„Digitisation is not profitable in arable farming.“ This statement of Michael Horsch was quoted in the online issue of a large agricultural magazine. The quotation was not completely wrong, but very abbreviated. At the HORSCH seminar 2019 scientists and practical experts spoke about their experiences on this topic.
Sold-out house at Sitzenhof. Every place was taken in the 1,100 m² training and exhibition hall. For the first time, the tickets could only be bought online – a system that has proven its worth. Michael Braun from the HORSCH marketing presented the program. Although all speakers dealt with digitisation in the broadest sense, the day started with an agronomic topic.
Dr. Wilfried Hartl, director of the institute Bio Research Austria, has been carrying out researches in the field of organic farming without livestock since 1979. His focus is on cycles, the availability of nutrients and biodiversity based on the question: „How can we fertilise precisely in organic farming?” He explained: „In organic farming we fertilise via the soil. Plants have developed clever tricks to live off the soil.” Three types of organisms influence nutrition: producers (of CO2 and O2), consumers (animals, humans) and decomposers (soil animals, fungi, bacteria). According to Dr. Wilfried Hartl this is the basis to understand organic farming.
This means: If you have manure, it is easy to farm organically. But what about farms without livestock? „ After two to three years without manure the yields drop by two thirds as the energy supply for the soil is missing“, the scientist says. If you do not have livestock, which animals can supply the required energy? “Soil animals are the key to success“, Dr. Wilfried Hartl points out. There already are several large animal units of nematodes, earthworms and so on in the soil. “If you consider soil animals as livestock and feed them accordingly, you can farm organically without livestock“.
In 1983, tests with food composting started in Austria. The result: Due to the compost a lot of carbon gets into the soil as “permanent humus”. But how can we additionally add humus to the soil – by means of catch crops? Definitely yes, says Dr. Hartl. Catch crops provide nutrients and carbon. But especially in his home region in the south-east of Austria it is very dry and thus, the cultivation of catch crops is difficult, but not impossible. The right kind of tillage is an excellent addition and brings about further positive effects. But the expert warns: „Working without a plough does not automatically mean humus enrichment!”
The pore volume of 40 to 60 % is very important, for this is where soil animals and roots live. The pore continuity is important to for example avoid flood water. Dead water, however, should be avoided as the plant cannot reach it with its root hairs. Medium-sized pores have the highest water retention capacity which is particularly distinct in loess soils. Clayey soils, however, have a pore volume of 60 %, but up to 40 % fine pores that are filled with dead water. As there are no machines that encourage soil pores, plant roots with soil organisms have to fill in. By means of greening more roots come into the soil. Dr. Wilfried Hartl recommends greening without legumes if possible, to avoid creating infection pressure. A share of 20 %, however, still is ok (the choice depends on the site).
Especially in arid zones the catch crops should be sown directly after the combine to avoid any further loss of water. Every hour counts. If greening is sown late (plants are not yet developed very far) the C/N ration is low (below 10) so that the nutrients are not available as fast as with liquid manure. The C/N ratio of Phacelia, however, is above 60. This is good for permanent humus, but bad for quickly available nutrient humus. The expert commented: „The farmer has to think carefully: What is the objective of my greening?” His summary is: If the roots can grow without a plough pan compaction, the farmer got it right!
Michael Horsch, managing director of the HORSCH Maschinen GmbH, talked about the current challenges in the agricultural sector. In November 2017, the discussion about the ban on glyphosate started. He pointed out that in a muesli there are more residues of fungicides, insecticides and growth regulators than of glyphosate. The herbicide gets into the food by desiccation, a fact that Michael Horsch considers to be highly critical anyway. He explained that farming without glyphosate will mean more iron. He is prepared for the fact that glyphosate might be banned. “The CO2 impression will get worse because of more passes, tillage will increase. A ban would be a step backwards for modern farming“, Michael Horsch emphasised. He hopes that in Europe a compromise will be found.
The next challenge followed in December 2018 when the Federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner demanded 20 % less sugar and fat in food and, moreover, wanted to abolish palm-oil gradually. In February 2019 Südzucker closed down five factories. However, in Michael Horsch’s opinion the conscious handling of food is positive. Also in February 2019 the DLG stated that the limits of a mere technical progress have been reached. “The uncontrolled growth among the engineers has to be reduced. More sensors do not automatically mean more success”, the HORSCH managing director comments.
