Following the introduction of mineral fertiliser, mechanisation and the industrialisation of the production process, digital agriculture brings the next major movement. It is part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

 

Digital agriculture refers to the use of agricultural technology (AgriTech) and data-driven innovations to predict outcomes and guide the producer through every phase of operations on the farm. There are many benefits:

  • Digitising your fields enables you to tailor inputs (fertiliser, herbicides etc) accordingly. Yields are thus improved, and the more precise use of inputs dramatically reduces costs. For now it is per zone in the field: anticipations are that the precision will eventually shift to individual plants (Gagliordi, 2018)!
  • There are obvious environmental benefits resulting from the judicious application of inputs like fertiliser, fuel, chemicals because of a new production system with its new tools (Blackmore, 2018).
  • Livestock can be scanned and an eye kept on movement and behaviour. The captured data is analysed by artificial intelligence (AI), enabling the appropriate interventions to be made.
  • The smarter use of inputs and decision-making made possible also helps the farmer deal with increasingly narrow margins.
  • It provides help with labour issues, be this labour availability or reliability
  • Digital agriculture helps with fluctuating and unpredictable weather patterns.
  • There is better market access and biosecurity (Heath, quoted by Hine, 2019)
  • It is hoped that the technological advances might be attractive to young people and draw them into the sector.
  • As nearly every source on digital agriculture will mention, the aim of feeding the projected increase in planet population looks more attainable.

Some of the tools for digital agriculture are outlined in the following headings.

Agribots

Robots automate tasks that lack appeal to human beings.

Apps

A shortened form of “application software”, an app is a computer programme designed to run on cell phones and tablets. There are now billions of apps available including several thousand agriculture-related ones.

Apps can work with other technology, like probes inserted into the soil to let you know what the groundwater level is. Apps can identify major pests and diseases in crops, help plan fertiliser applications and meet soil nutrient needs, give you access to operator manuals and materials from training courses etc. Crop outlook and weather/climate apps can assist farmers, insurance companies and government departments to anticipate unfavourable conditions. They can also determine problem areas, scale of damage and appropriate disaster management interventions.

Popular apps include My New Holland, Cropalyser, Just In Time Nutrient Calculator, PANNAR Sprout and AgDNA.

Some articles:

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Digital technologies are fundamental to artificial intelligence (Hine, 2019). AI looks across a farmer’s operations, analyses data – soil composition, weather, moisture, temperature etc – and provides insight on how to optimise resources and equipment.

AI can advise on matters like early treatment to combat mastitis in dairy cattle (a result of interpreting data from thermal imaging cameras) or let the owner know on the best time to sell cattle after measuring the weight and muscle mass of cattle (through 3D cameras). It can watch the movement of thousands of chickens and analyse behaviour to identify possible problems, or use microphones above pig pens to monitor conditions.

This degree of monitoring makes agricultural operations are more profitable.

Some articles:

Autonomous machinery

Tractors being driven from a laptop is not new, but some tractor models do not even have a seat for a driver now! The Autonomous Farm Equipment Market size was valued at over USD 55 billion in 2016 and its demand projected to cross 3 million units by 2024 (See http://bit.ly/2FDkPyN).

Some articles:

Big data

Data has become a valuable global commodity. But it is much more than simply information: in expert hands, it is intelligence.

Already, analysts are finding ways to turn big data — the immense stocks of information collected in computers worldwide — into an invaluable resource for planning and decision-making. It is helping accelerate the development of robust responses to some of the most pressing challenges of our time: climate change/variability, food insecurity and malnutrition, and environmental degradation. It is transforming the world of genomics and crop breeding and revolutionizing disciplines from climate modelling to agronomy.

Source: https://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/cgiar-platform-for-big-data-in-agriculture/

Block chain

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), blockchains have been applied to areas like (i) Overseeing farm inventory (ii) Managing land records (iii) Enhancing agricultural supply chains (iv) Fair pricing (v) Mobile remittance for small farmers (vi) AgTech IoT Optimisation (vii) Fair Pricing, and (viii) Managing and modernizing farm management software.

On its website, find FAO (and partners) documents which include:

Some articles:

Drones

See separate page.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

See “Precision farming” page.

Internet of things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is tangible for today’s farmers. All the data, be it from sensor or satellite, feeds into cell phone apps or software and a communication between farm equipment (machines, implements, infrastructure etc) occurs. Every part knows where it stands in relation to the other parts. And so, for example, it is easier to prevent row overlap when running multiple machines at the same time.

Some articles:

Satellites

See precision farming page.

The use of satellites has changed the world and how information is passed on. Apart from the bird’s-eye advantage, there is no need to roll out infrastructure in rural (and urban) areas which requires maintenance and which can go missing. The always-on status offers confidence.

Data from satellites is used to estimate crop yields, but can also indicate crop health and maturity. This allows for early warnings for crop failure and famine.

