Concept for plant cultivation systems of the future from Braunschweig receives award DLG Agrifuture Concept Prize for "Spot Farming Approach”
Joint press release of Technische Universität Braunschweig, the Julius Kühn Institute (JKI) and the Thünen Institute (TI)
The spot farming approach focuses on the individual plant, which is provided with optimal care and kept healthy. The vision is that the small-scale field plots will be cultivated by autonomous field robots. As part of this year’s digital Agritechnica trade fair, the German Agricultural Society (DLG) awarded prizes for future concepts in agriculture for the first time. The “DLG Agrifuture Concepts” include concrete pioneering agricultural technology as well as visions of the future. So-called spot farming is one such vision of the future and was submitted as a future concept by the Institute of Mobile Machines and Commercial Vehicles of Technische Universität Braunschweig together with the application technology of the Julius Kühn Institute (JKI) and the business economists of the Thünen Institute. The jury nominated ten entries for a shortlist from about 20 submitted proposals. The proposal of the three research institutions from Braunschweig was one of the five winning concepts from this shortlist. Dr. Jan Schattenberg from TU Braunschweig and Prof. Dr. Jens Karl Wegener from the JKI accepted the prize via video conference on 15.02.2022 and presented their vision of sustainable holistic land management.
Crop production as it is currently practised is characterised by conflicting goals: Machine use versus soil protection, plant protection and fertilisation versus biodiversity, economic efficiency versus healthy crop rotations, to name just a few examples.
“Future technologies will make it possible to realise completely new concepts for the management of agricultural land, which will also have a major impact on sustainability,” says Dr Jan Schattenberg, who conducts research at TU Braunschweig’s Institute of Mobile Machines and Commercial Vehicles.
“The spot farming concept rethinks plant cultivation systems, starting from the individual plant, which should be given optimal care and kept healthy as far as possible. It works with small-scale farmland, the spots, whose characteristics are precisely recorded and mapped in advance,” Prof. Dr Jens Karl Wegener from the Julius Kühn Institute explains the approach.
In order to ensure that each individual plant on an area is supplied as well as possible with water, light and nutrients and that measuring and maintenance robots can better navigate the crop themselves, the plants would not be sown densely packed in rows as before, but in accurate triangular lattices. The experts call this a uniform seed pattern. They also want to take into account the fact that soil properties always vary on a large field area. Less productive, too dry or too wet sub-areas could be taken out of cultivation and used for ecological measures instead. This would create organic field spots on which not just one type of plant, as is the case today, but different ones could be cultivated and even different crop rotations could be run in parallel.
“With technical progress in the field of automation and digitalisation, the economic ‘compulsion’ to use ever larger machines can be broken. This opens up completely new perspectives for crop production. For the economic viability of our concept, saved labour costs will be less important than possible positive crop production effects. We want to investigate these further in the future,” says business economist Dr Thomas de Witte from the Thünen Institute.
“With the idea of automated individual plant treatment, we are developing Precision Farming further and using all kinds of tools originating from digitised agriculture, from the early detection of diseases or soil moisture measurement via remote sensing, to site-adapted fertilisation and mechanical weed control, all the way to the ideal harvest time,” explains Dr Schattenberg from TU Braunschweig. More diverse crop rotations are planted on the spots, which are precisely tailored to the soil conditions. Less productive sub-areas enhance the ecosystem, for example by planting flowering strips, hedges or nesting mounds for wild bees. “In this way we use natural resources more efficiently, save fertiliser and pesticides, increase agrobiodiversity at the same time, increase ecosystem services and arrive at farming systems that are less susceptible to disturbances, meaning they are more resilient,” says JKI researcher Prof. Wegener, summarising the advantages of spot farming.
It will certainly be two to three decades before this vision becomes reality. On the way, however, there is the gain in knowledge and important ideas for a digitalised and more sustainable land management. The jury has rewarded this in the form of the DLG Future Concept Award.