The (successful) referendum against bee mortality also took place in February 2019. The initiators demanded: 10 % flower strips and 30 % organic farming. „Interestingly, more neutral articles on this topic are published now“, Michael Horsch observes happily. As a positive example he mentioned www.bluetenkorn.de that gets a positive feedback despite the use of plant protection sprayers. Every 30 meter the farmer sowed flower strips into wheat which he does not treat chemically. Michael Horsch challenged the audience: „We all have to be an advocate who goes out, gets in contact with the neighbours and gets involved in the discussions.“ Farming has come to a point where too much chemistry and partly too heavy machines are used.
More sensors do not automatically mean more success.
He told the audience that the Horsch family has been running Gut Sitzenhof for 50 years – in fact for 50 years without a plough. 40 years ago, a three-field-test of the government (no-till, cultivator, plough) started at Sitzenhof. The result: If you look at the topsoil, compared to the no-till fields there are ¼ of earthworms in the ploughed field and ½ of earthworms in the cultivated field. In the past, the Horsch family was always smiled at. However, they have never lost the idea of a healthy soil. „The whole family pushed the idea respectively the vision”, Michael Horsch explained. The focus was always on: Is the condition of the soil good enough to go on for another couple of years? The basis is the healthy soil, then comes the healthy human being. „Already today we have to think about future rotations and crops“, Michael Horsch said. „Plant-Based Food Generation“ is a new trend the professional colleagues have to be sensitised to. Additionally, the farmers must not lose track of the “hybrid farming” approach (a mixture of conventional and organic farming).The rapid rise of organic farms, especially of large organic arable farms, will increase the offer of organic products dramatically. „The prices for organic products will probably drop and this will mainly hit the smaller farms. The current political strategy will result in a destruction of family-run organic farms“, Michael Horsch added.
With regard to the topic digitisation he explained: „When everyone absolutely wants to have something, the hype often is already over. It is not acceptable that digitisation is considered to be the only remedy against good professional practice!” 25 years ago the first yield maps were created with combines. Because of all those farm management tools the expectations of the customer have risen and the companies have lined their pockets. There are already so many tools on the market for the so-called „Precision Farming“ that Michael Horsch does no longer see any potential in this sector. A new concept is „Prescription Farming“, i.e. farming based on a prescription. Hidden behind this is the idea that farmers will no longer be needed in the long run and that good professional practice is no longer required. “This is not acceptable“, Michael Horsch emphasised. What may happen is that farmers because of the multitude of stipulations and restrictions are fed up. So Prescription Farming would become necessary to guarantee that there will be enough food.
„Regular farm analyses from all over the world show that those farmers earn most of the money who own the smallest computer“, Michael Horsch said provocatively. “But if the farm manager spends most of his time in the office because of digitisation, he will miss out on a net yield of 500 €.“ He added: „The farmers who achieve the best net yields are out in the fields and take their decisions on site. Their earn their money in the fields.“ It is illogical to tie these farm managers to the office. Quite the contrary is true for livestock farming: in this case digitisation helps the farmer to watch his animals without being disturbed.
But why do we need digitisation? According to Michael Horsch uniform interfaces respectively one language (not only among the manufacturers, but also with the government) are essential. The consumer wants a 100 % traceability (the “transparent farmer”) for their food. For: If the yields in Europe go down and down, an increasing part of the food will come from abroad with less stipulations. A 100 % transparency might put pressure on the government to show how we produce in Germany; this might have a leverage effect. „Farmers should deal actively and positively with digitisation“, Michael Horsch demanded. This also includes the automation of certain work processes. „The robot will some day be the icing on the cake“, the managing director explained and added: “It will be much easier to put autonomous driving on the field into practice than on the road. However, there still is a long political way to go to get legal clarity and certainty.”
Dr. Patrick Ole Noack, professor for agricultural system technology at the university of Weihenstephan-Triesdorf, took the same line: „Digitisation is no magic bullet, but can optimise processes“, he pointed out right at the beginning of his speech with the topic „Digitisation – A lot of show – What is behind all this?“ The professor has a lot of experience with this topic. After his studies of agricultural sciences at the Technical University of Munich he between 1997 and 2014 worked for the company geo-konzept in Adelschlag (Bavaria) that provides manufacturer-independent and individual GPS-based steering systems as well as RTK correction data for customers from agriculture and forestry.
