By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
Today’s farmer steps into a piece of machinery, punches in coordinates and the calibration of the machinery, works with a prescription and the machinery pretty much drives itself.
Steven Dyck, president and general manager of Western Tractor located in the Broxburn Business Park in Lethbridge County, said a lot of what Western Tractor’s Integrated Solutions department does is help farmers better understand the technology on board a farmer’s tech-based machinery.
That’s a lot of what Twan van Ham’s job is. He’s behind the computers, in what could be considered a control room and is Western Tractor’s integrated solutions manager. Western Tractor has four locations also including Taber, Burdett and Medicine Hat.
“We can have multiple computer chips or devices gathering data. We track everything from yield to exactly where they are in the field to all of the diagnostics of the machinery itself. The performance, what kind of horse power is being used. At the end of the year, van Ham can actually pull up a piece of equipment and print off a report and take it to the customer and say, you’re overpowered or underpowered or your guys are driving too fast in the field — all sorts of things. It just helps to have them better manage their fleet and optimize their equipment,” said Dyck. GPS technology makes tracking a farmer’s machinery possible.
One of the cool things though, Dyck added, is van Ham monitors maps of farmers’ fields and as a farmer goes through the field, van Ham sees the combine actually painting a field and can receive yield data from the machine.
“What we basically have is remote access to their machinery. At some point in the future, we will be in a position, I mean right now he can go look at what’s happening to that machine and try to diagnostically understand if there’s issues with it — but at some point, we will be able to take over that machine and actually try and repair and reboot remotely,” Dyck explained.
According to Dyck, what the world is seeing now and especially in southern Alberta is — the region is fairly unique.
“First of all, the diversity of crops we have. We have over 40 different crops grown in southern Alberta. On top of that, you throw in the intensive livestock operations, the specialty-type crops that do grow here, the irrigation that’s here and the progressive-ness of the farmers in this area — both Hutterite and non-Hutterite. We’ve really scaled now. We have many farms well north of 20,000 acres. You go to other parts of Western Canada and that’s not very common. The scale of their operations, the risks of their operations are significant now. To the point where many of them are not behind the wheel of their own equipment anymore. They’ve got hired help and some of these farming operations are multi-million dollar ventures and they require a different level of management — the complexity of their business. The fact they market their own product around the world now instead of through wheat boards and they’ve got multiple things coming at them that as a business owner now, they’ve got to spend more time managing that than actually operating the equipment,” said Dyck.
Dyck believes there’s a lot of change happening in agriculture right now. “It’s a very exciting time to be in this field,” he said.
If you think of farming as a dusty business — it’s not anymore, Dyck added.
“It’s very sophisticated. And, it requires an intense amount of support from a variety of players in the agricultural marketplace to make a farm successful. It’s really easy for a farmer to get upside down and it’s still one of the biggest gambles out there because you’re putting seed in the ground, you’re spending millions of dollars and hoping the rain comes,” said Dyck.
Dealerships, such as Western Tractor, have also become tech-help centres to assist farmers in learning how to manage their operations.
“Whether it’s the optimization of equipment in the field, monitoring the fleet to making sure we’re helping them manage their up-time,” said Dyck, adding to help the farmer better understand the equipment and the technology interface.
“A lot can go wrong and a lot of it is technology now, that pauses our down-time. It’s not the machinery,” he added.
One helpful piece of technology for a farmer from John Deere is a full-fledged weather station, as four or five probes can be put up in a farmer’s field with a base station
“They monitor moisture levels at multiple points down to four feet. We can look at the sub-moisture in a field. Particularly for a farmer who has land farther away and that’s what’s happening now, as farmers get bigger and bigger, their land isn’t continuous anymore, it’s all over the place,” he said.
Dyck added farmers can wake up in the morning and dial-up to the weather machine and look at the moisture levels, check the rain gauges, look at the wind speed and the weather and can decide whether they’re going to turn their pivot on or not.
“Rather than driving an hour to check their soil moisture itself. We’re just creating another easy button for them,” he said, adding the device can be either leased or purchased.
Another turn in technology, in regards to agriculture, are the men and women fixing and repairing the new machinery and its technology — the agricultural equipment technicians, who get some of their education from John Deere University in Regina, Sask.
“These guys have become more diagnostic experts. They are on a computer and an iPad and a laptop, as much as they are pulling wrenches. Not that the wrenches ever go away,” said Dyck.
Agriculture, Dyck explained, is going to continue to be something businesses and individuals need to support — most importantly it’s going to feed the planet.
“As the rest of the world wants to consume more and more Western-style foods, whether it’s Asia or other parts of South America, their diets are changing and they’re asking for more of the things we grow in our region. Not only that, our population is supposed to be nine billion in the next two decades. Already, we’ve increased the production off of our land considerably and the expectation is we’re going to continue to have to do that, without a huge amount more land for us to farm,” he said.
Water, Dyck added, is also becoming a huge concern around the globe.
“NASA’s latest reports about the California aquifers drying up is of a huge concern and water management is going to become increasingly important. We’re blessed in southern Alberta — we have 9,000 pivots in this area, which pretty much guarantees a crop for us.”
“As we spend more on the inputs creating the crop, the risk goes up for our producers but agriculture is alive and well and there’s absolutely going to be an increased demand over the next couple of decades,” he added.
Today, Dyck said, farmers have to become better at how fields are farmed.
“The independence that has come to the farmer to basically market their product anywhere in the world. If you talk to some of the smarter guys around here, they’re becoming very sophisticated in how they manage that. Lots of them are shipping their product south of the border. They are making contracts with terminals down south that can be netting them 20-30 per cent more than they would get here by shipping their grain to the coast,” he said, adding the livestock industry including hogs and cattle prices have also increased but the cost of feed, the cost of all the inputs to produce livestock and crops has also gone up in price.
“But still I’d say the profitability has come to agriculture again. The biggest challenge is how do you maintain that and keep it?”
Looking into the farming future — equipment is more efficient, faster and with more horse power than previously and will continue to evolve.
“We’re constantly looking at how we move that dial forward because time becomes probably the most precious commodity a farmer has,” said Dyck.
But, times they are a changing but the need for water in the fields continues to grow.
“What you will see, over the next little while, a far more significant focus on irrigation. And, better managing our water. Right now, most of the irrigation farmers in southern Alberta blanket apply. Just like they used to, in terms of their seeing strategy. But what we know is, that can create salinity patches, it can create inconsistencies in a crop and so, once we start to understand where we should apply water and when, we can have a more consistent cut-crop come off of that field,” said Dyck.
Have we fully harnessed technology?
According to Dyck, no — we have not.
“I think there’s an opportunity for us to continue to see technology play a more important role moving forward. The marriage of crop science, the equipment and the technology,” said Dyck.