Precision Farming

written by Gabi Olpp on Tuesday, April 21, 2020

It all depends on exact rates of application! High-tech sensors and adaptable valve technology make it possible to reduce nitrate pollution.

The problem: there is too much nitrate in the groundwater. The European Court of Justice had already ruled in 2018 that Germany had breached the EU Nitrates Directive. This is due to years of poor fertilizer custom and practice that has resulted in too much nitrate entering the groundwater – following the slogan «If a lot is good, then more will be even better».

But it doesn't have to be like that: as well as being able to differentiate between various soil compositions, the technical means to protect our groundwater when applying fertilizer have also been available for a long time.

So is too much fertilizer used in Germany, or is it simply used without enough precision?

How does nitrate get into groundwater?

If the nutrients that have been added cannot be absorbed quickly enough by the plants growing in the soil, rainwater carries those nutrients into the groundwater in the form of nitrate. About one third of the groundwater in Germany exceeds the EU limit of 50 milligrams of nitrate per liter (50 ppm). This is a problem, because our drinking water is extracted from groundwater. Excessive amounts of nitrate can be harmful to the health of infants in particular.

You can have too much of a good thing

Aimed at reducing nitrate pollution, the new German Fertilizer Ordinance has been in force since June 2017. This allows farmers to apply only enough fertilizer that will ensure that the nitrogen content remaining on the fields after harvesting does not exceed 60 kilograms per hectare.

One impact of the Fertilizer Ordinance, which is introducing more and more restrictions to protect the environment, is that farmers' insecurity is increasing. In addition to the constant uncertainty as to whether the way they are cultivating the soil is still within the legal framework, the main question is whether, with their existing machinery, farmers are still at all competitive. While we cannot argue against environmental protection, in the end the harvest or yield still has to produce the right numbers!

How high are the nutrient requirements?

For some time now, manufacturers of agricultural machines have been developing methods that measure the composition of soils and the condition of plants in order to calculate precisely how much fertilizer is really needed at any particular stage of plant growth. «Precision farming» is the name given to this procedure. Soil and plant sensors, GPS technology and special software enable farmers to understand more about their fields than ever before.

Today, the trend is towards nutrient-focused application technology. The farmer can divide his fields into small areas and then find out how which, and how much, nutrients the soil in each of those areas needs. And, for example, how much nitrogen the wheat growing there has already absorbed.

Because nutrients are not evenly distributed in the non-uniform slurry mixture, farmers are increasingly using the NIR sensor. This sensor is a small, inconspicuous box with connecting cables, mounted on the slurry pipes in slurry tankers or at filling stations. «NIR» stands for Near-InfraRed light. An NIR sensor uses near-infrared light to measure in real time the nitrogen content of the liquid manure flowing past. Based on the values measured, the required application rate is calculated and the control valve is regulated accordingly.

Precision farming thus enables producers to do the right thing, at the right place, at the right time and in the best possible way. Agriculture will become even more efficient, yields will be optimized and collateral damage will be reduced.

 

Well equipped for good variety

For manufacturers of vehicles and implements, however, precision farming means not only a rapidly increasing number of electronic components, but also a larger number of variants and functions in their range of vehicles. Slurry tankers in particular, both as self-propelled and towed versions, represent a major challenge in terms of development costs and time, because a large number of possible options in the chassis, steering system and slurry tank must be catered for, and a number of different distribution devices must be considered.

The slurry tanker system solution – including new sensor technologies

The slurry tanker system solution jointly developed by Bucher Hydraulics and Jetter is «NIR-ready», i.e. already included and configurable as an option. All precision farming functions based on the ISOBUS are already «on board». These include Virtual Terminal, the integration of a tractor ECU, a freely configurable joystick, Task Controller BAS, the application rate that is specific to a particular sub-area using Task Controller, Section Control and Task Controller Geo.

Future-proof: new sensor technologies will be added to the configuration file as an additional option.

The special feature of the generic system solution: customers can themselves select all the hydraulic and electrical subfunctions in a configuration file. All subfunctions are pre-programmed and are intensively tested and proven on both the hardware and software sides in all variants. Customers only have to compile a text file for their vehicle or attachment.

Using expensive high-tech sensor technology is not economic for everyone. But with their adaptable valve technology, Bucher Hydraulics systems enable experienced farmers to achieve high yields while complying with the nitrate rules: The very finely controllable metering valve with intuitive operating concept, combined with the farmer's wealth of experience, ensures precision metering at low cost.

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