Would you like a supercomputer with your cattle herd?

Big Data: Armchair Rancher will harness the power of big data and AI, and give Alberta producers ‘a leg up’

Drawing on big databases and using AI to ‘scrape’ the internet produces info that ranchers can use to make better decisions faster, says David Wishart, an expert in both computing and biological sciences. The U of A professor is helping to develop an app that will put that treasure trove of info on a producer’s computer or smartphone in an easy-to-use form.
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The ‘ancestry.com’ of the cattle industry is in development — and the app could give Alberta ranchers a leg up on the rest of the industry.

Livestock Gentec, in collaboration with Alberta Innovates and the University of Alberta’s David Wishart, is creating an app that will help ranchers make better and faster decisions on the farm.

“It’s a push-pull app,” said Wishart, a professor in both the computing science and biological sciences departments and co-developer of the app, which is currently dubbed “Armchair Rancher.”

The concept is similar to ancestry.com, which has a large database and allows users to add their own data.

“We’re creating huge databases about climate, weather, soil condition, commodity prices and best practices,” he said.

A producer using Armchair Rancher can populate it with their own data about their farm, such as location, herd size and other general info.

“What Armchair Rancher is intended to do is get the family tree for all your cattle and provide you with some information based on past weather and climate records,” said Wishart. “It’s making predictions using information it scrapes from the web and various market sources and economic sources.”

So, for example, if a dry spring is forecast the app might suggest that the producer needs to buy extra feed, or that fertility might be affected.

Some of the data will be drawn from Livestock Gentec’s previous work, as well as Beefbooster and Herdtrax, and the app will operate in real time.

The project, is getting $481,000 from Alberta Innovates (one of eight projects to receive funding from the agency’s Smart Agriculture and Food Digitization challenge). The app will be free for Alberta ranchers, with all development costs paid for by the provincial government.

“If there’s evidence that it is successful and there’s market uptake, I suspect it will be a low-cost app,” said Wishart.

Ranchers can expect the finished product in about three years, but testing on initial versions of the app should begin in a year. It can be used on a desktop or smartphone but that’s just the conduit as all data will sit on the cloud or in a server, he said.

“Because it’s big data, it won’t fit on your computer or in your phone,” he said. “It does the tough computations, but the scenarios you want built are visible on your phone or on your computer screen.”

The app will not be taking or displaying private data.

“We’ll be building aggregate data that farmers enter, but there will be private data that will be associated with their login,” he said, adding that data will be protected.

Because it is hard to collect aggregate data from farmers, this app might help everyone have more knowledge about the industry, in the same way that a census allows people to have more knowledge of a population.

It’s a good example of how artificial intelligence and machine learning can benefit the agricultural community, he added. It will give cattle producers the same type of technology used in other sectors, such as dairy.

“In those other farming communities, Smart Ag has made a big difference,” said Wishart. “It has improved their productivity, it has reduced labour needs. It has taken a lot of the guesswork out of farming, and that’s what we hope to do.”

And that will boost the bottom line, he said.

“If this was to come into Alberta, but not elsewhere, it will give a huge leg up to Alberta farmers. They will be playing at a different level than other people. They will be able to make market decisions before other farmers because they will have this knowledge.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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