More efficient farming with precision agriculture

March 21, 2023

Precision agriculture helps farmers make more accurate decisions. This can be of great value in reducing the use of plant protection agents, fertilisers, and water for irrigation. Researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and Aarhus University have written a handbook on the possibilities and practice of precision agriculture techniques.

In precision agriculture, technology is used to provide plants or animals with the precise treatment they need at that moment. This is done using various technologies, such as sensor technology, ICT, robotisation and satellite navigation. The most important difference with conventional agriculture is that in precision agriculture, what needs to be done can be determined very precisely per square metre. This allows farmers to optimise production and make it more sustainable, in particular by avoiding unnecessary use of plant protection agents, fertilisers, and water for irrigation. This also impacts energy consumption.

In their recently published book Precision Agriculture: Modelling, WUR researchers Corné Kempenaar and Frits van Evert and Aarhus University researcher Davide Cammarano summarise the models underlying precision agriculture techniques. In doing so, they offer present and future farmers, advisers, and researchers a useful overview of current opportunities, and present and future challenges in precision agriculture techniques.

Three aspects

Precision agriculture applications consist of three aspects: data, models, and machines. It is important that these factors are well connected in order to provide added value for the farmer.

“People often look at precision agriculture from one of these three aspects, rather than linking them together and seeing them as one whole. Our book aims to link data, models, and technology to give readers a more complete picture of the possibilities,” says Kempenaar, senior researcher in precision agriculture at WUR.

Why are precision agriculture models rarely used?

The use of precision agriculture models brings a number of benefits, such as

  • Reduced use of plant protection agents, fertilisers, and water for irrigation. This brings environmental benefits. It also reduces costs for the farmer, but this is not always sufficient to cover the costs of precision agriculture technology.
  • Reduced use of the above substances leads to lower energy consumption in their production.
  • In potatoes, variable nitrogen fertilisation not only reduces nitrogen use, but also results in a crop that is not over-supplied with nitrogen, and is therefore less susceptible to some diseases. It also leads to a more evenly dying crop, resulting in less damage to the tubers at harvest time.

These benefits notwithstanding, farmers are far from always using these precision agriculture models. This is due to a number of factors, says Van Evert, senior researcher in precision agriculture at WUR: “Farmers receive very little compensation for adopting precision agriculture, so the efforts sometimes outweigh the benefits for individual farmers.”

In addition, the models are complex, and there is a lot of fragmentation in the technology on offer. “Farmers and startups are developing all kinds of new models, but they don’t always work together, so that on balance farmers have trouble figuring it all out,” Van Evert says.

How can the book reduce these obstacles?

In the book, the authors offer present and future farmers and advisers an overview of how models are an indispensable aspect of precision agriculture. They list both models that growers can apply immediately, and somewhat less immediately applicable models. “For phytophthora (a disease in potatoes that causes them to die), which is an important challenge in Dutch agriculture, we notice a strong need for advice. In the book, we discuss two phytophthora models, by WUR and agro-ICT company DACOM, both of which are already in use by farmers,” Kempenaar explains.

“In addition to phytophthora models, we also provide advice on variable fertilisation in potatoes, irrigation, and nematode management. The models for this are all available, and we believe them to be valuable for growers and advisers alike.” In addition, the researchers hope the book will find its way into education and the farmers of the future will be able to work with it.

Read more about the book