Technology has an increasingly valuable part to play in making every step of the grain supply chain more efficient, a series of speakers at the International Grains Council’s (IGC) recent Grains Conference 2018 said. The technology can do more, but there is also a need for more readiness to share data.

Sara Menker, chief executive officer, Gro Intelligence, New York, New York, U.S., made a plea for the sharing and use of data in the grains sector.

“Agricultural data lags behind other industries in the acceptance and use of digital methods,” she said. “Farmers and agribusinesses will remain in the dark unless they open up their data.”

She pointed out that data sharing works in other sectors. Airlines share aircraft positions to improve on-time records. Information on genomes is shared to anticipate, diagnose and treat disease. Programmers share code building blocks.

Menker was critical of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not sharing the underlying data behind its World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates reports.

“USDA’s insistence on secrecy really deprives people on the ground of information,” she said, adding that farmers are left paying for information, at the mercy of charlatans and rumor.

Reducing Grain Loss

In an afternoon session with a technical focus, Marcel Berendsen, sales manager EMEA, FrigorTec GmbH, Amtzell, Germany, looked at one way of reducing grain losses in storage. He said a lot of people ask him whether grain needs to be cooled in storage.

“Of course grain needs to be cooled,” he said. “What do you do at home? Everybody here has a fridge at home. Why do you put your food in the fridge? To conserve it. The same is true of the grain. Grain is not a piece of wood, a piece of steel, it is a foodstuff. It needs to be cooled.

“If we look at grain production worldwide, we see that there is a lot of stock, around 700 million tonnes forecast this year, and that means when you take the price of $200 a tonne that we have just under $140 billion of grain in storage every year. That is a lot. A lot of that is lost.”

Much of the losses came in post-harvest storage. Problems like hotspots could mean “you have to take the grain out and throw it away,” he said.

Berendsen quoted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as saying that annual grain losses were 280 million to 560 million tonnes, around 10% of the world’s harvest. Of those losses, 80% are caused by insects, 10% by mold fungi and 10% by birds and rodents.

“How to avoid it? We do it by grain conservation cooling,” he said. “That means long-term storage of grain without losses in quality or yield. We achieve that by cooling with conditioned cold air, below 13 to 16 degrees Celsius (55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit) in approximately three to four weeks. The beauty of it is that it is independent of the weather conditions, other than ventilation with ambient air.”

He explained that one problem with storing grain is the respiration/self-heating effect, pointing out that grain lives, breathes and produces water and heat.

“Grain is like humans,” he said. “It breathes. When you do nothing, you will see that if you start with 1,000 tonnes, after a few months you only have 700 or 800 tonnes. When you have water and heat, it starts to get wet.”

That could mean problems with fungi or insects.

“The problem is to find these hotspots,” he said. “When you cool, this reaction stops. It is a chemical reaction and reactions like it when it is hot. When it is cool, this reaction stops.”

Insects can eat and destroy the grain.

“Insects like conditions starting at 19 or 20 degrees Celsius (67 degrees Fahrenheit),” he said. “They start to develop rapidly after three, four weeks.

“When we cool it down to 13 degrees to 16 degrees, there will be no development of any insects. The insects are still there but they go into so-called dormancy. They sit there. They don’t eat. They don’t have sex. They don’t multiply. It’s too cold.”

The same is true for mold fungi, he said.

“There are more fungi in the fields, before harvest and also we have some mold fungi that develops in storage,” he said.

Mold fungi can produce mycotoxins, he said.

“They are forbidden everywhere,” he said. “When we cool it down to 13 to 16 degrees, we have no problem. We take out the ventilators and we connect the cooling machine. We cool it down, let’s say to 10 degrees Celsius. Then we heat it up by 3 degrees, so the relative humidity decreases. This conditioned air, which has a humidity of 16% to 17%, we push into the silo. This air is cold and can take heat away from the grain and also some moisture.”

The grain moisture stays stable.

“Then the grain stays cold for a very long time,” he said. “It’s very good for long-term storage. This air cannot escape because the grain kernel itself is a very good isolator. It heats up very slowly.”

After two to three weeks, the cooling machine can be disconnected as the grain can stay cold for anywhere from 3 to 12 months, he said.

“It depends a little bit on the area, on the shape of the silo, the storage,” he said. “The heat capacity of the grain is very huge.”

Crop Production Technology

Clive Blacker, director of Precision Decisions, York, U.K., works on helping farmers to manage variability in their crops and targeting inputs.

“Typically, we will be doing remote sensing, looking at pictures of variability of fields from different sources, whether that be satellite, combine yield, physical variability,” he said.

That involved taking soil samples, understanding nutrient availability from soils or measuring plants and then trying to deduce which is the most suitable fertilizer application, he said.

“We have come to the point where existing technologies are not increasing yield to the same level as yields are being increased in the past,” he said. “There is a potential to look to new technologies to help farmers produce crops more effectively. One way that farmers historically have managed their crops has been through mechanization.”

Some soil properties can’t be corrected, so the farmer must manage them for the optimal outcome. That includes things like soil type, stone fraction and soil texture, for example, the sand or clay content. Other things can be corrected, like pH levels, or some of the nutrient levels. Soil structure issues, like compaction or porosity, as well as organic matter level can be addressed.

“We are working with robotics as well,” he said.

At present, farmers are tackling the reducing availability of time and labor with ever larger machines. One problem with that is big machines can cause compaction and limit yield. Big machinery can also limit the resolution for precision farming. One solution being worked on is to use smaller robotic machines. They would not create compaction in the same way and can work on smaller areas. Operating in “swarms,” they can cover the same area while jobs are retained because they must be managed, even if the operator is not going out into the field.

“Farmers are often far more focused on costs than they are on productivity,” he said. “We are trying to help farmers understand how they can manage variability. We accept the yield potential that we can gain and try to manage for that potential.”

Eye In The Sky

Dr. Inbal Becker-Reshef of the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland, discussed how satellite information can be used to support decisions in agricultural markets and food security through the use of earth observations.

“There is a large set of earth-orbiting satellites that are going around all the time,” she said. “We do have a record going back 40 years. We can start to be monitoring crop lines globally, but at a field scale.”

There’s not a lot of coordination, she said, but stressed that more is being done.

“Earth observations can provide information,” she said.

GEOGLAM was launched in 2011 by the G20 group of countries as part of an action plan to reduce market volatility by improving information on crop conditions using earth observations. The Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) is adopted under the same action plan. GEOGLAM and IGC collaborate as member organizations of AMIS Secretariat. GEOGLAM’s objective is to help stabilize markets and enhance food security by providing relevant and accurate information on global/regional/national crop production. It is designed to build on and strengthen existing national, regional and global systems. In 2017, 138 contributors from 62 organizations in 28 countries and 16 inter-governmental organizations were actively participating.

At the request of AMIS, GEOGLAM is providing Global Operational Crop Assessments, published in the AMIS Market Monitor. They are monthly crop condition assessments focusing on the main producing and exporting areas for wheat, maize, soybean and rice. The idea is to stabilize markets by avoiding unexpected food shocks.

Becker-Reshef described advances in the technology and methods used for earth observation as “a game changer” for the agricultural monitoring capabilities. There has been a revolution in cost and availability of satellite data, along with advances cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and GPS.

“It’s an exciting time for agricultural remote sensing,” she said.