Smart technology: buy in or move over

Industry representatives share their insights on the benefits that new tools offer for tracking costs and simplifying workloads.

by Geoff Geddes

Interest is heating up in the brave new world of smart technology, so trying to take a pass on progress is like opting out of winter.

For farmers who are undecided about this technology, the choice is clear: embrace it or risk being left in the cold.

“About 15 years ago, I was talking at a crop production show in Saskatoon about new technology called autosteer that works with GPS,” Troy Prosofsky, Bayer CropScience Canada’s climate business manager for Saskatchewan, says to Better Farming.

“A lot of farmers felt they didn’t need it, and now everyone has GPS on at least one piece of equipment.

“In this digital age, smart technology is advancing so quickly, and it can be hard to keep up,” he adds.

While the term “smart” stems from the acronym self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology, smart tech really earns its name by enabling previously inanimate objects such as cars and tractors to talk back to the user and even help guide his or her behaviour.

Today, the cutting edge of farming technology – which includes everything from digital sensors monitoring soil conditions to weather observation systems – is operated by controls placed on the land, in equipment or in farmers’ hands.

Working smarter

One of those producers is Jordan Lindgren, who runs a 14,000-acre enterprise near Norquay, Sask. with his wife Jennifer.

Jordan Lindgren
    Fallyn Oxley photo

“Smart technology impacts our business in so many ways,” says Lindgren.

“A prime example is the Climate FieldView device from Bayer CropScience that we recently acquired. The unit plugs into a data port on machinery – such as tractors, combines or seeders – and transmits data to an iPad in the machine, which then uploads this data to the Cloud.”

Depending on the equipment, devices like this one can gather information on seeding rates, crop protection products and nitrogen applications. Farmers can access that data on their cellphones and see which areas of their fields perform the best and the worst.

Producers may use that information to measure the effects of decisions on crop performance. Farmers can create customized fertility programs for the current season, as well as customized seeding and fertility plans for the next season, to optimize yields and profits.

“Information is only as good as the person entering it, so eliminating input mistakes can make a big difference in the quality of the output,” says Lindgren.

Learning to share

Part of this technology’s power is that data analysis need not be limited to the farmer.

“The neat thing about our platform and others is the ability to share information with trusted advisers,” says Prosofsky.

“If you wish, your agronomist may easily view what you’re growing, the seeding rates and what products you put down. When something goes wrong, (your agronomist) can look at factors like the weather that day, see if it was too hot or cold, and help get to the bottom of the problem.

“Growers want to know why something happened and how to prevent it, and this technology helps tell that story,” he adds.

When farmers seek success in the field, they often start with seedbed preparation. Smart technology can help significantly.

“We just released AFS Soil Command, which is the next step in sensing technology for tillage tools,” says Chris Lursen, Case IH’s tillage marketing manager.

“Our focus is … rendering soil management or tillage passes more agronomically correct and using smart technology to make that happen,” he adds.

Though this sensing capability is almost everywhere in farming nowadays, tillage was one of the last frontiers.

“If you create a more ideal seedbed, your passes will be more efficient, the sprayer runs faster as it’s not bouncing, and you may even improve your harvest,” says Lursen.

Your wish is its command

The AFS Soil Command system provides instant feedback to the operator in the field, who can then make rapid adjustments and adapt to changing conditions. For example, the system alerts the producer if the shanks begin to flex and angle down, and create an uneven seedbed.

“In the future, smart technology could enable more site-specific tillage. Every field (could be) treated differently, just as it is for seeding and fertilizing,” says Lursen.

Smart technology largely feeds farmers’ growing desire for data.

“What qualifies as critical data will be different for everyone,” says Derek Stykalo, territory sales manager for Bayer CropScience Canada.

“You might want a yield or vegetation map, while your neighbour requires a rainfall summary.

“It’s a matter of homing in on what’s really important to your operation, and there’s a good chance that smart technology will have what you’re looking for,” he adds.

