Thousands of US farmers will take to their fields this month for the main annual harvest on tractors equipped with cutting edge technology, as agricultural equipment makers increasingly incorporate elements of data analytics, GPS and remote sensing in a race to make farming more precise.
At a time when carmakers are targeting 2020 for the first self-driving cars, a tractor that maps a field, drives itself and precisely calibrates its movements within inches to minimise wasted fuel, fertiliser or seed, is already almost standard.
“The iron’s almost starting to become a commodity – where the tractor is a tractor to a customer and the technology is the differentiating piece,” says Ben Craker, senior marketing specialist at Agco.
Seed and tractor companies foresee a big opportunity because higher crop yields are needed to deal with increased food demand as the global population swells to 9bn by 2050, according to UN estimates. Helping farmers cope with the volatile weather brought on by climate change presents another opening.
Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, estimates that the rigorous adoption of “precision agriculture” technology could increase yield on any given farm by about 10 per cent, compared with average global annual crop yield increases of about 1 per cent.
The combination of food demand and rising farmers’ expectations has forced agricultural companies to make big advances beyond auto-steer – introduced about 15 years ago – towards remote sensing and cloud-based data collection on the dozens of variables, from soil moisture to nutrient levels, that govern modern farming.