Precision Farming, Smart Farming, Digital Farming, Farming 4.0 – What does all this actually mean? „All these terms more or less mean the same“, Dr. Patrick Ole Noack said. „The basic technologies behind them are sensors, telemetry systems, CAN-BUS and tools for the preparation of data. But like all tools they do not suit all purposes, they need maintenance, you have to practice and gather experience - but first and foremost they cannot do the work on their own.” With regard to mechanical engineering certain limits have been reached. The outside dimensions of the machines, the axle load, the soil pressure, the distribution accuracy of seed, mineral fertiliser and straw – more efficiency generated by more growth is hardly possible. “But man, too, has his limits“, Dr. Patrick Ole Noack added. „From a technical point of view, he only disposes of a limited storage capacity, a limited parallel processing, a limited sampling rate and a limited objectivity. Other challenges are that arable land is lost continuously and that the farming sector lacks employees. Because of the structural change the farms get larger and larger, but the subcontracted employees often know less about the fields. Here precision farming can help, but only with suggestions.“
One of the biggest challenges according to the professor is the nitrogen load of the groundwater. He asked: „Where do we actually come from?” Previously, yield recording was carried out by eye, fertiliser was metered by the hand of the farmer. Prof. Dr. Hermann Auernhammer realised that this ability will be lost because of the structural change. The idea was to fertilise less in those spots where less plants grow. In contrast, some plant nurturers think that these spots rather need more fertiliser…
According to Dr. Patrick Ole Noack, Dr. Hermann Auernhammer is one of the pioneers in the sector of Precision Farming. Automatic data recording, plot technology, machinery park management and field robotics can thus improve farm, population, machinery and work management. In farming, there are so many different factors, e.g. plant, soil or weather, that digitisation is more difficult than in other sectors. However, we now already dispose of a ten-year experience. Although the first general opinion that Precision Farming only was an unnecessary waste of money quickly changed when the benefit became apparent.
Dr. Patrick Ole Noack examined various sections of Precision Farming:
- Automatic steering systems: About 20 years ago the first parallel driving systems were launched – at that time still with lightbars, followed by automatic steering systems. The retrofit solutions worked with a friction wheel at the original steering wheel. It soon became obvious that these solutions are very interesting from an economic point of view as the efficiency increase was considerable.
- ISOBUS: is the basis of a lot of Precision Farming functions. The standard DIN ISO 11783 for example regulates the joint use of the terminals.
- TIM: means Tractor Implement Management. Sensors at the tool continuously record various parameters, via ISOBUS orders are transferred to the tractor. The mounted implement virtually steers the tractor. This system is actually ready for serial production, however liability issues still prevent the launch.
„While previously these systems cost a five-digit sum in DM, today terminal and ISOBUS are already included in the standard delivery of the tractor“, Dr. Patrick Ole Noack explained.
Precision Farming can be a means to increase efficiency, not only in the sector of fertilisation, but also in the plant protection sector with a weed detection system. A further step would be spraying via application maps with a previous online check and release by the responsible authority. This would require machine-readable laws. The problem is: most of it cannot be displayed in a logical way.
„In farming, digital possibilities are used with different intensity”, Dr. Patrick Ole Noack described his experience. „Section control, automatic steering systems and farm management software already are quite common, but site-specific fertilisation and yield mapping considerably less. The creation of application maps for practical use still is a challenge.“
„Does digitisation make sense?“, was the opening question. Dr. Patrick Ole Noack’s answer was: „Yes and no. Digitisation is no magic bullet, but a large tool box. But the individual tools are not suitable for every farm, every crop or every employee. The appropriate mix can increase efficiency and profit. The wrong mix, however, increases costs and workload. But if one of the digital tools takes some workload off the farmer, saves costs or increases the yield, it can be reasonable to use it.“
Max Stürzer, farmer at Gut Schwaige, together with his wife and his two daughters runs a 350-hectare arable farm in Starnberg, Bavaria. The biggest challenge is the high silt ratio of his soils in combination with a high annual rainfall of up to 1000 mm/m2. This is why they are very sensitive if several passages have to be carried out. On the other hand, on some of his fields the subsoil consists of mere pebbles. Because of these strongly changing conditions, the farmer quite early was fascinated by site-specific farming. He had his first yield map prepared in 1998. But the initial euphoria soon gave way to disillusionment. For depending on the rainfall, the yields varied year after year. „But for me yield maps still are an important tool to analyse decisions about crop production in retrospect“, Max Stürzer said. „I get a better feeling if what I do is right or wrong and I can find out what my assessment is like. I often think about it – even when I am driving my tractor. This is how I can develop as an arable farmer.“ And he learned one important thing from the yield maps: The soil is the key to everything. This is the reason why as a next step he examined the soil by measuring the conductivity. This allowed for an exact analysis of the whole field. The significance of the usual composite sample in his opinion is rather limited. Based on these results he prepared seed maps. He did not simply want to reduce the effort on low-yield parts of the field, but find the reason. Only if he knows the reason, it will be acceptable to reduce the input if necessary. Therefore, the farmer uses specific soil samples from individual parts of the field.
