According to a recently published report, increased automation will help to drive production agriculture’s response to climate change.

This is the main recommendation emanating from the McKinsey & Company consulting group, following a detailed assessment of new technology options that can have a beneficial impact on the farming sectors across the United States.

McKinsey’s analysis reveals that farm automation could have a positive impact on farmer economics and mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in an environment of rising regulatory pressure.

Yet less than 5%of farmers currently use automation technology.

Increased automation

The research indicates that continued pressures on farm economics and a drive toward more sustainable farming practices will accelerate adoption of automation.

Farmers are reporting that input costs are the number one risk to their profitability, with widely used fertilisers rising significantly in price over the past five years.

However, more efficient use of pesticides and fertilisers can be achieved through automated precision spraying, fertiliser application robots, and other solutions, according to the report.

McKinsey analysis also shows that some herbicide application technologies that use computer vision to selectively spray weeds and avoid crops can reduce costs by up to 80%, creating a payback period of two years.

As all farmers will testify, labour is also a persistent challenge for their businesses.

A case in point is the fact that large quantities of fruit and vegetables never reached a shop shelf, due to a shortage of workers to pick crops in the UK alone last year.

In addition, farm-worker wages have increased at a faster rate than previous years, increasing the economic pressure on farmers.

Analysis shows that automation could open a wider labour pool by lowering the operating skills required by workers and improving working conditions.

Moreover, automation can also enhance productivity and reallocate labour towards the highest value tasks on the farm, McKinsey found.

E.g., fully autonomous equipment could reduce the need for machine operators to engage in hazardous activities such as spraying and enable a single operator to handle multiple machines.

Vasanth Ganesan, a partner, at McKinsey said:

“Though farmers have low levels of adoption currently, there is an increasing level of interest from farmers to invest in new innovative technologies that allow them to protect their current book of business while also continuing to optimise yield looking into the future.

“In addition, sustainability commitments made by companies across the agriculture and food value chain, combined with regulations, will further incentivise farmers to adopt automation technologies.”

Farm machinery

Meanwhile, a report published last month in the UK, has pulled together some of the biggest names in agriculture to predict the future of farm machinery and explore the rise of robots in farming life.

Entitled, ‘The Future of Agricultural Machinery’, it draws on the opinions of a range of leading industry experts, including Harper Adams senior engagement fellow, Kit Franklin.

Looking at everything from the impact of monster tractors and the labour shortage, through to autonomous machines, artificial intelligence, drones, data and alternative fuels, the publication reflects on what agri-business must do to help farmers succeed in the years to come.

Kit Franklin is also principal investigator of the ‘Hands Free’ farm at Harper Adams.

He commented: “When autonomous tractors first came out, it all seemed a bit sci-fi to farmers and, while they liked the idea, they didn’t believe it would happen in their lifetime.

“Having now seen them, 95% of farmers are positive about autonomous machines and are asking ‘when can I have one?’ There is a real appetite out there. Seeing is believing and we’ve done it.”