The applications of smart technology are seemingly endless.

Recently, “we upgraded to a fuel lock system,” says Lindgren. “It is a control box that runs off a cell tower, and each employee must input a code to access fuel.

Fuel Lock System
    Fallyn Oxley photo

“The litres each person uses are logged automatically. I receive daily, weekly and monthly reports on individual and total fuel consumption. Apart from always knowing when to order more fuel, I see how much fuel it takes to get a crop off and how that figures into our total costs.”

The Lindgrens also adopted an hour-tracking app for their staff. It adds even more data to the mix.

“Employees clock in and out of work on their phones but, before they can clock out, they must enter remarks about what they did that day,” says Lindgren. “It’s a great way to ensure people are paid promptly and accurately, and I can see how many hours we’re spending moving grain, harvesting or doing repairs.”

Automation designation

Regardless of the form of smart technology being implemented, automation is a common thread.

“We look at automation in five categories,” says Leo Bose, AFS & harvesting marketing manager, North America for Case IH.

“The first one is guidance, which involves hands-free steering and turning of machinery with no input from the operator. The next is coordination and optimization: how do we coordinate vehicles daily or hourly to ensure they are at the right place at the right time?”

Operator-assisted automation in AFS Harvest Command is another category. The goal is increased productivity and efficiency. AFS Harvest Command proactively senses and optimizes machine settings to maximize grain quality and grain saving, regardless of operator skill level.

“The last two areas relate to autonomy,” says Bose. “Supervised autonomy refers to vehicles that are monitored but unmanned, while full autonomy brings the other four categories together, so you can remotely operate an entire fleet in the same field.

“We’re not there yet, but (that technology) is coming,” he adds.

Among the benefits of automation for farmers, two stand out: grain quality and maximum throughput.

CNH Industrial Grain Harvest
    CNH Industrial photo

“How do I optimize grain quality and save more of what I grow?” asks Bose. “Having a system that continually monitors and adjusts your machine allows you to focus on that question.

“Throughput is about maximizing total hours on the machine and minimizing the cost of ownership. How do I reduce those hours while using the machine to its full capacity?”

There is a shortage of skilled labour in farming, but properly deployed smart technology can transform an operator from an inexperienced one to an expert.

“This technology is like having a coach looking over (the operator’s) shoulder,” says Bose. “As he or she goes through the field, the operator gets feedback that helps him or her understand exactly how the machine is running.”

More data, anyone?

Though automation is critical to smart technology, it is data that drives progress on so many fronts.

“Smart technology is all about saving time and money,” says Prosofsky. “Farmers want to be sustainable and do the right thing, and those who don’t hop on the data collection bandwagon will be years behind their neighbours.

“By contrast, those who embrace data will see long-term benefits and find that it is getting easier to collect … more and more features will be introduced to make data collection even simpler.”

Though the myriad of uses for smart technology may hurt the brain, Lindgren found the decision to use it was a no-brainer.

“There are so many benefits to the operation which we can trace to smart technology,” he says. “It saves us considerable time and makes it easier to track everything that’s happening on farm.

Jordan Lindgren Technology
    Fallyn Oxley photo

“Most importantly, this technology provides accurate data to determine our cost of production and to price our grain to be profitable. Based on what we learn, we can decide what areas are making money and which ones are dragging us down.

“Good employees are also hard to come by, so if we can make their lives easier, we will retain our greatest assets,” Lindgren adds.

While some workers may adapt better than others to smart technology, farmers should guard against making assumptions.

“Just because you are a certain age, it doesn’t mean that this technology is not for you,” says Prosofsky.

“These tools are becoming easier to use, and there is not a demographic out there that isn’t employing them.

“There are farmers over 60 who can use these platforms and love them, and there are 24-year-olds who are completely disinterested. Sometimes I must do more of a sales pitch with millennials than I do with boomers,” he says.

“Whatever your age, if you are thinking about tippytoeing into digital agriculture, I urge you to jump in with both feet.” BF

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