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The next farm technology revolution

Rob Saik says big data will soon be a fact of life on farms, and producers will have to find ways to deal with it all

Farm technology has come a long way — the leap from horses to tractors seemed huge until computers, auto steer, and advances in seed and crop chemistry came along.

But the next technological leap is going to be the biggest yet, and it’s already underway, according to Rob Saik, CEO and founder of the Agri-Trend group of companies.

“We are in an age of exponential growth with devices connecting to the Internet,” said Saik, who is also the author of The Agriculture Manifesto: Ten Key Drivers That Will Shape Agriculture in the Next Decade, a look at technology in farming and food production.

Take a look at the equipment on display at Agri-Trade — virtually all of it can communicate wirelessly with the operator and, increasingly, other equipment.

With all these devices giving us data, Saik said he can see a rapid creation of a “central nervous system” for the farm.

Just as nerve fibres continually send data to the brain, farm devices of the future will monitor a host of things such as weather, soil moisture, heat and moisture in your bins, and even real-time data on what’s happening to plants in the field.

And all these devices will link with smartphones, he predicted.

“This is going to happen more rapidly than the adoption of the smartphone itself,” Saik said.

But as is always the case, it’s not what technology farmers have, but what do farmers want technology to do. While auto steer was adopted very quickly once it became easy to use, variable-rate technology has advanced rapidly but remains challenging because it’s not easy to get all the pieces to fit.

“There is a separation with grasping technology compared with guys ignoring it,” said Saik. “When the user interface becomes easy to use, more adaptation takes place.”

Big data

All these monitoring devices mean there will be a growing mountain of data on every farm. But without interpretation and implementation, data is useless, said Saik.

That is going to lead to artificial intelligence — software that relies on algorithms — to help farmers turn data into dollars, he said.

“The key to helping us sort data is to integrate technology,” said Saik. “The information will be too large and with tight margins, farmers can’t afford to guess.”

And data has a way of piling up. Saik’s company has been tracking farm data online since 2001 and now has more than 65 million acres of farm data in its system.

The key is to zero in on specifics that truly matter, he said.

“In southern Alberta, I coach a farm — every year they have low zinc levels on their cornfield,” said Saik. “I know they have to put zinc on. There is 13 to 14 years’ worth of data saying this is what it needs.”

Why bigger?

Another driver in farm technology is obvious to every visitor at any farm equipment show — machines are getting bigger.

It’s no coincidence this is happening at a time when it’s increasingly harder to find people willing to work on farms, said Saik.

“We can’t find qualified operators,” he said. “(But) we are able to drive 120-foot-wide sprayers travelling 18 miles an hour.”

The next logical step is to have driverless farm equipment, he said.

“If Google has cars that travel half a million miles without an accident, farmers will have combines that drive themselves.”

And if the thought of tractors driving themselves makes you laugh, consider that since 2012 Kinze Manufacturing has been working with three farmers in western Illinois to reduce labour at harvest time via driverless tractors pulling grain carts.

“The participating farmers have experienced significant efficiency gains during this year’s harvest,” the company stated in a press release. “Kinze continues to work toward full commercialization of the system.”

Ranches next

Many of the big changes have occurred on grain operations, with cattle producers waiting for their turn in the high-tech limelight.

But with cattle prices at an all-time high, that wait may soon be over.

“There will be a very sharp lift in technology in forage equipment and on the cattle end of things,” predicted Saik.

On the forage side, Vermeer introduced a conceptual fully continuous round baler in September. “(The baler) allows two bales to be formed simultaneously, enabling the operator to continually move forward without having to stop and wait for a finished bale to eject before moving on to the next bale,” boasts the Vermeer website.

Cattle producers can also use Bluetooth technology integrated in RFID tag readers and scale weigh-bars that connect to a tablet like the Gallagher TSi 2.

Keeping up with the latest technology is critical to sustaining efficient operations, said Saik.

And so shows like Agri-Trade are not only a chance to see the latest and greatest in new technology, but also a chance to think about what’s driving innovations and what the future might hold.

About the author

Contributor

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.

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