Precision Agriculture (PA) or Precision Farming is a modern approach to farming which uses Information Technology (IT) tools to ensure crops and the soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health & yield.

George’s Story

George is known in the agricultural sector as an avid farmer, always striving to improve operations on his 1,000-acre farm. The latest models of shiny clean tractors stand neatly parked, side by side in George Kili’s barn. Eight silver silos glimmer in the hot sun, each with a capacity to hold thousands of tonnes of grain, and to top it all up, a tarmacked weigh bridge lines the driveway.

Mr Oliver Kipruto his manager, tells us that he has been in charge of this farm for the past six years. “I have never met a more hardworking man than my boss,” he says. “Every day, I get impressed at how hard he works yet he is undoubtedly one of the richest men I know,” he says, as he leads us into the shamba to meet our host.

We find the old man in the vast maize plantation, keenly watching his son apply the much-needed CAN (Calcium Ammonium Nitrate) fertiliser to row upon row of deep green, knee-high maize stalks. “You are late. We expected you before 9am and everybody is now busy:’ says Mr Kili, as he firmly shakes my hand. “I am teaching my sons how to work the farm. I hope they will take over from me soon,’ he adds.

At a distance, his son Felix drives the tractor, a steady spray of fertilizer trailing him, his high speed betraying his urgency: he has to get it done before the soil moisture from the recent rains is all gone. According to Mr. Kili, the application may have little or no benefit after today.

Felix returns to re-fill the tank, coming to a smooth stop at the edge of the field. He hops out of the shiny green tractor and joins us. At 26, the young man works hard, determined to one day fill his father’s big shoes. We ask him to explain how it all began.

“We started doing precision farming 10 years ago. Before, everything was done manually by the driver and we had a lot of overlaps in the fields, leading to higher fuel costs, chemical, fertilizer wastage and driver fatigue,” a confident Felix says. “We began by first buying an auto guidance kit and fitting it on our tractor, and today, everything we do here is precise, from planting, to fertilising , spraying, harvesting and even storage. Nothing is left to chance.”

Precision Agriculture Technology

Auto guidance is technology that pilots farm machinery via Global Positioning Systern (GPS) satellites. It consists of a display, satellite antennae, terrain controller and a steering motor or alternatively a higher accuracy hydraulic steering unit. “Most activities on our farm are digitalized. I use a precision planter, which ensures perfect spacing. We plant our maize 30cm from seed to seed and exactly 75cm from row to row. Therefore, the population on each field is precise: he says of the neat maize plantation.

Technology is an integral part of the farm. There is also a solar weather monitor that records the rainfall levels, and gives updates every day via email. “My tractor uses such data to spread and determine how much fertilizer to apply at any given time. It automatically applies more fertiliser in low-yielding areas and reduces it in fertile areas. Spray pressure increases with speed, ensuring the required doses are maintained: he explains.

Another son, Rodney, parks his tractor in the mixing bay close to the homestead. He has just completed spraying herbicides in one of the fields in readiness for barley planting. “We mix the herbicide with urea and water to encourage a rapid uptake of the chemical by weeds and thus faster clearing of planting areas.” Interestingly, the herbicide is poured into a small open container at the lower side of the tractor’s tank and with a push of a button, water jets in at just the right pressure, forming a mixture, which flows into the 3,240-litre tank, ensuring that the chemical is perfectly diluted.

“I will spray the other farm at about 4pm, as we never do it between noon and 3pm due to the intense heat: says Rodney, as he supervises the mixing of the chemicals. He offers to take us on a ride on his driver-less tractor at the landing strip a few hundred metres away. At 24, Rodney is the youngest son and his enthusiasm for agriculture is refreshing . He studied agriculture at university and loves working on the farm.

Precision farming
Precision Agriculture tractors have monitoring gadgets make working on the farm easier

“We practise minimum tillage on our farm and hope to get to no tillage soon. That is why I use a chisel tractor so that there is minimum disturbance to the soil,” he explains. We move to the airstrip where we hop into Rodney’s tractor to get a feel of the driver-less machine and observe how it operates. Inside are two screens and myriad of gears of different colours, each serving a unique purpose. The tractor is connected to a 24-metre boom spray.

