What is Digital Farming? And, why are farming communities turning towards data-driven methods?
With the population estimated to increase up to 9.1 billion by the year 2050 (i.e. 34% higher than today)1, there has never before been a more intense need to drive up agricultural production in order to assure food security in the coming years. However, reaching such food production targets could turn challenging with the unpredictability of climate change, limited availability of arable land, increase in biofuel production and receding water levels.
Agritech industries have been exploring data-driven techniques, which when coupled with the knowledge and experience that come from farmers, could assist with current farming methods and produce more from less land and less labour.
Digital Farming is the integration of digital technology into the farming industry with the aim to improve agricultural production. These digitized techniques allow farmers to make efficient and informed decisions backed by data-driven insights into predicting climate patterns, understanding crop and soil requirements and managing livestock.
In which areas can digital farming help?
1. Evaluate soil conditions and crop varieties:
Traditional farming methods have relied on weather predictions based on experience to forecast required resources. Automated irrigation systems, on the other hand, use real-time machine learning techniques to conduct field analysis and maintain desired soil conditions to produce higher yields, reduce crop damage and efficiently utilize water and fertilizer resources in the precise time and quantity. The widespread use of automated drip irrigation systems could potentially have a huge impact on saving freshwater supply, with 70% of it currently being used for agricultural purposes 
2. Monitor crop health:
Real-time crop health monitoring is possible with the use of drones fitted with sensors to capture crop health statistics that can be used by farmers to analyze and diagnose to the level of specific crop varieties. Automated detection techniques, such as hyperspectral imaging and 3D laser scanning, assist in collecting precise terrestrial data while GPS and satellite monitoring systems are used to monitor weather and crop conditions.
3. Save labour and production costs:
Drones are effective as fertilizer sprays across long-distance arable lands. Sensors fitted on the drones ensure only the required amount is spread within the expected field boundaries, thus ensuring uniform crop growth. Drive-less or unmanned tractors assist with seeding and grain handling including loading and off-loading during harvest seasons. These auto-steered tractors are usually integrated with auto-guidance systems for remote tracking and significantly reduce the strain on the workforce, leading to more efficiency and reducing production costs.
4. Improve management of livestock:
Satellite positioning is used along facial recognition techniques to track and monitor cattle health not only at an individual level but also for the entire herd. This will allow farmers to study group behaviour, feeding habits and early signs of ill-health. Virtual fencing technology ensures that the herd remain within expected pasture boundaries and avoid exclusion zones. The use of ‘moo monitors’ with their heat detection techniques, help in keeping track of the animals’ fertility and health. Robotic milking systems further reduce labour costs.
What are the challenges and risks of adopting Digital Farming?
While on the one hand, there is increasing focus on research and development to produce accessible and affordable yield-enhancing cropping techniques, there are challenges faced on the ground that cannot be overlooked.
In most rural areas, especially in developing nations, the access to internet connectivity, much less the availability of electric power, is unreliable. Besides, there is general hesitation seen from the less tech-savvy farming community due to lack of information and insufficient economic incentives to adopt advanced solutions. In order to overcome such challenges, there is not only a need for governments and policy-makers to mobilize more investment into technological resources, but also to propagate and educate the farming community to open up and embrace the concept of ‘digital farming’.