In general, Max Stürzer is a small seed fan. By means of seed maps he was able to adapt the seed quantity to the soil conditions. For the sake of convenience, he worked with factors. He additionally used this information for the first fertilisation.
The computer cannot make my decisions.
But for quite some time that was all he did. The more so as the topic was hardly dealt with from a scientific point of view. „So I mapped the yields, but I did not put the strategy into practice consistently“, the farmer admitted. „It was the introduction of GPS that opened up new opportunities. As my wife is American, I have some contacts over there and I rather soon encountered the topic “Automatic steering”. At first, I thought it was too expensive for me, but in 2008 I started to use it myself. The accuracy of +/- 20 cm was acceptable at the beginning, but if you use such a technology your own standards increase, too. In 2010, I bought my own RTK station and I work with SectionControl. Track planning is handled consequently. The problem machine is the combine because of its high weight. In wet conditions compaction always can be found in the same spots. However, I do not force every machine into a uniform track system. I can drive in the dry tracks in the morning and later, when the soil has dried, in the wetter spots.” Working with A-B lines proved to be problematic at the Stürzers‘ farm. The correct naming alone causes enough problems. In case of fixed tracks the field boundaries always are exactly the same, they do not „move“. This is an advantage if there is a couch grass problem as the couch grass often moves in from unclean field boundaries.
„Previously, I ploughed as close to every tree root as possible”, Max Stürzer remembers. „Apart from the fact that, today, I do no longer plough at all, the yield mapping helped me to notice that it was in these locations that the amount of fertiliser and plant protection agents was highest, the yields, however, were very low. This made me lay out my fields in such a way that I can drive on them as economically as possible. Therefore, I set aside pointed corners and those parts of the field boundaries where it was difficult to drive on.“
Max Stürzer is one of the pioneers in the sector of Precision Farming. But in his opinion solid tools of the trade as well as agronomic experience are the key to success. „The computer cannot make my decisions“, the farmer said. „And I do not need an acreage index to know the history of my fields. Our most important basis is the soil. And the smell of the earth alone tells you if it is ok or not.“ His summary after 20 years of practical Precision Farming: „New brooms sweep clean – the old ones know every corner.“
Karl-Heinz Mann works as a consultant for the LBB, an agricultural business establishment and consulting company in Göttingen. He carries out extensive farm comparisons for his customers and, thus, has his own data material to revert to. “What are the advantages of digitisation for an arable farm from a consultant’s point of view?” was his question. First of all, the general objectives of farming are as follows: the improvement of the natural yields, the saving of operating material, the saving of labour costs (salaries, own labour, machine costs, depreciation, interest, fuel, repairs…) as well as a reduced impact on the environment as it can be for example achieved in the plant protection sector by reducing drift and water entry or the application rate in general.
„In practice there is no connection between the operating result and the farm manager’s affinity to digitisation“, the consultant said. “However, this is no argument against digitisation in general – only the success factors are different. And there simply are other problems on the farm.“
With regard to equipment and the practical implementation Karl-Heinz Mann’s experiences are similar to the experiences of Dr. Patrick Ole Noack: There already is a GPS system on a lot of tractors and combines, 95 % of his customers use it, 40 % even have their own RTK station. Nutrient maps are quite common (about 70 %). They mostly are based on a 3-ha sampling grid. However, only about 45 % of the farms use them for fertilisation. Basic fertilisation is almost never carried out with maps. Only 10 % of organic fertilisation is carried out in a site-specific way.
