Soccer team in a huddle

Farmers’ Tablets Yield Digital Harvests

November 10, 2015 by Angela Klose 43

Josef Cordes looks up to the sky with concern – it takes a lot to rattle this man of giant stature, firm handshake, and broad Münsterland accent, but a lot is at stake this grey October morning. For today is the first day of the corn harvest, and every minute counts.

The farmer from Haselünne in the north of Germany has been on his feet since 6 a.m., and is now busy giving final instructions to his six employees and numerous helpers. The first combine has to be on the field by 7 a.m., and every hand is needed to bring in the ripe corn as quickly as possible before the rain comes and makes the marshy soil too soggy for the heavy machinery.

“We had an extremely cold spring this year, and the corn just didn’t seem to want to ripen in time for the harvest season. We’ve already had to postpone the harvest twice. Having to arrange new dates with the contractors is very stressful, because postponements have a knock-on effect with the other businesses,” the 46-year-old explains.

Cordes currently has 570 Holstein dairy cows and around 500 calves and young stock on his expansive farm. Each high-performance cow can produce up to 10,000 liters of milk per year. He grows the feed for his livestock himself – nearly 250 hectares of corn and grass. The farm has been in the family for almost 300 years, but Cordes doesn’t just bank on tradition to keep it going, he also relies on modern farming technology.

The huge cubicle barn with milking carousel, for example, is five years young. The cows are able to move about freely here, in small groups sorted according to milk yield and physical condition. High above, the barn roof boasts a 480 kW photovoltaic system. Two years ago, Cordes added a 250 kW biogas plant right next door. It ferments the manure from the barn to produce biogas, and the electricity it generates is fed into the local power supplier’s grid. A master farmer, Cordes is forever exploring new opportunities to make his farming operations more efficient and effective, so as to prevail against the fierce competition in the future as well.

SAP and Krone’s joint project has come at just the right time for him. Krone, one of Germany’s leading manufacturers of farm machinery, is working together with 15 partners on a manufacturer-independent data platform for the farming industry. SAP is involved in the concept phase and is providing a major component: SAP Vehicle Insights, based on the SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

Sound Decisions

The aim of the platform is to collect and analyze the multitude of data that is generated daily in farming operations so that farmers can make better-informed decisions in managing their business and manufacturers can offer them more tailored products and services.

Stephan Brand, head of Internet of Things for moving assets at SAP, is convinced that Digital Farming is the way of the future: “We now have the ability to integrate data from a wide variety of sources, be it operational data from the farm machines, weather data, even sensor data directly from the field. We don’t just want the platform to serve the individual farmers’ demands and requirements, we also see many deployment possibilities for the machine manufacturers, suppliers, and farm subcontractors. Basically, we want to cover the entire farming lifecycle – from planning through management to sales.”

So what does Digital Farming mean for Josef Cordes and his corn harvest?

One main challenge lies in coordinating the different vehicles. A combine harvester, for example, cannot work the field alone – it always has to operate in tandem with several trucks that shuttle the crops back to the silo on the farm. The drivers of these vehicles, however, need to know which fields they need to work and when. Up to now, the farmer had to assign and instruct each driver verbally on-site, in the field.

Jan Horstmann, manager of Electronics and Product, Krone GmbH, explains: “We want to make this a thing of the past. We want to leverage state-of-the-art technology and data management to digitize communication between farmer and contractor.”

Equipped with a tablet, each driver now receives his or her job instructions in the form of field contours and short text descriptions sent directly from the central data hub of the farmer’s application software. The driver accepts the job and is then guided to the correct field with the help of GPS and geofencing. Once there, the job is started automatically and the field is harvested. All the operational data generated by the combine during its deployment – such as fuel consumption, harvest quantity and quality – is captured and transmitted to the farmer’s application software for subsequent billing purposes.

The farmer, however, can access the data at any time, from anywhere, which is a huge plus for Cordes: “I can see exactly where the combines are at any time during the harvest, how much they’ve reaped, and so on, and can then make any necessary adjustments in real time,” he explains.

Precision Feeding

Modern shredders can already ascertain the starch and dry content of the corn during the harvest. This is vital information that helps farmers feed their dairy cows the optimal quality and quantity of fodder. The nutrient value of the corn can vary from field to field, or even within the same field, depending on the soil quality and moisture, sun/shade conditions, fertilization, weather, and variety of corn grown.

Digital Farming enables the farmer to analyze the real-time data from the field – such as crop maturity, nutrient value, and yield per variety used – on the data platform and thus control the use of fertilizers and water more effectively. The entire field is divided into several smaller sections, the goal being to manage each individual section as efficiently and economically as possible based on its respective soil condition and the data gathered. This helps the farmers save money, increase their yield, and protect the environment at the same time.

Brand sees great potential in this technology: “Our mission is to help farmers in the field with technology rather than with fork and pail. The more data they get from the field, the more precisely they can plan and carry out their operations there.”

Some farmers, however, have mixed feelings about this new technology. Farming used to be a traditional family business based on years of experience, well-honed skills, and trade secrets passed down from generation to generation. “What if my valuable harvest data is sold, or worse yet, falls into the hands of my competitors?” they worry.

It’s a major concern for the consortium of manufacturers and solution providers that are working together on the concept. Jan Horstmann (Krone) and Stephan Brand (SAP) explain: “First of all, Digital Farming is not a proprietary platform. It is an open, cross-manufacturer platform and as such, meets the needs of farmers in Germany who operate machines of many different manufacturers. Data protection and data sovereignty of the farmer are of utmost priority. Our aim is for every farmer to always be able to decide which of their data is used where, when, and for what purpose.”

The Digital Farming platform is expected to hit the market next year.

If the United Nations projections are right, and there really are 2.6 million more people on this planet by 2050, the farming industry will have no other choice but to turn to digital farming to make the most out of ever-scarcer farmland and continue to feed the world.

But farmer Cordes doesn’t have to look quite that far ahead. Despite steadily increasing costs for land leases, farm help, and other resources, Digital Farming is already helping him make his farm more productive in a smart way.

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