IoT in agriculture tells tales of the ubiquitous, connected cow – and other connected things

As I sit writing this article with a fabulous glass of viognier I can taste the irony, we are all intellectually aware that the world needs to produce much more food and wine, of course, writes Tracy Hopkins the chief marketing officer of Everynet. Emissions modelling suggests that agriculture-related emissions alone will take up almost 100% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Meat and dairy production are especially carbon intensive, making livestock farming a key component of total agricultural emissions.

According to the World Economic Forum: “The dominant paradigm of global food security is that humanity needs to increase food production by 50% to 100% by 2050” but dramatically increasing total global food production in not the answer. To sustainably feed a planet of nine billion we must find ways to produce food far more efficiently, optimise the supply chain, waste less food and be much kinder to the environment.

The Internet of Agriculture

There are many new initiatives to make agriculture smart. These include the work of the Climate-Smart Approach (CSA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the commercial drivers pushing the farming landscape to evolve from the historical micro-farms run by families to large scale macro-farming operations, precision and urban faming. Innovation in farming technology in the late 19th century gave us tractors and harvesters while today much new innovation is focused on the IoT of which the common denominator is data, data and more data.

The smart factor however is not simply about the data, it is about the insight that can be gained from the data, and how, when this insight is combined with context or situation awareness, it can drive both local actions and enable intelligent business decisions that are relevant at that specific time. Farming will not need to be dependent upon a rain man, traditional methods and the fluctuations of climate to be more efficient.

A key challenge for using the IoT in agriculture is connectivity, getting the data from sensors deployed in the field as cost effectively as possible. Traditional communications network infrastructure is focused on people and converge is predominantly centred around them and does not extend far into rural areas in many countries as the cost model doesn’t work for the mobile network operators (MNOs) or fixed line providers. A flexible, long range option that offers different deployment models and a very low connectivity cost per sensor is essential. The sensors themselves also need to be very low power or even disposable because a truck roll to change or charge batteries invalidates any business model due to the cost sensitivities in some applications.

LoRaWAN low power wide area networks (LPWAN) are being used in several continents to get data from the field across many application verticals because of the technology’s inherent low power and long range capabilities. As it is an open communications standard there are many deployment and business model options available from simple Farm Only private networks to Agriculture-as-a-Service offerings.

The ubiquitous connected cow

Historically it had always been the connected fridge that epitomised the IoT or M2M in its previous guise, now it is always the connected cow, I will call her Daisy.

There are over 1,467,548,724 heads of cattle in the world according to Beef Market Central.

  • 63% of the world’s cattle are in Brazil, India and China
  • 368,469,907 are in South America and 211,764,292 in Brazil alone
  • 10% are lost or rustled annually at a cost of US$34,771,696,746
    • Based on average price per cow of US$1645
    • A loss of US$160 annually per cow

LoRaWAN low cost tags can be used to simply identify where the cows are, the livestock manager can use the LoRaWAN network to effectivity geo-fence the cows and send event driven only notifications if the cow is not within the boundary. This simple use case could offer massive savings as illustrated below.

  • The tracker, connectivity and service costs US$3 per month, US$36 per year on a threeyear contract per cow, and a basic tracker costs US$30
  • Cost per cow to track is US$36
  • All 211,764,292 cows in Brazil would cost US$7,623,514,512
  • Return on investment (ROI) in Brazil yields a US$27,148,182,234 saving annually

However, there are more complexities. LoRaWAN network infrastructure needs to be available and the cows can’t all be tagged overnight. The point is that to make IoT viable, the cost per cow needs to be significantly less than the loss and be relevant to the needs of the application.

In New Zealand the livestock market profit per animal is all publically available per farm at survey . With some farms only making US$100-US$200 per animal, unless there is a high risk of loss or theft, a high cost to track will leave poor Daisy lost.

Connected cows will aid farm profits


There are many other ways IoT can significantly help with livestock management, there are sensors that can detect when Daisy is ready for a visit from the bull, real world trials have already demonstrated that temperature and pedometer devices can detect estrus in cows more efficiently. The average insemination success has been improved to 1.58 attempts from 2.0-2.5 attempts and the average calving interval was shortened to 354 days from 402 days and the female cattle birth ratio increased. As a result, an increase of US$645 per head per year is predicted and production milk yield increased. Sensors can also detect when Daisy is about the give birth, traditionally famers would carefully watch the pregnant animals now they can be remotely alerted, the cost of losing a cow and a calf during the calving process can cost a farmer in excess of US$2,000, depending on value of the cow.

Other connected things

Water and fertiliser are two crucial ingredients for crop growth, too much or too little can have a derogatory effect on the quality of the yield, potatoes and cotton are sensitive to over watering but strawberries and tomatoes are water hungry. Intelligent IoT irrigation systems offer the ability to monitor and adapt and can provide guidance at a glance.

Sensors measure soil conductivity which can tell you how much moisture and fertiliser is in the topsoil, if the sensors are distributed through the fields or greenhouses the right time to irrigate can be determined saving both water and energy. LoRaWAN IoT devices are delivering a 20-30% yield improvement in vineyards in Italy and are enabling the reduction of fertilisers and chemicals Palm oil plantations have an issue with the heavy tree canopies where wireless signals struggle to penetrate but LoRaWAN sensors have successful been put to the test for irrigation, for pest control using simple traps that only let the relevant pests in, send alerts when the sensor weighs a certain level – indicating a specific number of pests. The palms can then be treated to ensure a major infestation does not occur. Sensors are also being used to notify of potential fires in the plantations which can be a serious risk.

The insights that the operational data from all of these sensors contains can be further utilised globally, the type of soil will have characteristics as to how it reacts to water, the amount of fertiliser needed to maximise yield will vary with climate and crop variety and infestation will be dependent upon a multitude of criteria. If all of this data was centralised, categorised and available it would offer famers the opportunity to determine what type of crop they should plant for maximum yield in any given country taking into account climate and soil conditions.

Many large scale trials are now underway across the world and within the next few years we will see this happening more and more, convincing farmers to use technology for smart agriculture will be key as they need to invest now and wait for an entire season to see if the technology delivered the ROI. If the cost of ownership is low enough, the end-to-end system is simple enough and the farmer is able to roll out in stages it will become mainstream.

Everynet has been involved with the deployment of smart agriculture in many countries and is now focusing on Latin America and the Asia Pacific regions with Everything Everywhere, a LoRaWAN business model that enables low cost wholesale connectivity to meet the cost demands required by farmers. With the EveryTHINGZ partner programme, simple end-to-end solutions for the farmers including the sensors and the applications can be provided by third parties, offering maximum choice and simple interoperability straight out of the box.

Smart agriculture is just beginning, cold chain monitoring, food waste optimisation and the power of big data that will turn precision farming into predictive farming and give financial institutions and governments the ability to monitor production versus consumption on a global scale. These will all be crucial in ensuring that we can produce enough food for the world. For now, proving that the business models work in large scale deployments and that they deliver the efficiencies and cost saving required to make connected Daisy really ubiquitous is a leap in the right direction.



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