The future of precision agriculture

Using predictive weather analytics to feed future generations

By 2050, it’s expected that the world’s population will reach 9.2 billion people, 34 percent higher than today. Much of this growth will happen in developing countries like Brazil, which has the largest area in the world with arable land for agriculture. To keep up with rising populations and income growth, global food production must increase by 70 percent in order to be able to feed the world.

For IBM researcher and Distinguished Engineer Ulisses Mello and a team of scientists from IBM Research – Brazil, the answer to that daunting challenge lies in real time data gathering and analysis. They are researching how “precision agriculture” techniques and technologies can maximize food production, minimize environmental impact and reduce cost.

“We have the opportunity to make a difference using science and technological innovation to address critical issues that will have profound effect on the lives of billions of people,” said Ulisses.

Optimizing planting, harvesting and distribution

In order to grow crops optimally farmers need to understand how to cultivate those crops in a particular area, taking into account a seed’s resistance to weather and local diseases, and considering the environmental impact of planting that seed. For example, when planting in a field near a river, it’s best to use a seed that requires less fertilizer to help reduce pollution.

Once the seeds have been planted, the decisions made around fertilizing and maintaining the crops are time-sensitive and heavily influenced by the weather. If farmers know they’ll have heavy rain the next day, they may decide not to put down fertilizer since it would get washed away. Knowing whether it’s going to rain or not can also influence when to irrigate fields. With 70 percent of fresh water worldwide used for agriculture, being able to better manage how it’s used will have a huge impact on the world’s fresh water supply.

Weather not only affects how crops grow, but also logistics around harvesting and transportation. When harvesting sugar cane, for example, the soil needs to be dry enough to support the weight of the harvesting equipment. If it’s humid and the soil is wet, the equipment can destroy the crop. By understanding what the weather will be over several days and what fields will be affected, better decisions can be made in advance about which fields workers should be deployed to.

Once the food has been harvested the logistics of harvesting and transporting food to the distribution centers is crucial. A lot of food waste happens during distribution, so it’s important to transport the food at the right temperature and not hold it for longer than needed. Even the weather can affect this; in Brazil, many of the roads are dirt, and heavy rain can cause trucks to get stuck in mud. By knowing where it will rain and which routes may be affected, companies can make better decisions on which routes will be the fastest to transport their food.

The future of precision agriculture

Currently, precision agriculture technologies are used by larger companies as it requires a robust IT infrastructure and resources to do the monitoring. However, Ulisses envisions a day when smaller farms and co-ops could use mobile devices and crowd sourcing to optimize their own agriculture.

“A farmer could take a picture of a crop with his phone and upload it to a database where an expert could assess the maturity of the crop based on its coloring and other properties. People could provide their own reading on temperature and humidity and be a substitute for sensor data if none is available,” he said.

With growing demands on the world’s food supply chain, it’s crucial to maximize agriculture resources in a sustainable manner. With expertise in high performance supercomputing, computational sciences, and analytics and optimization, IBM Research is uniquely able to understand the complexities of agriculture and develop the right weather forecasts, models and simulations that enable farmers and companies to make the right decisions.

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Energy Consumption for Row Crop Production

Each year, Iowa farmers plant approximately 24 million of Iowa’s 31 million acres of farmland to corn and soybeans. Energy prices vary over time, but Iowa agriculture spends nearly one billion dollars annually on direct energy purchases. Due to the fact that so many Iowa farmers raise corn and soybeans, a basic understanding of energy used in row-crop corn and soybean production is helpful for managing farm energy expenses.

Annual energy consumption for corn and soybean production is in three major areas: field operations, artificial drying (typically corn only), and fertilizer/pesticides (agricultural chemicals). Agricultural chemicals are not a direct energy purchase by farmers. However, the thermal and chemical processes  used in their manufacture can be significant and are often considered in farm energy budgets.

