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Making farming smarter – and more environmentally friendly

New technology is helping farmers be more efficient, while increasing our understanding of the conditions crops need to thrive.

As the global population rises, the agriculture industry will have to produce a lot more for people to eat. The UN predicts that the world will require 70 percent more food in 2050 than it did in 2006. Even now, climate change and extreme weather events are creating serious problems for farmers around the globe. Intensive farming practices no longer offer a solution given the extent of their environmental impact. Instead, Internet of Things (IoT) technology and smart farming are starting to provide answers – with encouraging results.

IoT technology can make farming not only smarter but also more eco-friendly. The more Big Data and analytics that farmers can harness, the easier it is to increase yields, conserve water and energy, and care for crops and livestock. Such data could assist in precise weather forecasting, and provide information on the climatic conditions in which pests might thrive or allow for an outbreak of disease among livestock.

A number of products are already transforming the industry; sensors that monitor water supply, drones that generate crop data and self-driving tractors are but three examples. A soil probe has revolutionized operations for thousands of farms in South Africa, a country that is already seeing the damaging effects of climate change.

The continuous-logging soil moisture probe, powered by a Saft battery, is designed and made by DFM Software Solutions. It is currently used on 4,500 farms in South Africa, which grow a wide variety of crops including bananas, tomatoes, grapes, citrus fruits, peaches and peppers. The farms vary in size, from 4,000 hectares to 11 hectares. Seven of the 10 biggest farms in South Africa use the technology.

The probe, which could be up to a meter long, reads the soil – its water levels, salinity, oxygen and plant root development, among other factors – and sends data via a communication system. The farmer can use it to establish exactly how much water a crop needs to produce the highest yield, for example, or the depth at which a crop demands water at different times of the growing season. Crop stress is often caused by too much water, a problem that is easy to solve once a probe is monitoring what’s happening under ground.


Farming with less water

Areas are getting drier, so the farmer has to be more creative and farm more efficiently,” explains DFM founder Dirk Friedhelm Mercker. “With less water, they have to produce more crops at the same time. Some now have 50 percent less water available than 10 years ago," he adds.

In the early 2000s, Friedhelm Mercker worked out that farmers needed an instrument to measure the water content in the soil. 

Monitoring the soil water content allows [them] to achieve better yields, healthier crops and save water.

Dirk Friedhelm Mercker DFM founder

The technology normally permits consumption to be reduced by 30 percent.

A high-quality battery that can survive outdoors in temperatures as low as -10°C (14°F) or as high as 45°C (113°F) – offering long life and reliability in order for the farmer to generate sufficient data – was crucial. Saft’s primary cells, distributed by Just Batteries, are used in both the soil probes and the communication system.

"We decided to go for the best possible available product because we had to give a guarantee that the battery would be reliable and last one or two years," says Friedhelm Mercker.


Better data means better understanding

The soil probe gathers a large volume of complex data at least once an hour – so if a battery fails even for a day or two the readings are useless. The key to the battery recipe, explains Saft’s Olivier Goujon, is the electrolyte, which is designed to be efficient in all temperatures.

The discoveries DFM has made about specific plant species have attracted the attention of the scientific community. One finding is that the roots of lemon trees prefer to draw water from 80cm underground, much deeper than previously thought. Ensuring adequate supply at this level means the whole crop becomes healthier.

Soil care is not a new idea in farming, but IoT technology is enabling a far more sophisticated understanding of the changes that can be made to improve productivity. Correct oxygen levels, for example, lead to better root development, which will increase microbial activity and stimulate growth. It will also increase resistance to disease.

Today, 50,000 probes are currently in use. With advancements in battery technology, soil probes and other IoT applications could transform farming across the world.


“It is just the beginning of this smarting of the field,” says Goujon. “The market is booming. Every day we discover a new application.”