Technology to turn you into a truly smart farmer

Technology to turn you into a truly smart farmer

Source: Farmer’s weekly; By Lloyd Phillips 

Production data is invaluable for enhancing farm management and improving profitability. However, collecting and analysing this information efficiently can be daunting. Western Cape farmer Wolfgang von Loeper explains why this need not be the case.

Water-stressed plants are more susceptible to pest attacks. Continually updated soil moisture data enables a farmer to irrigate proactively and optimally, helping prevent infestations.
Photo: FW Archive

 

After starting his farming career nine years ago as an organic wine grape and olive grower in Somerset West in the Western Cape, Wolfgang von Loeper quickly came to realise that successful, modern farming requires detailed production data.

Moreover, being able to analyse, interpret and use this information to improve the operation is of equal importance.

Initially, Wolfgang focused on managing plant stress in his vineyards.

“As part of a holistic approach to production, I manage plant stress rather than applying chemical recipes,” he explains.

“If a plant is stressed, it becomes more susceptible to pests and diseases, which then requires reactive crop protection applications. My aim was to be proactive and minimise the plants’ stress so that I could anticipate complications early, and react before the problems became big. To achieve this, I began using multiple data sources from various technologies.”

Data was generated from soil, fruit and leaf analyses, and berry weight ratio measurements, amongst others. Wolfgang also hired a light aircraft, fitted with normalised difference vegetation index-capable cameras, to survey his olive orchards and vineyards.

Going even further, he collected his own data using infield weather stations, soil moisture probes and by measuring stem water potential Management(how well water flows from one part of a plant to another).

Too much to handle
“All this resulted in a huge quantity of data that I collected on my own Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. It was time-consuming and tiring,” recalls Wolfgang.

Worse, trying to interpret, let alone use, this avalanche of information to improve his farm management proved all but impossible.

With ever more farm data recording technologies coming onto the market, Wolfgang realised that the problem would only get worse.

Today, data can be accessed from satellites and drones.

Infield sensors generate data on climate, soil moisture, water and diesel use, and spray applications. Artificial intelligence generates data for irrigation forecasts, crop and livestock production, pest and disease pressure, and for certification compliance reporting.

Through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cloud connectivity, information technology ‘unifies’ the data at a central database, ready to be accessed.

But even the most accurate data is of little use if it cannot be analysed and applied to make management decisions.

“The key to simplifying the interpretation of diverse data from so many sources is to have a computer-based dashboard. This must be able to make all data compatible with each other so that the farmer finds it user-friendly,” explains Wolfgang.

Data at your fingertips
With this in mind, he set about developing MySmartFarm, a system that collects digital farm data, analyses and interprets it, and displays the results in an easily accessible format. It can also transmit notifications remotely when the user is away from the main control panel.

“The system is a one-of-a-kind, one-stop-shop; a single home for all a farmer’s needs,” says Wolfgang.

“I believe that one of the most important aspects for successful, modern farming is being able to get a farmer away from his desktop computer in the office and out onto the land, where he belongs.”

This was why it was critical that all the data on the farm’s desktop computer could be accessed remotely on a smartphone and tablet.

“While out on the farm directly managing operations, the farmer can have the data at hand and immediately available,” says Wolfgang.

To further enhance farm management, MySmartFarm data is live: it is constantly collected and updated by sensors strategically placed around the farm, and from contracted off-farm services such as satellite imagery provision.

Software analyses this data and presents it on the handheld dashboard so that the farmer can deal with a problem immediately, wherever he or she happens to be at the time.

“The farmer can also use this up-to-date data to make proactive management decisions,” says Wolfgang.

“One of many examples is receiving an automated recommendation to irrigate crops with a precisely calculated volume before an anticipated heatwave. This reduces plant stress and avoids the need for a reactive, and far less efficient, correctional irrigation after the heatwave.”

A farmer can thus save on water, electricity and fuel, as well as on fungicide and pesticide applications.

MySmartFarm provides automated recommendations on when to fertilise particular crops, which types of fertiliser to use, and the application rates.

Fruit farmers can receive recommendations on when to prune their trees, and livestock farmers can receive recommendations on when and where to move their livestock for optimal pasture health, production and profitability.

All of this is well on track with recent trends. Wolfgang points out that penetration of precision agriculture in South Africa currently stands at 16,4%.

This is less than 1% behind the US, which is considered a world leader in modern agricultural production. A further advantage of using modern information technology in agricultural production is that farmers in an area can compare data and see where each can improve their own management.

Each farmer can limit what information is shared, however; financial data, for example, can be kept strictly personal.

Agricultural service providers such as agronomists and animal health experts can also be given limited remote access, regardless of where they are, to a farm’s digital records.

Maximising the profitability of each crop

“This data can also be used to advise crop farmers which crop types, and even varieties within these types, are best matched to particular lands. This is based on each land’s soil type, the elevation, topography, rainfall, aspect and solar radiation,” explains Wolfgang.

“The aim is to sustainably achieve maximum profitability from each crop.”

Monitoring farming equipment 24/7
Another benefit of the MySmartFarm dashboard is that, at any time, sensors on farm machinery and implements can inform a farmer where this equipment is located, how it has been used, and for how long and how efficiently it has been operated.

This enables a farmer to monitor labour productivity, but ensure that farm assets are safe, being used properly, and are fully functional.

“Giving a farmer immediate and user-friendly access to up-to-date and understandable farm management data is essential for optimal and profitable production in this modern era,” says Wolfgang.