Farmers turning to technology to save money and environment


Tractors positioned by satellite, on-board computers and automated sensors are appearing down on the farm as technology begins to change the way farmers operate. The new systems are kinder to the environment, save money and represent the future of farming, according to Teagasc.

"Precision agriculture" is the term used to describe these advances. It involves being able to map on a computer the soil quality, its response to chemical inputs and the eventual crop yield - on a metre by metre basis.

The technology is already on the market, explained Dr Jim Burke, chief crop scientist at Teagasc's Oak Park Research Centre in Carlow. Many tractor and farm implement suppliers already fitted this equipment to their products but few Irish farmers used it yet, he added. "It is very early days."

Farmers visiting the ploughing championships can see these devices on display from companies such as Trimble, RDS Technology, Agco Corporation and John Deere. Many tractors now sport satellite receivers and on-board computers provide screen-based field maps which guide the operator.

Teagasc had conducted a number of trials, Dr Burke said, and made available additional ground-based "signal beacons" which fine-tuned the satellite positioning.

Precision agriculture systems deliver a remarkable level of sophistication. The satellite gives rough positional data to the computer and this is fine-tuned by the signal beacons. Work on these beacons was completed by Mr Bernard Rice of Oak Park and they give the farmer a field location accurate to about a metre.

Harvesters are then fitted with "yield sensors", Dr Burke explained, so yield data can be matched up with positional data. The software automatically provides yield maps which can tell the farmer about possible soil problems or insect attack within the confines of a single field. "If you had a part of the field that had a lower yield you would vary the inputs of fertiliser or pesticides," Dr Burke said. The farmer could target an area rather than dosing the entire field, thus saving money and reducing the environmental impact. "Our view is that the financial benefits of precision agriculture are small but the whole thing will foster better management," Dr Burke said. Teagasc estimates suggested, however, the technology could deliver a benefit of £20 per hectare for winter wheat and up to £40 per hectare for sugar beet. Future developments involved automating the delivery of fertilisers and other agri-chemicals. The farmer would simply drive back and forth over the field, and the computer would use the map data to control spraying or fertiliser equipment.