Automatic milking using robotics was introduced in the late 1990s, and is now used by just under four percent of Sweden’s milk producers. The cattle roam free and seek out the robot when it is time to be milked. They are also fed at the same time.

Technical development in agriculture is moving quickly in other areas as well. Satellite-controlled agricultural machinery, for example, is the latest innovation in arable farming. The tractor or combine harvester is controlled automatically, and a GPS navi- gation system provides the driver with exact information on the tractor’s position. It reduces fuel consumption and allows ferti- lising and harvesting operations to be carried out with greater pre- cision. The driver’s working environment is also improved, since he or she does not have to steer the vehicle. This is how it works:

Computer support for precision farming

GPS-navigering kan göra odlingen mer effektiv.

GPS-navigation can make crop-growing more efficient.

Sensors and computer screens provide the driver of a modern combine harvester with information on, for example, driving distances, harvesting per hour, grain water content and unloading in tons per hectare. The driver can adapt the speed to crop density, and even use the computer to plan farming opera- tions. The aim is to find the best possible combination of different crops on agricultural land, to achieve the best possible results from crop rotation and expected crop prices. Information from laboratory analysis can be entered into the computer, to produce details of when to apply lime and how much ferti- liser has to be added to different soil types. Information on expec- ted sowing, fertilising and spraying can also be entered, and all this information can be used as a basis for budgeting for the season.

If farmers use a combination of advanced market analysis and precise positioning, crop growing can be planned with much greater precision. The aim of this type of precision growing is to optimise the treatment of each part of a field. Traditionally, lime, fertiliser and crop sprays have been applied equally to every part of a field, but precision growing means that the resources can be targeted on the areas where they are needed most. This reduces the risk of nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into the ground water and watercourses.

For precision growing to work, the farmer must have detailed knowledge of the status of the different areas of a field, and be in complete control of the location of tractors or combine harvesters. For example, information on how much fertiliser needs to be applied to a certain area is stored in the computer. The GPS equipment keeps track of the tractor’s location, and the fertiliser feed is adjusted to the various conditions in a field. Precision GPS equipment reduces the overlap as a machine travels up and down a field from 10 percent of the machine width to only a few centi- metres, and this cuts down on both the hours worked and the amount of fuel consumed. Precision growing generates both financial and environmental benefits, but at present, the method only pays dividend on the largest farms. Crop farming may become even more detailed in the future, and some scientists are aiming for treatment of individual plants, a bit like providing potted plants at home with different amounts of water and nutrients.

The Lukas weed control robot

Ogräsroboten Lukas kan halvera kostnaderna för ogräsbekämpning.

The weed robot Lucas can be a cost efficient alternative for farmers.

Robotics is also entering the field of weed control – something which is of great interest to organic growers who are currently removing weeds manually. Halmstad University is in process of developing the ”Lukas” weed control robot. It can move along the rows of plants and uses a camera to identify plants. A rotating wheel deals with weeds between the rows. A small machine of this kind reduces fuel consumption and earth compacting. The ”Lukas” can be used from most crops grown in rows, and the College estimates that the cost of weed control can be halved if the robot is used.

This article was first published in Advantage Environment printed in February 2008