Some days it’s tough enough to keep up with the work, whether it be in the back office, field or barn, or both. This is, perhaps, one of the daunting aspects of the influx of data tools and ag tech. Advancements are designed to be time savers and, up until now, they seem to, in some ways, create more work. However, both AI and Internet of Things (IoT) devices are promising to change that.
Similarly, agricultural innovators are looking for ways to leverage AI, data tools, and information analytics to improve farming and save time. One tool gaining steam, that allows you to leverage your data, improve efficiency, all while improving nearly every aspect of your farm’s operations, is the use of a digital twin. Recent research points to “The ability of the [Digital Twins] to provide usable, actionable, and on-demand information provides the foundational components for robust high-fidelity replication of complex entities and their environment across an expanding variety of applications.” This promises a potential revolution in how we use farm data and how AI promises to change the agricultural industry along with so many others.
- How Ag Tech Improves Farming and Farm Data Collection
- What is a Digital Twin?
- How are Digital Twins used in Agriculture
- Benefits of Digital Twins for Farm Data
- The Future of Ag Tech, Digital Twins, and Farm Data
How Ag Tech Improves Farming and Farm Data Collection
Farming has always been about data and, for centuries, that data relied upon human observation. As anyone with considerable land, multiple farms, double or multi-cropping, or even integrated agricultural systems can tell you, monitoring by human observation is not only remarkably difficult but it’s also time consuming.
Though early ag tech was focused on easing methods of production and speeding up those processes, in the 21st century there’s been a marked shift towards data collection and analysis. While farm machinery can improve certain aspects of production, it’s data that helps you refine those processes, improving crop or animal health, crop yield, and profitability.
Soil, water, weather, seed, feed, and more all contribute to your production and gathering data about those and their interactions is at the heart of modern ag tech. From farm ERP solutions and data dashboards in the back office to drones and AI capable combines in the fields, ag tech has changed the way we, as farmers and ranchers, gather and use data.
Regardless of whether you’re using ag tech in the field or the back office, the goal remains the same. The good news is that ag tech is really just getting started. New methods of leveraging data are appearing every day, growing in popularity, usability, and affordability. One such technology is the use of digital twins.
What is a Digital Twin?
As we said, gathering the data you need can be time consuming and, if too time consuming, it may be too late to make the adjustments or changes you need. Similarly, one of the biggest challenges in farming is risk management. What if there were one solution that allowed you to address both those concerns? That’s a digital twin.
In agriculture, a digital twin is a virtual double of a real life farm operation. The digital version mimics the real life version in all elements and, therefore, allows for farmers to “play out” scenarios, strategies, and operational choices. Because it is separate from the physical space, digital twins enable farmers to manage farm operations “remotely based on (near) real-time digital information instead of having to rely on direct observation and manual tasks on-site,” according to Science Direct.
On a more technical level, digital twins can take real information from farm applications and sensors, process the data, and feed it into the digital twin where it is applied to a virtual model. From there, farm managers can observe and analyze actual data, make adjustments, and see how that plays out or feed in more complex simulations. Regardless of the input, the output goal is the same: insights and decision support based on actual farm data.
Because there’s no need to wait for consequences, farmers, ranchers, and operations managers can act on the effects they’re seeing, rather than waiting on potential consequences which can be costly.
How Digital Twins Could Be Used in Agriculture
We hinted at it above, but digital twins in agriculture can be used in a variety of ways to improve farm productivity and profitability. More specifically, digital twins are used to:
- Create various scenarios to determine potential outcomes
- Test products, strategies, and other variables for increased yield without risk
- Determine resource utilization to improve operations and decrease environmental footprint
- Understand the impact and potential of crop rotation and cultivation strategies
- Analyze the impact of changing weather patterns, storms, and other environmental factors
- Develop new strategies based on outcomes that increase crop yields and improve efficiencies
All in all, digital twins hold the potential to help ranch and farm managers make data driven decisions about everything from fertilization and watering to crop and livestock management. More specifically, Purcell, Neubauer, and Mallinger’s research points to its ability to support stakeholders in their ability to effectively utilize data acquired via “monitoring activities of livestock, optimization of inputs to crops, and also the reduction of emissions to air, soil, and water.” Further, they suggest that “extended data provided by the DT creates novel assessment possibilities, allowing the investigation of social consumption, life-cycle assessment, and supply chain tracking, with the availability of information and increased transparency presenting exponentially more opportunities to initiate corrective measures that restore and enhance the social and environmental sustainability goals and the overall production of the agricultural sector.”
In short, between data collected from farm sources, sensors, and other ag tech tools, when incorporated into tools like a digital twin, we open up an entirely new world of analytics that can help us achieve productivity, sustainability, and profitability goals.
Benefits of Digital Twins for Farm Data
As one can imagine, the ability to visualize one’s land, crops, or herds and test different strategies or analyze existing conditions and adjust without getting out in the barns and fields is a huge time saver and has the potential to increase efficiencies across the board. Still, that’s not where the benefits end.
When paired with additional ag tech, such as the kind that collects data from across your operation, including air, water, and soil sensors, you can make the needed adjustments on actual crops/livestock that can improve health, optimize resource utilization from water to chemicals. Further, digital twins allow you to continue to monitor those changes so you can continue adjusting as needed.
