The tsunami of digital technology which is engulfing much of agriculture is here to stay, yet many are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new tech that is coming on to the market, some of which may actually work for Irish farmers, but a lot won’t.

This, however, does not discourage the major tractor manufacturers from constantly seeking new ways of applying the power of the silicon chip to agriculture, and both Case New Holland and John Deere have recently partnered with smaller tech companies in a bid to exploit its capabilities.

CNH looks to the soil

CNH has taken a minority stake in a US company from Virginia called EarthOptics, which primarily concerns itself with monitoring the health of the soil.

Its sensor technology is said to precisely measure the health and structure of soil through a combination of ground-based sensors, satellites, physical soil samples, machine learning models and agronomic expertise.

CNH soil tech
Field mapping based on soil characteristics could be matched with variable rate applications on CNH tractors

It believes that by providing a wide range of soil data, its technology enables farmers to better manage their land and enhance its value.

The thrust of the ideas they are developing appears to be that rather than constant and expensive lab analysis of soil samples, a better overall picture of the soil’s health can be built up from various other analytical tools over time.

Inputs, such as fertiliser, may then be managed by reference to this map and the use of section control, variable rate application and so on.

John Deere spreads its tech bets

While John Deere is not averse to buying into digital technology companies if it sees a comfortable fit with its overall operation, it otherwise takes a slightly broader view of upcoming technology through its annual collaborator programme.

This initiative seeks out smaller firms with a good idea that John Deere recognises some potential in.

In the words of the company itself, they are predominantly “start-ups that want to work with John Deere in real-world customer environments to determine the technology readiness of their innovations”.

Sensing and management

Out of the nine firms included in the 2023 group, there are three which stand out as having greater potential in day-to-day farming.

The first is Albedo, which is developing low-flying satellites that will collect visible and thermal imagery at ultra-high resolution.

The definition of the word itself is the amount of light reflected by a subject, which indicates that the absorption of light by farmland at various wavelengths is the focus of its work.

The second is IntelliCulture, a company “providing farm equipment management software that helps drive sustainable farming practices through actionable insights, efficiency improvements and risk mitigation”.

The three main concerns of the company are labour optimisation, disease suppression and managing machinery to minimise downtime.

Cheaper GPS

These two may be useful additions to the canon of software that is already out there, but the third company may have a more immediate and far greater impact altogether, as it could reduce the overall cost of precise satellite navigation systems.

Anello Photonics is working on what it describes as “highly accurate satellite based navigation without the expense of high grade systems or ground stations.”

GPS Satellite technology
Greater precision with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) could cost less in future

The company claims that it will function in situations where reference-grade systems breakdown, including extended full GNSS loss operation. Therefore, presumably, it will at least be immune to the signal shadow cast by trees on the headland.

The company already has its product on the market which it describes as a unique optical gyroscope and inertial navigation system, which works with the three major satellite arrays in use, GPS, Glonass and Galileo.

Excess tech complexity

No one disputes that digital technology can work wonders, the problem is that there is so much of it, the end user is swamped by what is on offer.

As yet, no manufacturer has made any real attempt to bring the ‘off tractor’ side of it down to ground level and encouraged its adoption in everyday farming through simplification.

Farmers are not software engineers and do not think like software engineers, a point that has yet to be full appreciated by the majority of those who wish to bring the wonders of digital technology to agriculture.