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Farming Sensors. Friend or foe?

We almost always harp on about the incredible benefits of utilising technology on your farm. Smart agriculturalists across the world are embracing the technology revolution and we are beginning to glimpse the potential that a technology focused farm can have. It goes without saying then that farm sensors should be implemented as fast as possible. Or should they? Here we look at the contentious issue of farming sensors and give you some guidance as to whether or not they are worth investing in for your farm.

First and foremost, there are many different types of farm sensor, some much more useful than others, some much more advanced than others. Each one is designed to tell a farmer something not readily available about his crops so that he can potentially make changes to improve his yield. It is important to look at the type of sensor, what it is used for and its merits.

  1. Growth Sensors.

These sensors are designed to measure how much a crop has grown over a period of time. It collates data by taking measurements of the crop as it grows and then reports back to the farmer which part of the field is growing crops the best.

Pros – This is extremely useful if the expanse of land you are growing crops on is sizeable and you are looking to find the problem patches of that area to improve the yield next year. It is also good to track year on year yield improvements on your farm.

Cons – This isn’t so useful on smaller fields where variances are likely to be minimal. The sensor doesn’t actually identify the issue. It highlights to a farmer where crops aren’t growing so well but doesn’t tell the farmer why that might be.

  1. Moisture Sensors.

These sensors have been around in the agriculture market for a long time now. They monitor the level of moisture in the soil and flag up areas that could be improved. Because they have been on the market for so long they have been refined significantly and the sensors that are available today provide extremely in-depth feedback.

Pros – Moisture Sensors can really give you valuable information about the moisture levels in your soil without you having to spend a lot of time looking for any issues. They are responsive and allow you to track accurate detail over periods of time to focus in your farming practices.

Cons – The most accurate and therefore most desirable sensors are costly, especially if our farm has substantial acreage. Moisture sensors are reactive rather than proactive. They can tell you there is a problem, but unless you have years of data at your disposal for your farm it is near impossible to identify trends of problems that are about to happen.

 

  1. Soil Sensors.

These sensors use gamma rays to look into the soil and then feedback the chemical make-up of the soil. The sensors are designed to pick up on natural radioactivity of elements in the soil, giving farmers a detailed analysis of their soil.

Pros – These sensors are very good for identifying where to sow sensitive crops. Especially used in the wine agriculture industry, these sensors allow farmers to pick the best place to keep their vines and identify the soil that will provide the best taste quality of the grapes. Some vines are so sensitive that they only take to or grow in specific soil types, so in this niche area these sensors are incredibly useful.

Cons – These sensors are expensive and unless you’re growing a sensitive crop type like vines they are likely to give you information that although interesting, is actually useless. The information is certainly not going to improve next year’s potato yield.

  1. Pest Sensors.

These sensors detect areas or even individual crops that have become infected. Sometimes an infection is not visible to the naked eye and these sensors are designed to even detect pests eating your crops roots. This of course means that you don’t need to be invasive to the crop to check if its roots are healthy.

Pros – These sensors use light to determine the health of your crops. This allows farmers to identify which crops should be removed to prevent an infestation spreading. They are particularly useful in maintaining healthy crops in farms that reduce pesticide levels or have done away with pesticides altogether. In those instances, the sensors really could be the difference between a successful harvest or no healthy crop being harvested at all.

Cons – Again like previously mentioned sensors, they are costly. It also remains to be seen whether that outlay will improve your farms profitability. For example, the sensors may not detect any unhealthy crops or may only detect a couple of plants that need removing. At that point as a farmer you really need to consider is this worth all this expense?

It is quite apparent that sensors can be useful but as a general rule of thumb they also have quite substantial application flaws. Each sensor mentioned costs money, then there is the added cost of the software to process all that raw data. Which means that unless you can see a viable benefit to having any given sensor it should maybe be passed over as a technology choice. By viable benefit, we mean money. Is the cost of this sensor going to improve the yield so substantially that it will pay for itself? If the answer is no then it might be appropriate to consider other technology to improve your profit margins. In other articles we have mentioned drones, these are on the whole cheaper, incredibly accurate for collecting data and multi-purpose. One day a drone might be doing reconnaissance on your soil moisture levels and another it might be looking for a stray calf on your land. This diverse functionality makes them a potentially better investment for your farm than sensors. Not forgetting that a drone is enjoyable to use.

Another problem across the board for sensors is that the data collected only indicates the lay of the land as it is. The sensors won’t tell you about a problem you are going to have tomorrow, a week from now or at any other point in the future. This means that although the sensors provide you with all of the current problems in real-time, they don’t allow you to plan effectively to prevent them occurring going forward.

The last problem with sensors is that they are a very expensive way to check things that most seasoned farmers would be able to identify themselves. Most farmers will point out their problem patch of land or the area of the field that collects excess water and doesn’t drain. In most general applications of a sensor it is only confirming to a farmer what they would already know. It quantifies it of course and makes lovely graphs and comparison tables. But there comes a point when you have to question is all the data really necessary?

The future for sensors is promising. They just need to perform the tasks that farmers can’t do themselves or employ cheaper tech to do for them. A sensor that tells a farmer of an impending problem would revolutionise the sensor market. Allowing farmers to make informed decisions on things that haven’t happened yet would suddenly catapult sensors to the forefront of must-have farm tech. Sensors need to be more informative about the things that could happen rather than telling us things that do happen. Only when sensors are refined to this level will they truly become relevant again.

Let us know your thoughts on sensors? Have you had tremendous results that you can share with other tech-minded farmers? Or perhaps you have had a sensor nightmare and wish to share your cautionary tale with your farming peers. Either way let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to check back here for the latest tech updates in the agricultural world.

 

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