As new data comes in from digital twins, you can use other tools to analyze the data, gauge its impact, and make decisions to improve productivity and farm profitability. For example, using a digital twin to focus on soil structure and irrigation allows farm managers to monitor and analyze changes that will impact crop yield. Such on the fly adjustments can be difficult without a digital twin. In fact, many farmers have to wait to gather data during the growing season and then, only after harvest time, can they analyze the impact of decisions made regarding soil, irrigation, rotation, timing, and more.
Additionally, because digital twins can improve operational efficiency and help maximize resource utilization, you can also decrease costs related to everything from labor to fertilizer. Digital twins may also be useful for post-harvest operations. Experts suggest digital twins may “provide advantages in post-harvest procedures, such as minimizing losses, optimizing food processing, improving storage conditions, streamlining transportation, and enhancing marketing efficiency. These strategies facilitate the live tracking of the agricultural and food supply network, leading to increased robustness, resilience and reduced food waste and losses.”
And, what to make of all of this? There will be no more, or very limited, wait and see methodology. Up-to-date data from IoT devices, sensors, and more fed into a digital twin means better decision making even in the livestock arena. Much like one can monitor soil and growth white gauging the impact of adjustments to crop variables, the same is true with livestock. From nutrition and welfare to breeding, ranchers and livestock farmers can monitor current states while testing strategies to measure the impact on animal health and production.
In short, we’ve spent time on this blog talking about farm information levels and how data should be driving strategic decision making when it comes to farm management. With a digital twin, you can really leverage the data you’re gathering, monitor in near real time remotely, limit risk, and test new strategies, products, or services to see their impact. When these digital twins integrate with other information systems, the benefits to farm management only increase.
As for the writers of the most recent research, they seem to identify a few key ways we can expect digital twins to benefit agriculture:
- Land cultivation- Crop cultivation requires a significant amount of resources, some of which are limited and others that simply need optimization. Digital twins have demonstrated success across a variety of applications, including yield forecasting, water use optimization, machine calibration, and environmental transparency.
- Livestock farming- Advantages of digital twins in livestock farming include animal welfare improvement, labor reduction, decision support, and supply chain transparency but other use cases, much like those with crop cultivation, include optimization of environmental conditions and energy consumption. The research here supports digital twins and their impact as quite similar to efforts found in precision livestock farming research.
- Controlled environment farming- Food demands are ever increasing and farmers are often limited by the environment when it comes to what and when they can produce crops. Controlled environment farming, through the use of greenhouses, vertical farming, warehouses, and on rooftops, allows farmers to increase production and control the variables that impact crop production. Digital twins can assist with management of self-regulated and self-contained systems helping farmers increase yield and productivity as they grow across traditional seasons.
- Social and ecological impact- It’s no secret that some aspects of farming have an impact on the environment and efforts towards sustainability are vital to ongoing production. Digital twins can help optimize the systems used to help increase crop yields while mitigating environmental impacts. As a result, digital twins can help even the playing field by helping small farms, with limited labor, reduce resource utilization (including labor) and still produce yields to be profitable.
The Future of Ag Tech, Digital Twins, and Farm Data
So far this all sounds amazing, right? As with all other ag tech, it’s a start. As with all other farming solutions, we’re quickly learning that out of the box solutions likely won’t be one-size-fits-all or rather one-size-fits-farming.
Agriculture is complex with a large number of variables as well as potential application integrations which can make creating a digital twin for agricultural application difficult. More specifically, there are a variety of interrelated factors such as soil and seed, available resources such as equipment and labor, and output (whether livestock or crop). Further, each of these has multiple variables. Right now, digital twins can look at this holistically. The real value here will be when these variables can be broken down on a granular level such as a particular crop or individual plant/animal.
The adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in agriculture will eventually lead to the natural adoption of Digital Twin-like technologies. Both machine and deep learning demonstrate a unique ability to capture and model the highly dynamic and complex characteristics of these large multivariate and multi-entity systems such as a modern farming operation. As such, AI will be a vital tool in helping create robust digital twin technologies that assist across an entire operation.
Additionally, agricultural technologies are continuing to grow and advance rapidly meaning we’ll need to see digital twin technologies keep pace. This includes integration with data provided by third parties including historical data such as weather and air sampling.
Finally, the ability to predict outcomes and provide actionable insights is not perfect, but is improving. This gives farmers and ranchers the opportunity to step up their data game so when digital twins become commonplace for farm operations and data driven decision making, farmers will be ready.
One way you can boost your farm information level is by aggregating existing data and starting to leverage it to improve your operations behind the scenes. In fact, farm ERP solutions are already providing the kind of data visualization you need to make improvements, especially when it comes to maximizing profit centers and keeping operations lean.
With all your data in one place, you get a holistic view of farm operations allowing you to adjust resource allocation to improve efficiency and maximize profits. With FBS Systems farm ERP solution you can do just that.
And, if you’re interested in learning more about how to do that, join us at our user conference in November which will explore how digital twins, AI and ag tech as well as the role FBS Systems’ solutions can play in optimizing your farm operations. Ag tech and agricultural accounting is truly where the field and barn meet the back office.
If you’re ready to talk about how our solution can help move you into the future of farm data and ag tech, reach out to our team today!