Agricultural technology in the 21st century

Illustration | Bosch Rexroth AG
Marginal Column

In just a few decades world agriculture will have to feed more than nine billion people. Modern technology is one key to mastering this enormous challenge.


Food is one of the necessities of life. Nothing links us more effectively with the other seven billion people on this Earth than this basic need. And no challenge is more fundamental than providing a safe and reliable supply of nutrients to humankind. This is a complex socio-economic task with many facets and a shockingly simple fundamental tenet: We must produce much more food. This will have to be done under ever more difficult climate conditions, on arable lands that cannot be expanded, and maintaining a delicate balance among a variety of interests.

“Increasing agricultural production is one of the keys to fighting hunger and poverty.” That is how the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, put it. Following a scenario published by the FAO at the World Summit on Food Security, food production will have to rise by about 70 percent by 2050 to guarantee the food supply to the Earth’s population, then numbering about nine billion. The demand for grain, for example, will rise from today’s 2.1 billion tons to around three billion tons in 2050. These figures include food and fodder for humans and the animal kingdom. Any potential demand for the production of biofuels has not been included.

Population growth, urbanization, climate change, water shortages, soil degradation. The factors affecting the global supply of nutrients are many and varied, the challenges tremendous. Those challenges affect not only legislatures and governments, but especially those right at the beginning of the food chain – the farmers. Here the central question is: How can we produce more and more while using less and less?

For Professor Karlheinz Köller, chairman of the Department of Process Technology in Crop Production at the Institute for Agricultural Technology, University of Hohenheim, farming technology will assume a decisive role. “Without additional motorization and mechanization it will not be possible to ensure sufficient, resource-conserving and sustainable production of food, fodder, and energy crops.” The essential factors for the future development of modern agriculture are soil protection, precision farming, the use of electronics, and energy efficiency.

Protecting the soil with resource-conserving production

Arable land is precious, since only about three percent of the earth’s entire surface can be cultivated. Any appreciable expansion of that area is difficult. It runs up against technical, economic and biological hurdles and may be in conflict with ecological objectives. Thus protecting existing agricultural lands is one of our most important tasks. Farmlands are threatened by erosion, salinization, water shortages, and construction activity.

In addition to agricultural processes that are gentle on the soil – such as no-till farming and intelligent crop rotation, modern technology can also make significant contributions to preserving farmlands. Important for erosion control, for instance, is “straw management”, which ensures that what’s left after the harvest is chopped to the right lengths and left on the ground. Intelligent sowing implements maintain this protective mulch cover and at the same time place seed in the soil so that it will germinate and flourish. The sensors determine the slope of hilly land, the soil type, and the type of crop, while the software automatically regulates how deep the seed is buried and how fast the tractor moves. Optimized chassis and drives protect the soil from being too severely compacted.

Precision farming: Greater yields through individualized treatment

Precision farming heralds the arrival of the joystick and mouse on the farm. Precision farming implies active management of the soil, taking account of the individual conditions prevailing in any given field. When dealing with large fields, soil quality and yield capacity may vary across such a field. Using digital maps as the basis, modern implements can handle the soil in a carefully defined fashion, can fertilize and sow seed as required, and – during harvesting – can log productivity variations for the individual sectors. Managing fields as smaller sectors or zones boosts productivity, optimizes yields, and conserves both fertilizer and pesticides.

Further objectives of this sub-field or zonal management are to save on operating resources, reduce work times and machine use, and improve farm management by way of data administration and documentation. Electronic controls and, to an ever greater extent, electric drives add further precision to the work. Tracking systems reduce overlaps by more than 90 percent and thus significantly reduce work times, fuel consumption, and wear and tear. Using the latest in technology is an absolute necessity for precision farming. Examples include electrohydraulic valves, GPS systems, and a standardized data bus. To minimize costly downtimes and repairs, the expensive machinery needs to be utilized to the maximum extent and carefully monitored during use.

The electronics and regulation technology required for this purpose are, more and more often, being supported by modern software. High-performance farm management software can document all the work carried out, the times and resources required to do so, and the yields attained.

Energy efficiency by using electronics

The use of electronics is a hot topic in farming right now. Work routines and sequences can be automated to an ever greater extent using electrohydraulic valves, electronic controls, and the appropriate sensors. Repeated work sequences, for example, can be recorded, stored and called up again at push-button command. There are several prerequisites and among them is flawless communication among the different kinds of equipment. Using the standardized ISOBUS makes it possible to control a number of different implements, produced by different manufacturers, from a single terminal. Whenever an implement is mounted on the tractor, the electrohydraulic valves will automatically be set for ideal operation.

The logical use of electronics in the hydraulic components and their integration into overall management offers great automation potential, reduces the farmer’s effort, and paves the way to greater yields per acre. Steadily rising prices for fossil fuels, and especially for diesel, ensure that farmers will be spending more for energy. As a consequence, measures that could reduce fuel use become ever more attractive. In addition to optimizing the distances covered by the tractor – by combining or eliminating certain individual processes, for example – developments specific to a particular vehicle may be employed.

Even though the use of pure electric drives in passenger cars is now expanding quickly, the electric tractor is a long way down the road. Diesel power certainly has a future and, just like hydraulic systems, offers great potential. A continuous transmission, for example, makes it possible to run the diesel engine at its ideal speed all the time. Modern load sensing technology optimizes the hydraulic system used to power the implements, since the adjustable displacement pump always delivers exactly the right amount of flow, at exactly the pressure the implement requires.