow will need to do more than look good under the show spotlights. The world is worried about its future food security; productivity and efficiency are important, but not at any cost. Farms need to be profitable but must become more sustainable. We have a growing world population, and many are still fighting poverty and hunger. Climate change is happening, with agriculture considered to be responsible for one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions1.
Agriculture is in crisis, it seems. So can machines – in their design and use – help the industry adapt to the more environmentally sustainable future that it needs? Reduced carbon emissions, better nitrogen and water use efficiencies, precision crop protection products, food production and biodiversity co-existing? Indeed, can agricultural activities make more efficient use of machines themselves?
Fast-forward a few years, to an agricultural show of the future, and we might expect to see four main trends emerge in the machinery sector, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. It believes farm machinery will have to be ‘intelligent, lean, precise and efficient’2, if it’s to minimise its effect on soil, water, landscape and biodiversity. Behind the shiny surfaces, we’ll have something of real substance: sustainability.
One of the agricultural activities with the most significant effect on the environment is our management of soil. While farmers originally saw soil operations as a valuable problem-solver – weed control, incorporation of organic matter, seedbed preparation – we know now that repeated tillage brings problems of its own, including damage to the microbiome, structural disruption and even loss of soil through surface run-off and erosion.
Reducing or eliminating soil tillage has become a priority for many farmers. Machinery manufacturers are responding with a new generation of equipment that doesn’t rely on inversion. Minimum tillage and direct drilling are now commonplace on farms around the world.
Such practices have knock-on effects that contribute to overall goals for sustainability and reduced environmental impact. For example, when ploughing practices are abandoned, farmers no longer have a requirement for high-powered tractors as smaller, leaner models can operate the lighter machinery.
In turn, this hastens the development of new power technologies, whether more efficient internal combustion engine (ICE) models – such as the Perkins® Syncro engine platform – or alternative fuels such as LNG. Reducing a tractor’s average power demand also lowers some of the barriers to electric power development: current power/duration equations demand such large and heavy batteries that the prospect becomes undeliverable.
Switching to minimum tillage in crop production can also help reduce farmers’ reliance on crop protection products. Essential to maintain high yields and productivity per hectare, the chemical management of weeds, diseases and pests can nevertheless have a negative environmental effect. The ongoing debate between scientists, policymakers, farmers and consumers concerning possible links between the use of neonicotinoids and a decline in bee populations is a visible example.
The EU has announced plans to cut pesticide use by 50 percent before 20303, although there is pressure to increase that goal to 80 percent. Scientific advances have already cut pesticide use by 97 percent since the 1960s, thanks to improved chemistry. But here ‘intelligent’ machines can play a crucial role.
Precision spraying, applying products only to the target weeds or diseased plants, can effect a sizeable reduction in pesticide use without compromising efficiency, food security or safety. And as another article in Powernews explains, precision spraying is now increasingly becoming the domain of agricultural drones, offering intelligence, precision and efficiency all-in-one.
One of the most interesting feature areas at our future agricultural show might be the ‘Driverless and Autonomous’ exhibition hall. Autonomous, or even semi-autonomous vehicles can improve sustainability in several ways. First, with autonomous farm vehicles comes greater accuracy. Even the most experienced tractor driver comes to rely on ‘eye’ and ‘feel’ for many operations, metrics that are often not consistent for one driver, let alone several.
‘Smart’ vehicles use sensors, field maps and machine-learning to deliver entirely repeatable actions, positioning tyres, spreaders, spray booms and seed drills to far greater levels of accuracy. Spray and drilling overlaps become a thing of the past, hugely increasing resource-use efficiency, while in-field obstacles such as pylons and waterways can be avoided accurately and safely.
Another fascinating development arising from autonomous machines is the idea of ‘Farming as a Service’. Taking advantage of recent developments in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and robotics, FaaS links robots and an operating system. Every plant within the field is then mapped and digitised before analysis against a database of information and advice. The process results in plant-by-plant instructions about every aspect of crop care – nutrition, weed control, disease suppression, harvesting – which the robots follow.
The system uses a permanently situated on-farm robot to keep the in-field monitoring up to date, while specific tasks such as feeding, weeding and spraying are carried out on-demand, by a robot that knows when it’s needed in each field. The system could deliver very high levels of crop care and production, without farmers needing to invest time and capital in operations, fuel and machinery, while staying safe in the knowledge that the robots are meeting all requirements for good practice in management of soils, water and landscapes.
What’s clear from these examples is that sustainable agriculture doesn’t have to mean lower yields, reduced efficiency or lost profitability. But it does mean a commitment from machinery manufacturers to invest R&D budgets in designing and producing machines that can meet society’s demand for sustainable agricultural practices.
Perhaps you’ll see your next visit to an agricultural machinery show through new eyes.
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