What’s in store for farming?

Farm equipment makers say the next 20 years of innovation and change in machinery technology and design will be at least as dramatic as the last two decades and it will change farming forever.  |  Mike Raine photo

Four leaders of major OEM companies that sell farm equipment in North America came together for a panel discussion on what agriculture will look like in 20 years, during a virtual version of the Commodity Classic.

Their predictions are nothing new, however, the scale of change they predict might be eyebrow-raising.

Bill Hurley of Agco Corp. said those who want to understand how much agriculture will change in the next 20 years should look at advancements made in the past 20 years and understand advancement is going to happen exponentially faster.

“The future of farming, future of agriculture is one of truly connected smart solutions that are 100 percent underpinned by digital connectivity that enables so many of these other things. It enables automation, it enables electrification and you take those two together and then you can start to understand that robotics are going to come into farming in ways that we’ve never understood before,” Hurley said.

“They’re not just going to be inside a manufacturing facility. They’re going to be actually out in the middle of the field.”

He said many agricultural robots will be powered by alternative energy sources, and that agriculture will be one of the most exciting and technologically advanced industries that young people could hope to be a part of.

David Gilmore of John Deere said artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision will become increasingly important in agricultural equipment.

Deere announced its See and Spray technology during the Commodity Classic, which can detect and spray individual weeds.

“It’s this artificial intelligence through computer vision, machine learning and it does it in real-time,” Gilmore said.

“That technology exists today, and over the course of the next 20 years, it will just continue to automate some of the tasks that our farmers are executing today.”

Scott Harris of Case IH said many important functions performed by farm equipment have already been automated and this is part of the larger moment toward autonomous equipment.

He used the example of Case IH AFS Soil Command that can automatically detect and react to variable field conditions during tillage operations, and combines that adjust themselves on the fly based on changing threshing conditions.

He said predictive analytics will also become more important on agricultural machines, which will allow service interventions before there is a breakdown.

When it comes to the size of farm equipment in the future Harris said he doesn’t think equipment manufacturers have landed on where the balance will be struck.

“Certainly there’s advantages to larger implements and higher horsepower, but there’s some disadvantages as well when you start to think about, you know compaction and those issues. There’s also the barriers of cost and what’s going to be more cost effective,” Harris said.

For instance, he said a producer is in trouble if the farm has only one large machine and it goes down. But if the farm has 10 smaller machines and one goes down, it is still operating at 90 percent capacity.

“You’ve got to balance the cost implications of acquiring that autonomy and is it going to cost less to have a bigger one machine,” Harris said.

“There’s a balance to be achieved; this needs to be assessed. I think we’re all looking at it.”

As the industry moves toward managing individual plants and individual animals there will be some farming functions that will lend themselves to smaller equipment.

Todd Stucke of Kubota said he thinks the farm equipment industry may be approaching a limit in terms of equipment size.

“I don’t know how much bigger we can go or how much faster we can go. So if I was a betting guy, I would say it’s probably going to be smaller than what we have today (rather) than bigger. I don’t know if the roads and bridges and fields and rocks in the field can handle any faster,” Stucke said.

Gilmore said smart and highly connected equipment will help producers solve real world problems, enable them to manage their crops down to the individual seed and plant level, and make producer’s jobs easier.

“We’ll be talking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, improved sensors, robotics. That’s available to us now, but in the next 20 years our farmers are going to be better equipped to leverage not just human-to-machine communication but machine-to-machine communication will simplify those tasks that are pretty labour-intensive today,” Gilmore said.

One issue each of the panelists agreed upon is that farming systems of the future will need government support to make sure infrastructure is adequate to enable agriculture to evolve over the next 20 years, and that the industry needs to come together to pressure governments to make this happen.

Harris said many of the technologies equipment manufacturers are developing require infrastructure support beyond what governments have traditionally funded.

“With respect to alternative fuels and power, whether it’s electrification or LNG or CNG or methane, we’ve got some serious issues before we can really truly deliver on the potential of any of those with respect to our infrastructure,” Harris said.

He gave the example of the Texas electricity blackout, and that a similar event could be a major problem for the agriculture industry as it electrifies.

Stucke said the electricity infrastructure must be closely examined to make sure it can handle the increasing load agriculture will put on it.

“If we switch our industry over to electric do we have the power out there, the grid out there to power it during the busy time? What happens if that went down during planting? What are you going to do? I mean, what’s the back-up?” Stucke said.

Hurley said the future of agriculture, from automation to stewardship requires significant investments in broadband internet in rural areas.

“The future of agriculture and its success is going to be more dependent on ensuring that’s in place than almost any other industry out there,” Hurley said.

“This is one time that the entire industry has to come together in full force to be able to do this, and it’s challenging because it is not cheap.”

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