From aerial drones, to controlled irrigation and drainage systems, to machinery that manages the consumption and output of livestock, and portable factories that allow the product to be packaged where it is produced, technology is becoming more and more prevalent in agriculture, those attending an agricultural technology conference in Meaford heard on Thursday.
“It is a changing time in the history of agriculture in North America,” said Professor Scott Shearer, chair of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University and the keynote speaker at Grey County’s Ag 4.0.2 at Meaford Hall.
He said there will be ample opportunity to use technology to advance agricultural substantially, and it is coming fast and soon.
“I believe that technology truly is the fourth revolution in agriculture,” said Shearer, who spoke at the conference through an audio link from Columbus, Ohio. “I think there is going to be some tremendous opportunities in terms of productivity gains, in terms of profitability and in terms of connecting consumers with the origins of agricultural products, as well as allowing consumers to know what went into those products and how they were produced.”
Shearer touched on a number of technologies that will affect sustainability in agriculture. He spoke of sensor networks to gather data about the condition of the soil and the crops growing in it, and controlled irrigation and drainage systems such as tile that can be blocked off.
Shearer said the Great Lakes region, which receives an abundance of precipitation, will remain a very productive region in terms of agriculture, but it is important to properly manage the water resources and to ensure they are protected.
Shearer also talked about the advancement of technology in controlled environment agriculture such as greenhouses, which will drive the way food is produced and allow food to be produced closer to home.
In terms of animal agriculture, Shearer said there is a proliferation of technology that allows producers to adjust the diet of an animal, such as a dairy cow, to ensure peak milk production.
He also sees companies connecting the production side to the processing side in the future, with small packaging plants being placed right on farms.
“I could envision a point in time when some of the logistics companies have kind of intervened and move the finished product from the farm directly to the consumer,” said Shearer. “The days of brick and mortar stores may be coming to an end.”
Other technologies that are advancing rapidly are sensing technologies on crop planters and drones that fly over the crops producing remote-sensed imagery, all data which is being used to increase yields, productivity and profitability.
“By themselves, machined-based information is very valuable and remote-sensing information is very valuable,” said Shearer. “When you merge the two data sets together you have tremendous potential.”
Shearer said that many of the technologies are scale neutral, so they can work on smaller farms, such as many of those that dot Grey County.
“For example, robotic milkers typically support 45 to 50 cows, and are purchased in multiples depending on herd size,” Shearer said. “If my projections are correct relative to field machinery, 100 -hp. autonomous tractors will scale similarly to robotic milkers – one tractor for every 750 acres.”
Shearer said the move to smaller autonomous equipment will be partly spurred by a need to alleviate soil compaction, which is an issue with the large equipment being used on fields.
“This is the area I think is ripe for robotics,” said Shearer. “Watch what is going to happen in the next five to 10 years with the proliferation of robots in agriculture.
“It is much closer than you think.”
It is the third year that Grey County has held the agricultural technology conference, with this year’s event having a particular focus on technology’s role in soil health and conservation.
One panel at the conference was dedicated to soil health and improving productivity through proper soil management and planting practices.
The crowd heard from Jake Kraayenbrink of AgriBrink CTIS, which has developed and now sells tire inflation and deflation systems for machinery to reduce soil compaction in fields.
Also on the panel was Jordanna Kalis of SoilOptix Inc., which does topsoil mapping for farmers to allow them to make better decisions on nutrient management applications for their land.
Taylor Vokes, an agronomist with Sprucedale Agromart talked about the work she does crop scouting, soil sampling and her use of a program to make better use of growers’ nutrient and yield data.
Listeners also heard first-hand from local producers and how they have used technology in their own operations, as well as some of the realities they have faced, both good and bad, in succession planning. Speakers included Courtney Denard of Valleykirk Farms, Arlen Taylor of Cedar Crest Trout Farms, and Jeff Torrie of Torrie Farms Inc.
The conference also included a session on blockchain in agriculture, where Peter Vincent of Grain Discovery spoke of how blockchain will allow consumers to essentially trace their food from the time it was a seed to when it lands on their kitchen table.
After the morning sessions, participants took part in tours of area agricultural operations, including the Bay Growers apple packing facilities in the Beaver Valley, Good Family Farms south of Meaford and the Sharedon Farms silo facilities at Mennonite Corners southwest of Owen Sound.