“The first thing you do is drive the tractor around the area you intend to work on. As you do this the tractor, using satellites, creates a map of the area: says Rodney. He taps on a few buttons and the screen lights up, showing that the tractor is currently using 24 satellites to determine the image of the farm. The driver-less tractor moves by itself and turns with perfection at the edge of the field. The only thing Rodney does is to monitor the screen, adjust the positioning of the boom spray and increase the speed.

From the inside the ride is smooth and the steering wheel guides us back to start with utmost precision. So intelligent is the tractor that it can never pass over and/or spray the same area twice. If the boom sprayer overlaps, the tractor automatically switches off the area, only to turn it on again when it recognizes it as unsprayed. It also works only on the marked area and highlights what is covered.

“We save a lot on time and inputs and it is easy to monitor exactly how much work has been done: says Rodney “These gadgets make working on the farm easier. All I have to do is sit in the cabin keeping an eye on the terrain and controls to ensure that everything is going on well and note any alerts. It’s so easy, you can literally fall asleep at the wheel: he laughingly adds.

Precision Agriculture Equipment

A fast state-of-the-art harvester waits in the barn for the season. “We use yield monitors on combine harvesters, which allow farm equipment to gather lots of information during harvesting such as grain yield, moisture levels, soil properties and much more. They also help us to assess things such as when to harvest, and fertilize, seed and the effects of weather,” says Rodney.

Yield monitors work in three steps: the grain is harvested and fed into the grain elevator that has sensors that read the moisture content of the grain. As the grain is being delivered to the holding tank, more sensors monitor the yield. The information is then sent to the driver’s cab and displayed on a screen. It is then geo-referenced so it can be mapped, closely investigated and analysed at a later time or date.

Yield-monitoring technology offers many benefits to farmers, the main one being it helps give the farmer accurate, geo-referenced data about his field. He can then better understand crop yield and related information and mitigate potential threats or enhance opportunities. Information on yields is used to determine the exact level of inputs needed. All data recorded by the various trac-tors can be transferred onto a flash disc and printed out for filing or shared to provide important information when other activities are being carried out.

Yield monitors
Yield monitors fitted on the tractor give the farmer accurate, geo-referneced yield data about their field

Harvested maize is transported from the fields using tippers, which pour it into an underground vent with conveyor belts that direct it into the sorting machine. It is at the sorting and cleaning machine, where the moisture content is tested. If its higher than 13 per cent, the machine automatically sends it to the drier. If it is at 13 per cent or less, it is directed to the silo. Amazingly, the ma-chine takes less than 40 minutes to sort, dry and store several tons of maize. The airtight silos automatically measure what is stored and when grain is removed it immediately updates the record and gives a status report via email.

A lot also happens on the ground that determines the success of the farm. Before anything is applied to the crop it is tested on small sections of maize and the results closely monitored. Trial results provide a guide on what will be used in the next planting year. Scouting is also a common occurrence and more so with the current threat of the Fall armyworm.

‘We scout the whole farm every two weeks. This helps to identify problems before they become uncontrollable. For example, we have noted that the Fall armyworm has invaded our fields and are now controlling it through spraying”, says farm manager Kipruto. He removes the outer covering of the maize stalk and to reveal the dreaded worm, which is not fully grown and moves sluggishly due to the after effects of the spray . The worm detests light and hides when exposed to the sun.

“The Fall armyworm is a cause for worry because we have planted 900 acres of maize and 300 acres of wheat. We are glad we caught it at an early stage,” he adds. Mr. Kili used to get 30 to 35 bags of maize per acre, but today, thanks to precision agriculture, the farm harvests 40 to 50 bags of maize from an acre.

The trio are keen on preserving the fertility of their soils and to do this, they harrow maize stalks back into the soil. In addition, after the harvest, sunflower is planted and harrowed back into the soil as soon as it is knee-high. They all agree on one thing: A farm may have the latest digital gadgets and be fully mechanized, but hard work and precision by humans are a must for success.

Everybody on the farm works really hard and many are the days that find both Felix and Rodney on the farm from 8am to 10pm. Says Mr.Kili: “Precision farming can transform agriculture. Farmers looking to move to the next level should give it serious consideration. The government should also intervene and see how small-scale farmers can access the technology, even if it means combining their individual acreages into one lot to achieve the economies of scale.” Yield monitors on combine harvesters us to assess when to harvest, fertilize or seed, the effects of weather. Other benefits include the ability to export the information onto a personal computer.

This article first appeared in the Smart Farmer Magazine. Email author at [email protected]