In the age of Internet of Things (IoT), farmers face a bright forecast for integrating emerging tech into their businesses. While agriculture may appear slower than other industries to evolve, many farmers are embracing innovations—from wearables for cows to artificial intelligence (AI)-based machine learning algorithms for insights on weather patterns, crop yield, soil health, and more.
However, a big hurdle stands in the way for technology-savvy farmers: accessibility. Farms in rural areas outside of high-speed network range struggle to use the IoT platforms available for agriculture. A promising prediction? Tomorrow’s mobile networks could clear the way for more farmers to innovate, regardless of location.
According to John Kelly, chief innovation officer at the Ohio bioscience incubator BioEnterprise, higher-speed mobile networks will benefit all kinds of farmers, even those who already enjoy robust internet connectivity.
“We’re looking at all sorts of different technologies,” he says. “Whether it’s a dairy, poultry, swine or grain farm, or a greenhouse, they all can use these types of IoT technologies.”
Kelly cites a sensor technology that identifies soil type and measures moisture and consistency. “It allows for much more accurate use of fertilizers,” he explains. “In some areas, you may not need fertilizers, where others might need a little more.”
And as sensors and other cutting-edge advancements provide richer data, Kelly shares that farmers could see more possibilities for real-time insights and optimization in their businesses: “You’re being very precise in what you’re prescribing to the field.” Sensors and more accurate data could lead to increased efficiency for crop growth, higher returns for farmers, and even substantial environmental benefits by preventing fertilizer overuse.
Tracking cows with robots.
Not only can this data benefit farmers, but it can also strengthen the entire agriculture ecosystem. Dairy products manufacturers, for example, could track progress throughout the entire supply chain. Starting at the farm with the cows, individual batches of milk could be tracked as they get to the factory and then are produced into different cheeses, which are then monitored as they’re distributed to different wholesalers.
How to take the first steps toward cultivating these richer databases in modern farms? Robotics is a starting point. In dairy farms, for instance, deploying robots helps farmers collect a wealth of data to inform growth, monitoring, production, and more.
One robotics company developing these high-tech solutions is Iowa-based Lely—where automated systems prioritize flexibility, cost control, and efficiency for dairy farmers. “The cows all have transponders,” Kelly explains. “With those transponders, the robot will keep track of feed, milking, housing, and health. It’s a real labor-saver for the dairy farm.” This may be capital intensive now, but Kelly predicts that incorporating similar innovations into the farming process could eventually pay off in efficiency gains.
Agricultural robotics may not require mobile networks today, according to Kelly, but a broader farming transformation is dependent on a connectivity boost from next-gen networks. Higher speeds could make for a more seamless farm-to-fork workflow, benefiting stakeholders including suppliers, transportation companies, veterinarians, and retailers.
“The farmer will know exactly where an animal is in the production scheme and what its circumstances are,” he says. “This not only provides for a better-quality product but can help in the instance of a recall. The opportunities are immense.”
In worst-case scenarios, such as a recall of produce following an outbreak of E. coli, businesses will be able to remove only the specific batches in distribution that may have been affected rather than all products, says Mike Katz, executive vice president of
A new generation of farmers.
The 5G era will support IoT use cases in two big ways: scale and connectivity, adds Katz.
“By having a network that can handle hundreds or thousands of IoT connections without fear of congestion, the data coming off sensors could be used in a more real-time fashion,” he says.
For farmers eager to innovate, Kelly stresses that the evolving agriculture industry benefits from practical application and demonstration when it comes to emerging tech. “[Before adopting], you have to make sure it works,” he says. And this testing phase can lead to smarter business decisions. “So if a new technology comes along that isn’t affordable or doesn’t improve efficiency or some circumstance of the farm,” Kelly says, “it won’t be adopted.”
Kelly believes that the success of farming in 2020 and beyond also requires entrepreneurial farmers who are ready to adapt and eager to use data in precision agriculture. For those farmers, shares Kelly, the possibilities are game-changing. “Technology is going to play a bigger role than anyone ever imagined,” he says.
Originally published on Forbes.com.