Energy is also used in other production steps which are less significant to farm budgets. Some vary with location, for example:

  • Energy used for transportation from the farm to the final destination can be significant depending upon shipping distances. However, much of this energy cost is borne by off-farm grain marketers.
  • Transportation energy costs for hauling from the field to farmstead bin or to the local market vary with distance.

Additionally, energy required to manufacture machinery and other larger capital equipment such as grain bins can be significant at the time, but can be paid off over several years. Solar photosynthetic (renewable) energy required to grow and dry crop, also significant, is not considered a direct cost to the farmer.

Diesel fuel used for field operations varies with management practices. A range of 4 to 6 gallons per acre is common, particularly if one primary and one or more secondary tillage operations are used. Seeds must be planted, grain harvested, and weeds controlled (typically with spraying). Fuel used for these operations is typically 2 to 2.5 gallons per acre, which represents fuel consumption for a no-till system. The energy required for tilling soil can be an additional 2 gallons of fuel per acre or more.

The amount of fuel required for tillage depends on both the type and number of tillage operations (PM 709 Fuel Required for Field Operations). Primary tillage refers to initial tillage on untilled soil. One single primary tillage operation that covers the entire soil surface, such as chisel plowing, usually requires at least one gallon of fuel per acre when tilling at a depth of 6 to 8 inches. Fuel consumption may be two gallons per acre or more depending on tillage depth and/or the number of different soil manipulations that occur (e.g., subsoiling and disking with a combination disk-ripper). Individual secondary tillage operations often require 0.6 to 0.7 gallons of fuel per acre. However, fuel consumption may be greater for large ‘combination’ implements with several operations (e.g. discs, sweeps, harrow, etc.).

Soybeans typically dry to a moisture content of about 12% in the field prior to harvest and don’t usually need to be dried. Corn, on the other hand, may need to be dried if it does not dry adequately in the field. The need for drying depends on the planting date, the weather during the growing season and harvest, and the adapted maturity level for the growing location.

If corn needs to be dried in the fall, the amount of moisture to be removed can vary widely, sometimes by as much as 10 percentage points or more. To remove 5 percentage points of moisture content from an acre of corn yielding 175 bu, a conventional high-temperature dryer uses about 16 gal of LP and 18 kWh of electricity. Fan use for electricity in a natural-air dryer used to remove the same amount of moisture would require about 280 kWh of electricity (about 2⁄3 of the energy used by the high- temperature dryer). Actual energy consumed by a grain dryer to remove a specific amount of moisture depends on  several factors including grain depth, drying times, and heat recovery.

Even though they are not considered a ‘direct’ energy purchase for the farm, fossil fuels are used in the manufacture and transportation of fertilizers and pesticides. The cost of the energy to produce these inputs is incorporated into their purchase price each year. When considering the three primary fertilizer inputs—nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—the energy needed to create nitrogen fertilizer is by far the greatest.

Energy required to manufacture nitrogen (N) fertilizer is approximately 13 – 18 times greater than phosphate or potassium on a pound-for-pound basis. When anhydrous ammonia, a more energy efficient nitrogen source, is applied to soil, it is equivalent to 15 gallons of diesel per acre at an application rate of 125 lb/N acre. This application rate is typically used in a corn-after-soybean rotation. Similarly, an  anhydrous ammonia application rate of 175 lb N/acre is equivalent to 21 gallons of diesel per acre. This  application rate is typically used for corn-after-corn.

The energy used to manufacture pesticides varies depending on the product. In general, an equivalent of one gallon of diesel energy is used to produce approximately one pound of active ingredient. Using this value, two pints of glyphosate with one pound of active ingredient applied per acre would be equivalent to approximately one gallon of diesel fuel energy per acre.

Due to the fact that adjusting the nitrogen application rate by ten pounds per acre equates to more energy consumption than the amount commonly used for phosphorous, potassium or pesticide, most fertilizer and pesticide energy consumption is attributed to nitrogen fertilization for corn. Nitrogen is not usually applied for soybean production, and only about one to two gallons per acre (diesel fuel equivalent energy) would be used for phosphorous, potassium and pesticides combined… <more>


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