Land is mapped digitally and in very helpful details, without the services of cartographer required. Satellite information can be combined with data obtained from drones/UAVs and sensors to sharpen the accuracy and usefulness of the information.

This makes smart irrigation and precision farming possible.

Some articles:

Sensors

Sensors monitor and measure conditions and provide data, be it for soil or weather conditions, movement amongst livestock or even how full a distant water crib is. A crop may require more water or fertiliser in a particular part of the field, or a cow may spend less time sitting down because it is on heat and requires a bull, for example. A planter using AI from a sensor to understand the ground conditions and alter planting settings automatically is envisioned in the near future (Gagliordi, 2018).

Sensors are “the Digital Nervous System of the Internet of Things” (Purnell, 2016).

Software

Various software is available for the farmer, ranging from financial programmes to administration and management programmes. These cover the different types of livestock, crops and functions on the farm. The latter includes irrigation scheduling, fertilisation, tank control within a cellar (wine), packhouse control, payroll software. Programmes can monitor weather elements, soil moisture, pests and diseases, vehicles and fuel consumption etc.

The advantages of software include:

  • An efficient, tidy tool for record keeping
  • less time spent on administration
  • quick and easy query resolutions, and thus better decision-making
  • analysis and summaries of costs and production and what still needs to be done
  • better yields and quality

In addition to being an enhanced information and decision making tool for the farm, it also becomes an invaluable way of bridging the space between producer and market. Traceability – the requirement of being able to track the field or animal from where a product came – makes software crucial.

Role players:

Many on-farm software programmes applicable to animal breeding are available for producers, combining the functionality of herd management with on-farm recording. Find details of livestock computer programme (Software) providers on the “Animal Improvement and breeders” page. Several companies offering inputs also supply accompanying software.

 

Three-dimensional printing (3D)

3D will be used to manufacture replacement parts for farm implements and vehicles, or, by utilising genetic research, to produce meat or other food products.

 

Some articles:

Smallholder farmer points of interest

International business environment

Opportunity or threat? Digital agriculture is disruptive to the big industry manufacturers and their business model of the past 50-60 years (Blackmore, 2018). It is small start-up companies with no investment in the past that are driving the experimentation in new technology, specifically new machines.

EY states that “As technical advancements in equipment and inputs slow, companies will need increasingly to compete on digital strategy”. See www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-Performance-digital-agriculture/$File/EY-Performance-digital-agriculture.pdf

Workers in all countries are likely to be negatively affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how countries and their workforces adapt to the changes in skills sets will increasingly influence national narratives (Hlatswayo, 2018; Ngcwangu, 2019).

 

Some role players

Local business environment

South Africa’s future development depends on how it masters the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Areas in which South Africa is lagging includes materials science and gene editing. There was not a single Department of Materials Science at any South African university. There were Departments of Metallurgy, but materials now went far beyond just metals (Marwala quoted by Campbell, 2019).

Another local issue is data, an essential input for many 4IR technologies. South African data is “incomplete, imperfect” (Marwala quoted by Campbell, 2019). Surprisingly it is also the most expensive on the continent (Comins, 2018). Whereas 1GB costs R22 in Nigeria, R71 in Ghana and R98 in Tanzania, for example, South Africans pay R149 (Comins, 2018).

Manyika et al. (2017) argue that the 4IR will lead to mechanisation of about 50% of the jobs globally, enabling companies “to save billions of dollars and to create new types of jobs”. How will the use of 4IR technologies affect the country’s challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment?

Source: Taken from www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/fourth-industrial-revolution-centre-launched-in-south-africa-2019-04-16/rep_id:4136

National strategy & government contact

Role players

 

Associations

 

Training & research

Training and upskilling for digital agriculture is crucial. Mostly the companies selling machines and technology provide training for clients and their employees. The demand for general farm workers will shrink as agricultural processes become more automated and digitalised, and the matching skills will be in demand (Kriel, 2019).

The South African Affiliate Centre of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) is to be hosted on the CSIR campus in Pretoria by the end of 2019. The CSIR will partner with the private and public sectors to develop relevant technologies for 4IR. Its focus areas include applying technologies for improved service delivery, training the future workforce, and developing and implementing scalable 4IR infrastructure.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Tel: 012 841 3090 hswart@csir.co.za www.csir.co.za The CSIR has developed a cost-effective platform to inspect and monitor horticultural crops on local farms. See www.csir.co.za/robotic-system-horticultural-crop-monitoring-tested-western-cape-vineyards

The 4th Industrial Revolution in South Africa (4IRSA) is a partnership between Telkom and the Universities of Witwatersrand, Fort Hare and Johannesburg. See https://4irsa.org.

Find information on Ingesta Farming, a project of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Pretoria, at www.facebook.com/IngestaFarming.

 

Companies

View this heading on the “Drones” and “Precision farming” pages. Companies providing inputs (e.g. irrigation, grain storage and handling) also supply tools for digital agriculture.

Websites & publications

See the earlier references on this page.

 

Videos

 

Some articles

 

General 4IR

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