In the plant protection sector, it is quite different, according to Karl-Heinz Mann. All his customers work with SectionControl, about 90 % use headlands management as well as individual nozzle or group switching. Culm stabilisers and fungicides, however, are hardly applied in a site-specific way, herbicides not at all.
The expectations of digitisation are very high among farms that already work with this technology. This is especially true for sowing. According to the consultant, in practice, a benefit of 50 to 60 € per hectare is realistic. Farms that have not yet been digitised estimate that the benefit is considerably lower.
„But the system still is far from running smoothly“, Karl-Heinz Mann learned from his surveys. “The farmers mainly complain about interface problems, but also about high costs for technology and software, missing traceability of the results and the time you have to spend on it.”.
Digital technology can help us in many respects
„Digital technology can help us in many respects“, Karl-Heinz Mann is convinced. „Fixed tracks and CTF to conserve the soil are advantageous especially in the sectors fertilisation and plant protection. For tillage it partly is difficult to put it into practice. Headlands management and SectionControl always make sense and farmers already use them on a grand scale. Site-specific sowing mainly makes sense on large, inhomogeneous fields (see the speech of Mr Stürzer), site-specific tillage in many cases much less so.“
The expert recommends a basic fertilisation where the quantity is calculated according to the result of the sample in consideration of the type of soil. More fertiliser could be applied in weakly supplied areas, whereas in strong areas you could use less fertiliser. Thus, the fertilisation costs remain the same. After 12 years of yield stabilisation and yield increase a follow-up check is required. If it is right to adapt the basic fertilisation based on the soil supply, you have to do this on large fields in a site-specific way. “Although site-specific fertilisation is quite common, you can hardly measure the success“, Karl-Heinz Mann said. „But a test system is still missing. About 10 to 30 kg N per hectare are saved. A positive side effect: lodged grain can be prevented. The N sensor works well in practice and makes sense on large, inhomogeneous fields. It is very difficult to apply organic fertilisers in a site-specific way as the substrata are very inhomogeneous. The NIRS technology might be very interesting in this respect.“
The consultant has a differentiated opinion of the use of further digital tools. He said: „The automatic recognition of weeds and grass weeds is still a long way off, but probably has a lot of potential. For fungicides it is difficult to adapt the quantity because of possible resistances. The digital possibilities to control machines are positive with regard to the cost-benefit ratio. They usually pay off, optimisation in general works well. Machinery park management, however, only makes sense for very large farms or contractors. There is a lot of labour-management potential in the sectors organisation and office. The costs for accounting, management of the acreage index, the application system, warehouse management and the data saving are proportionately high. The share of production costs in average amounts to 22 percent! This is an approach for real problem solving strategies without playing around.“
Karl-Heinz Mann is convinced that despite the big promises of the suppliers and the politicians with regard to the possibilities of digitisation everyday life often is disillusioning. The costs and time spent on it are too high. “However, these systems can help to optimise processes. But they will never replace a competent staff management and an effective organisation by the farm manager. It does not make any sense to gather data without using them reasonably. Digital tools can only be an aid and should not stress the farm or production manager and bind him to the office. Only those farm managers will be successful who use the digital possibilities deliberately and sensibly. Successful farm managers in arable farming should spend most of their time on the field and not in the office“, Karl-Heinz Mann summarised.
On the eve of the HORSCH seminar a social evening took place in the FITZ Training Centre at Sitzenhof. The catering was country-style: home-style food and wheat beer. This was in contrast to the speech of the motivational coach about the topic „You will not be rewarded for starting, but for staying the course“. He told the audience about the time he spent in a Shaolin monastery in China. The day started with a 21-km-run as an early morning exercise at 1.30 a.m., in total he trained 17 hours a day. According to Marc Gassert there are two kinds of discipline: discipline controlled from inside and discipline controlled from the outside. „To create something big, you need discipline from inside“, the coach said. Moreover, man has three driving forces: the biological drive, values and will power. Money is not necessarily a motivator. Marc Gassert illustrates this with a demonstration: He promised one person from the audience 25 € if the person would remain in a squat position with legs wide apart. The man actually confirmed that during the exercise he did not think about the money, his motivation was to get through it. The coach recommended the audience to always take their decisions as quickly as possible, for: “The more decisions man has to take the earlier his energy is used up.“ A positive balance is important to prevent stress. It often helps to simply stop moaning. And first and foremost: Man needs a task where he has to concentrate and which is fulfilling.
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