The bucolic image of a farmer waking up at the crack of dawn and carrying a pail to the barn to milk the cows as the sun peeps over the horizon has become a thing of the past. These days, he’ll most likely be checking his smartphone while sipping his first coffee of the day.
Depending on the type of farm, he may be using his phone to monitor his pigs, ensure the robotic milking machines are working properly, or even go over the data collected from the last drone flight to see how his crops are doing and decide what needs to be done next.
As has always been the case, economics is the main driver behind such innovations. Farmers know the challenges of trying to do more with less, and they’ve always, since the dawn of agriculture, sought ways to lighten their personal loads. That led to the first use of animals to pull plows and carts, as well as the introduction of more complicated machinery. And when steam and internal combustion engines first arrived, farmers wasted little time in putting them to use.
Over the last century, the family farm has evolved on a never-before-seen scale. With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at five ways technology is changing life on the farm.
1. Highly automated plant factories
Far from what we would think of as the traditional plant factory, Spread, a company in Kyoto, Japan, is developing a highly automated Vegetable Factory. Yes, that’s the actual name, and it will produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day.
As you read this, the Vegetable Factory is preparing to go into production. Adopting all the technology it can, the company has set the objective to grow lettuce with minimal energy input and an absolute minimal environmental impact. Robots take care of everything, from planting and harvesting to evaluating light and moisture, and ensuring all is well.
The 25 employees in the massive facility will be there as farmers, but for the most part, human hands will never come in contact with the produce. Meanwhile, the factory will put 10 million heads of lettuce on the market in Japan annually.
But before you think this must take a terrible environmental toll, think again: the impact is less than that of conventional field crop operation, thanks to the use of automated cultivation, extensive water recycling and a specialized LED lighting system developed by Spread. In fact, labour costs are reduced by half, energy costs by 30 percent and construction costs by another 25 percent compared with Spread’s existing plant factory.
A full 98 percent of the water is recycled. In a regular garden, a head of lettuce requires 10.7 litres (three gallons) of water to mature. At Spread’s other lettuce factory, where most of the work is still done by humans, water use has been cut to 0.825 litres (0.22 gallons) per head of lettuce. In the highly automated facility, a mere sip (0.11 litres/0.03 gallons of water) is used per head of lettuce.
The company has been developing its plant factories since 2007, when it opened its first facility in Kameoka. It took six years of trial and error before the factory became profitable. Today, it produces 21,000 heads of lettuce every day.
Spread is looking to create a technological model that can be put pretty much anywhere on the planet, providing maximum food output with a minimum of labour and energy cost.
“We do not think plant factories will solve all of the food problems,” says Spread CEO Shinji Inada. “However, we want to be able to bring fresh vegetables and prosperity to people around the world by promoting agriculture as a whole with the cooperation of the conventional farmers, continuing to put efforts into solving food and environmental problems, and expanding our business activities that can contribute to society.”
2. Robotic milking
A century ago, many a Canadian boy and girl began their day by getting up to help milk the cows before breakfast. The arrival of the first milking machines saved a great deal on labour, but the practice of getting up at or before dawn to do chores and later heading back into the barn in the evening continues. For dairy farmers, this is a seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year process that never ends.
For Serena Shufelt and Steven Neil, the robotic milking machine has been a boon to their farm and family life. Milking about 40 cows at any given time of the year, they decided on a robotic system to free up time to put toward raising their young family and running the rest of the operation. Neil also works off the farm and is sometimes gone for several days at a time.
“I really enjoy robotic milking,” says Shufelt, who is the fourth generation to operate the farm in Brigham, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “I was very apprehensive about the idea when we first starting looking into the possibility of putting in a robot. After visiting many robot installations and seeing for ourselves the overall well-being of the animals and the farmers, it was a go.”
In a traditional dairy barn, the cattle are lined up in rows, with the farmer moving among the cows to wash udders and attach the milkers. The milk is then piped into a holding tank in the adjoining milk house.
At Shufelt and Neil’s farm, the century-old barn was converted to a system where the cows come to the milking machine. The machine reads an electronic tag on each cow’s neck. The robot’s computer knows when the cow was last milked, how much it has produced and how much grain it should get while being milked. Once it’s finished, the cow is released and can roam about the barn or out into the barnyard or pasture.
All of that data can be analyzed by the farmer, allowing the farmer to spot problems and make adjustments as necessary. If cows try to freeload an extra meal, the computer knows and releases them back to mill about with their companions. Shufelt says the cows are happier, getting milked when they want and eating when it suits them.
“With regular and proper maintenance, the robot is very reliable and suffers only a few breakdown moments,” Shufelt explains. “When the robot experiences a problem or senses something is not correct, it calls my cellphone to tell me the issue. Sometimes it just advises me that something is not right, or it advises me that it shut down because there is something that must be fixed in order to continue working correctly and safely.”
