Bayer’s Sky High Hopes for a Digital Farming Revolution

In September 2016, Bayer announced the acquisition of Monsanto for a lofty $66bn valuation (18.6x EBITDA). Was it a reckless move or a bold bet on digital farming?

Digital Farming

Climate change will make it difficult for farmers to continue to supply enough food for the world’s growing population. While the world will add three billion people by 2050, arable land per capita is expected to decline by around 17%. An increase in food production of 60% is required to feed the planet, but less land and consumer resistance to genetically modified yield enhancing seed varieties means innovative solutions are needed to close the gap between this requirement and current production levels.

The marriage of digital analytics with one of the world’s oldest industries is the solution that has gained the most traction. Today each farmer goes through more than 40 major planting decisions each season. Digital analytics can be used to capture and analyze data and make recommendations specific to farmers along the entire planting cycle so that these decisions can be optimized to deliver more yield while also improving sustainability. [1]

Monsanto’s Digital Efforts

Monsanto, the biotech seed giant, made its leap into digital farming in November 2013 with the $1bn acquisition of Climate Corporation, a San Francisco based startup (founded by former Google employees) which was using agronomics, climatology and the power of “big data” to improve farmer decision making. [2] As the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, Monsanto has a library of hundreds of seeds and terabytes of data on their yields. “By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil and weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.” [3]

Through a series of acquisitions, Monsanto expanded the capabilities of its core digital product, FieldView Drive, which allows a farmer to connect his/her tractor to a device that can transmit field data to an IPad and use that information to understand seed performance by field, soil zone and see a side by side view of planted areas and yield data. [4] With small players entering the ag-tech space, Monsanto transformed FieldView into a centralized platform for transmitting data from various sources of equipment and sensor technologies, giving farmers a central spot to access the latest technologies. [5] Monsanto believes the benefits of Climate Corp’s user base and technologies, avoiding the need to develop their own systems for creating farmer accounts, securely transmitting data and payments, are enticing enough to attract third-parties to its platform. [4]

As of August 2016, FieldView was being used on 100 million U.S. acres, with 15 million using its premium services. Monsanto expects the product to reach 400 million acres by 2025 and to be profitable by 2020. [6]. For farmers, the results have been very positive. “[Those] who have tried Monsanto’s system say it has pushed up yields by roughly 5% over a two-year period, a feat no other single intervention could match.” [3]

Transforming its Organization

With a mission to unlock “digital yield” through predictive analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) technology, Monsanto is also rethinking the role of information technology in its organization. Traditionally serving as a “back office” business support function, Monsanto’s IT department is now being challenged to be a “shaper of demand” and help drive forward-thinking business strategies. “Monsanto, at the end of the day, is a yield based company. We are trying to increase the yield, reduce input costs, increase output, and drive that more sustainably. If we are a yield based company, think about the power of unlocking digital and digital yield for our company, in all that we do…IT delivers the digital platforms that [unlocks that],” said James Swanson, Monsanto’s CIO. [7]

The Merger and Future

While Bayer’s management deflected a question during the M&A conference call on how much value was ascribed to Monsanto’s digital agriculture platform, Werner Baumann, Bayer’s CEO, did reveal, “the way new technologies can change business models, and with the significant investment and Monsanto really being at the forefront of this development, this is going to be highly valuable.”

Bayer’s longer term vision is an outcome driven value proposition. “We are not simply selling farmers seeds, traits, and crop protection products, but optimized field level prescriptions to improve on-site decision making and execution. In the future, we should be able to offer outcomes-based solutions, for example a disease or a weed-free acre, or maybe even a yield guarantee, to give some examples,” said Liam Condon, Head of Crop Science Division. [1]

Lastly, a major slice of the opportunity resides in developing countries. How can Bayer take these technologies to farmers in Brazil, India and Africa to bridge the productivity gap vs. farmers in the U.S.? How will Climate Corp’s large-scale grower platform perform in a small farm holding setting? [8]

(775)

[1] Bayer AG And Monsanto Joint Investor Conference Call M&A Call – Final 2016, , Linthicum

[2] Michael Specter, “Climate by the Numbers: Can a Tech Firm Help Farmers Survive Global Warming?,”     The New Yorker, November 11, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/11/climate-by-numbers accessed November 2016

[3] Digital disruption on the farm; Schumpeter 2014, The Economist Intelligence Unit N.A., Incorporated, London

[4] “Biotechnology Companies; The Climate Corporation Launches New Climate FieldView DriveTM to Simplify Data Collection, Storage and Visualization for Farmers”, 2016, Biotech Business Week, , pp. 41

[5] “The Climate Corporation to Create Industry’s First In-Field Sensor Network to Feed Its Analytics Platform and to Build First Centralized Platform for Industry-Wide Digital Ag Technology Development,” The Climate Corporation press release (August 17, 2016)

[6] Karl Plume, “Monsanto’s Climate Corporation seen as profitable by 2020,” Reuters, September 1, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-monsanto-interview-idUSKCN11631D accessed November 2016

[7] Interview by James D. Swanson, Boardroom Insiders¸ Forbes, February 2016

[8] Michelle Donahue, “Smart Farms: Big Data Meets Big Ag,” PC Mag, http://uk.pcmag.com/news/85916/smart-farms-big-data-meets-big-ag accessed November 2016

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1 thought on “Bayer’s Sky High Hopes for a Digital Farming Revolution

  1. The use of technology on the field can definitely improve yields. Monsanto’s technology in the seeds is only as good as the farmer using it correctly. If Monsanto / Bayer can leverage the seed technology with analytics in the field it can create a better value proposition to customers by teaching them how to farm correctly. The higher the yields the farmers get, the happier they are with Monsanto. This business model can certainly disrupt other seed producers given the added value that Monsanto could bring.

    How can Monsanto increase the adaption of this technology to small farmers using its seeds?
    Many farmers are worried about connectivity as cell phone coverage may be limited? Has Monsanto thought about offline data logging and then upload once the farmer is in a zone with cell phone coverage?

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