Features International Sugar Journal

Digital disruption driving prescriptive crop management

Great strides in technological advances have begun to sway farming operations for good. Digital farming has arrived and those who have already embraced the new technology are persuaded by the productivity gains from judicious use of capital inputs and overall efficiencies, driving farm profitability. Farming involves weighing “up risks and gains resulting from management decisions in the face of future uncertainty.”1 Digital technology provides an effective decision making tool to support crop managers out on the fields. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the sugar industry has yet to embrace digital farming.

The various components of the new technology are as follows.

Farmers’ new eyes are drones, satellites and tractors mounted with an array of optical sensors. These provide powerful sets of data on soil characteristics, weather conditions and plant health. In a case study in the USA, several farmers were testing new cultivars of soyabeans2. Their growth was monitored via an airborne multispectral sensor mounted on a drone. As the agronomist at Bayer USA overseeing the trials pointed out “Long before the stress factors that endanger plants can be seen in the visible spectrum, they appear in the near-infrared.”2 The human eye can only perceive light in the wavelengths of the colours red, green and blue. However, remote-sensing tools can capture additional ranges, including near- and short-wave infrared. These non-visible bands provide useful information on crop health at a fairly early stage, through the measure of their chlorophyll content and structure. Healthy plants with high chlorophyll content absorb blue and red lights in greater quantity than less healthy plants, and are associated with increased near infrared reflectance2.

Fluorescence from different types of vegetation indicating photosynthetic activity

Fluorescence photosynthesis

Another armoury in the toolbox is crunching and making sense of large data sets to identify any interconnections on using farming inputs effectively in given circumstances. Climate Corporation, bought by Monsanto in 2013, has, using remote sensing and other cartographic techniques mapped every field in America. Superimposed on this map is all the climate data it could access. Monsanto has extensive data on thousands of cultivars of various crops and their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil and weather database, farmers using their service can discern which cultivar grows best in which field under what conditions. Those farmers who have used Monsanto’s system, have secured yield increases of 5%.

Global positioning system-guided machines supporting variable-rate application of seeds, fertilizers and crop protection chemicals as well as irrigation water has resulted in significant reduction input use. Use of this technology at a farm in Australia resulted in reduction in fertilizer use by 10-30% and 50-100% in improvement in yield:water ratio of irrigated crops1. This reduced wastage, supporting sustainable farming practices through reduced environmental pollution through chemicals leaching into water streams is an added bonus to overall farm profitability. Further, in the near future, as GPS-guided autonomous vehicles technology matures, farmers, particularly aging ones, with failing visual acuity and whose children seek vocation outside farming, may welcome managing their “farm’s production process without even needing to leave”3 farmstead’s office.

Modern farm machines have cockpits equipped with high-tech equipment and digital displays

high tech tractor cockpits

Digital farming, clearly offers significant dividends, both financially and environmentally. The immediate obstacle for any farmer/plantation manager pursuing this route will be securing a profound knowledge of the technology first before approaching vendors.



1 Kate Reardon-Smith et al (2014) Sweet success: Virtual world tools enhance real world decision making in the Australian sugar industry http://www.slideshare.net/h.farley/icelw2014-reardon-smith?qid=c5ec092d-e007-4b5f-9896-e7fed0693f70&v=&b=&from_search=18

2 Bayer Crop Science (2016) Digital farming: Bit by bit https://www.cropscience.bayer.com/en/stories/2014/digital-farming.aspx

3 Boston Consulting Group (2015) Crop farming 2030: Reinventing the sector. Pp 16