“In terms of labour, there is a lot of saving,” she says. “Chores are limited to cleaning, feeding and herd supervision. We still do chores twice a day, but they don’t need to be at a regular time. I’ve done chores at 11 p.m. or even 2 p.m. There’s no need for regular employees, but if you want to get away, you still need someone to oversee the operations. That’s a lot fewer hours spent milking the cows!”
The use of robotic milking systems is proving highly popular in Europe, especially in large herds, where there may be 400 to 500 cows. René Meyer, CEO of SAC Nederland, estimates that by 2025 half of all commercial dairy cattle in the European Union will be milked by robotic milking machines.
3. Electronic pig sorting
On another part of Shufelt and Neil’s Iwanna Farm, 800 pigs run free in a barn. In October 2014, the couple installed a system that directs the pigs through an electronic scale system. If a pig has reached market weight, it’s directed to one area or returned to the general population for continued feeding.
“It’s a big change from taking each individual pig out of a pen, getting it onto a scale, marking it, putting it back in the pen, then getting the pig out to ship another day,” says Shufelt. “Now the pigs run free in the barn, and when the time comes to start weighing the pigs, all we do is close a few gates and turn on the scale. The pigs go through the scale to get to where the food is, get weighed, and then are sorted to the shipping section on the left or to the ‘no shipping’ section on the right. The pigs on the right can return to the other side of the scale via a one-way gate. All the data is kept and is displayed on the computer in our office. It will keep track of the number of pigs that have gone through and were weighed, the number ready to ship, the average weight and so on.”
The system is more than just a labour saver for farmers. It also means less stress on the animals, as they aren’t physically corralled time and again until they reach market weight.
4. Driverless tractors
Move over, Google self-driving car, the operator-less tractor is already hard at work.
There are a number of automated tractors out there. In one case, a Manitoba grain farmer decided he wanted one too, so he built it, despite having relatively little technical background.
Matt Reimer has become something of a celebrity in Kilarney, where he grows mainly wheat and canola on his 2,500-acre farm. Using a GPS device, a bunch of readily available remote-controlled components and computer code (which he learned to write), Reimer installed his system on a large John Deere tractor that pulls a grain cart during harvest. Using a tablet, he tells it where to go and it takes care of the rest. Part of the programming includes a “go to here” function, where the tractor locates the combine and automatically positions itself for the grain transfer.
In an online video, Reimer explains the process from the seat of his combine. The robotic tractor pulls up alongside, Reimer empties the combine’s grain tank into the trailer, and then the John Deere drives to a waiting truck for unloading. The video made Reimer an Internet sensation.
But unlike conventional inventors, Reimer isn’t patenting anything. The programming is all open source, and he actively encourages other farmers to use and improve upon his design.
Expect to see more self-driving tractors in the coming years. Several agricultural machinery manufacturers are working on their own systems for spraying crops, seeding and harvesting. John Deere is developing a system using GPS and pre-programmed routes, while Case IH has a supervised-autonomy system, where a tractor with a driver is followed by a second tractor, either behind or to one side, depending on the task at hand. Kinze’s autonomous tractor operates much like Reimer’s machine.
It seems like everywhere you turn these days you’re hearing about drones. Well, now they’re being put to use to provide a bird’s-eye view of the farm.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are being put to work to do everything from evaluating crops to locating wayward cattle. Farmers are mapping fields, checking out wet or dry spots, and making decisions on how to address problems. Conservation groups are even using drones to monitor hard-to-reach nature areas.
Among the various companies marketing drone assistance for farmers is Precision Drone Canada. Using a combination of imaging techniques, including infrared, the drones can map out a field, allowing the farmer to spot problem areas without having to go out and trample his crops. Colour-coded maps show the producer which areas are thriving and where a little extra fertilizer or perhaps pesticide may be required.
Proponents say the UAVs save both time and money, allowing producers to use pesticides or fertilizers only where necessary. Using military terminology, Agribotix, another firm seeking to fill the niche, calls it “agricultural intelligence.”
According to the Agribotix website, “It’s so easy to use that you can create your mission onsite and autonomously launch, fly the mission and return to the landing site.” The company’s Enduro quad copter even comes “bundled with everything you need.”
With these and other technologies, life on the farm is getting a whole lot different, changing the way farmers connect with their herds and crops. The ultimate jack-of-all-trades, farmers can now add computer programming and remote piloting to their skill sets.
Watch and learn
For more on farm tech, check out these videos:
Drones and farming
Robotic strawberry harvesting
An editor with 15-plus years in the publishing business, Catalina Margulis’ byline spans travel, food, decor, parenting, fashion, beauty, health and business. When she’s not chasing after her three young children, she can be found painting her home, taming her garden and baking muffins.