You may well still think of ploughs and horse teams when you hear the term organic farming. But for organic farmers ecology and technology are not a contradiction in terms: The use of a milking robot in cowsheds doesn’t just mean that the daily routine no longer revolves around fixed milking times. The cows are also free to move around in the shed. Instead of having to be milked at fixed times, they can wander over to the milking machine independently when prompted by a full udder. This makes for more relaxed animals and less stress in the herd. The systems also record, for example, how often the cows chew the cud and how much exercise they get. This allows farmers to get a more accurate impression than used to be the case of how their livestock are doing and to respond sooner to symptoms of disease. But the use of technology could also optimise husbandry conditions in conventional agriculture. Robots might for example help muck out the stalls and reduce the number of pathogens by improving cleanliness. Feeding robots would for their part make it possible to tailor the feed to individual animals. Better animal welfare through technology is also where TÜV NORD sees the potential of digitalising farms. It will be possible to treat anaimals as individuals and strengthen animal welfare.

Along with the number of sensors and other digital technologies on fields and farms, the list of tasks for testing organisations such as TÜV NORD is of course also set to grow. If machines are going to function reliably over longer periods, then regular monitoring and testing of the sensors is going to be just as essential as validation of the data they collect. After all, the question of whether the highly complex systems can produce reliable results on which decisions can be based is a crucial one not just for the farmers.

At the same time, networked farms are opening up completely new possibilities for certification procedures. In this case, farmers submit to voluntary investigation by independent test organisations, enabling them to show that they meet specific standards in animal husbandry or food safety. Until now, the testers, who are known as auditors, have had to visit the farms and use the documents compiled by the farmer to review the situation, analyse data and systems, and collect samples. A principle that, notwithstanding how thorough everyone is, inevitably has its limitations. Even if the auditor doesn’t find any irregularities, the outcome might well have been different if he had picked another random samples. So in the future, the auditors will be able to access all the data from the networked operation from afar and use remote audits to derive a much more complete picture. The idea is for such remote monitoring not to replace site visits but instead to offer a meaningful complement to them – particularly for those areas on the farm which have until now been invisible to the auditors. Sensors or video cameras could in future reveal what is going on in silos or underground channels.

The sooner the problems are detected, the quicker they can be fixed and possible consequences prevented.