The Road to Digital Farming

Matthias Hatt calibrating the tramlines for controlled traffic farming (CTF).

We have long since become accustomed to new technologies changing our lives in a wide variety of ways. Smartphone applications, satellite navigation, online retailing and cybergaming are just a few of the key words illustrating this fact. A similar change is now also underway in agriculture, with so-called smart farming or agriculture 4.0.

Developments which better define agricultural systems and allow for more precise management are summarised under the terms ‘agriculture 4.0’ or ‘smart farming’. The primary aims of these systems are resource efficiency, emission-, cost- and workload reduction, and the improvement of product quality. As in the private sphere, technologies used in farming are highly diverse, ranging from simple individual applications all the way to complex internet-linked systems.

Today, satellite positioning systems mean that agricultural machinery can be steered to centimetre accuracy. It is thus possible to traffic fields exclusively on fixed tramlines, which remain in the same place year after year. Such technologies – known as ‘controlled traffic farming’ (CTF) – can minimise the negative effects of soil compaction. The aims are a loose soil structure, and hence adequate water infiltration even after heavy precipitation, as well as improved rootability of the soils. An initial trial demonstrated the potential of CTF in Switzerland. Currently, attempts are underway to implement this system in practice.

Targeted plant protection
Sensor technologies are suitable for refining forecasting systems that calculate the development of pests and diseases in advance. These include e.g. the pest forecasting tool for fruit production (SOPRA, Agrometeo), the risk assessment of Fusarium infestation in cereals (FusaProg), and the warning and forecasting system for controlling potato late blight (PhytoPRE). In this way, targeted plant protection is encouraged and unnecessary treatments avoided. In future, these classic forecasting systems will be expanded by new technologies.

Smart farming is also in demand in connection with irrigation systems. Around half of the apple orchards in Switzerland are irrigated. Automatic irrigation systems that also take soil moisture and plant parameters into account are still in their infancy, however. Relevant trials are currently underway in the Valais region, among other places. 

Refining animal monitoring
Among dairy cattle, fertility and metabolic disorders are common. In future, precise monitoring of the animals should allow us to keep a close watch on their state of health. An example of such a monitoring system is Rumiwatch. In cooperation with the industry, Agroscope is currently refining this monitoring system with a view to it supporting farmers in this task in future.

Sensors can also simplify grazing. The intention is to improve the energy efficiency of positioning systems through the use of new technologies that can transmit data over large distances using as little transmission capacity as possible. In addition, it should also be possible in future to deliberately influence the radius of movement of cows through ‘virtual fences’, and to monitor their health and feeding activity.  

Video RumiWatch

RumiWatch - The Grazing Movie
The aim is to enable an estimate of the feed intake of grazing dairy cows. The series of tests for this enhancement were conducted at the Posieux site.

Robots for controlling dock plants
Smart farming also offers new possibilities for organic agriculture. The development of the hot-water method for controlling dock weeds opens the way for the automated control of these plants without pesticides. It’s now a question of also tackling the demanding task of automated identification. A new prototype is expected to be built in the near future as part of an EU project.

Applications in a wide range of fields show that there are numerous opportunities for optimising production processes in agriculture. The aim is to manufacture products of even higher quality that can be produced both efficiently and with minimal adverse effect on the environment.

The core of the controlled traffic farming (CTF): the GPS device.
Monitoring systems help us keep track of the state of health of animals.
Robots or multicopters offer new plant-protection options. Photo: 123rf