The verdict is in: technology can make ag more sustainable.

What role does technology play in improving the sustainability of Canadian agriculture? According to Dan Heaney, vice president of global agronomy for Farmers Edge,
a crucial one.

“We talk about sustainable agriculture as this balance of the economic, the environmental and the social,” he says. “Farmers have to meet the economic burden to keep their farms viable. They can’t do much for the other two aspects if they’re not in business. Precision agriculture technologies provide a win-win situation in that they enhance economic viability while improving the environmental performance of the farm.”

The technologies in question are all about data – collecting it, managing it and making it work for producers.

Farmers Edge recently announced a partnership with Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to develop what Heaney calls “an enhanced data management system for farmers with a real emphasis on sustainability.” Farmers Edge, along with its partners, will contribute $12.2 million to the project, while SDTC will contribute $6.1 million.

The project’s chief deliverable will be an advanced version of the company’s FarmCommand system – an integrated hardware and software system designed to collect field, input and farm equipment data to help farmers fine-tune management.
“It becomes a series of decision support tools that will touch every major decision that farmers make in their crop production cycle so that they’re making data-driven decisions with the goal of optimizing inputs,” he says.

Data, Data, Data

Traditionally, site-specific crop management involves the use of global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite navigation systems to map variations in a field to a high degree of detail, allowing for precise application of inputs using variable rate (VR) technologies.

These days, data is collected from a wider range of sources.
Companies like Farmers Edge collect data using satellite and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery, as well as more advanced image collection systems like mid-wave infrared and hyperspectral imagery. They also collect machine data from farm equipment to track efficiency, and the company’s network of 1,500 local weather stations provides farm-
specific weather data from across the country.

Heaney says Farmers Edge also has a database of soil test information dating back almost 10 years, a library of in-season imagery and a database of yield maps.

“With all of this data, the farmer can make data-driven decisions with the goal of optimizing inputs,” he says. “The technology is leading edge right now and in five to 10 years it’ll be state of the art. The digital farm will be the norm.”

But precision agriculture technology isn’t just about managing inputs; it’s about managing the land itself.

Warren Genik is chief technology officer at Green Aero Tech. His company offers custom UAV imaging and data processing and packaging, with the goal of identifying drainage problems on clients’ operations.

“A lot of farmers are identifying that they’re losing acres to excess moisture,” he says. “With the price of land, they aren’t able to go out and buy more land, so they need to better farm their existing acres. With better drainage, they’re able to gain back those acres.”

Genik’s company uses Real Time Kinematic (RTK) and UAV drones to map fields and identify how to “get their water under control,” which Genik says is a crucial piece to deal with before farmers focus on input management.

“Once we have that foundational field data figured out for them on the water side, there will be a lot more opportunity to look at the crop itself and see how it’s growing throughout the season,” he says.

The way of the future, in Genik’s view, is autonomously flying drones that can directly alert producers of potential issues in the field, but that technology has a ways to go. “Right now we can go out and collect that data anytime, but it has to go through an agronomist,” he says.

The Vision and the Reality

Travis Wiens is a co-owner of Annex Agro Ltd., a Milestone, Sask.-based DuPont Pioneer sales agency that also offers agronomy services.

Wiens has been a sales agent for Farmers Edge since 2008. He says 20 per cent of his customer base uses Farmers Edge products – a few of these customers “dabble” with the technology, but many use VR systems across their entire operations.

“We’ve been saying VR technology is the way of the future for five years,” he says. “Not all farmers have bought in to precision agriculture technologies. But I think VR has come a long way in terms of adoption.”

The 4R nutrient stewardship philosophy – right source, right rate, right time, right place – is foundational to VR technology, and Wiens believes this kind of stewardship pays in the end. “We’re able to take the farmer’s fertility and put it where the product is most needed and where it makes most economic sense – just managing that fertilizer dollar a lot better,” he says.

It also means better land efficiency. “The way we explain it to growers is that it’s a bell curve – on some land you overapply fertilizer, and on some you underapply, so only half the field is getting the right amount of fertilizer. These technologies allow us to match fertilizer to yield potential.”

Technologies such as the ever-more sophisticated precision agriculture offerings can mean greater efficiency on the farm and improved economic, social and environmental sustainability. If knowledge equals power, more data equals smarter decision-making for farmers and agri-retailers alike. 

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