Ag 4.0

Farmers turn to tech to streamline operations

Posted on Oct 29, 2019 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Today’s dairy farmers have more data than ever before about their cows and crops.

With their cows wearing a specialized collar that tracks steps, milk production and rumination, farmers like Bruce Wichman are turning to technology to run more efficient operations as farms struggle with low milk prices and finding a stable workforce.

The collars are just one tech tool in use at Wichman Farms, which is just north of Appleton. It also utilizes a feeding robot to ensure the right mix and amount of food is deposited in front of the cows as well as a robotic feeder in the calf barn that helps teach the young animals how to drink.

When cows are ready to be milked, they step into one of four automatic milking machines. The animal’s collar is then scanned, making sure it’s the right time to milk as well as keeping track of how much milk is produced.

Wichman, one of the farm’s owners, says the dairy made the switch to robotic milkers in 2013 and hasn’t looked back. “With the robots — whether it is the feeders or the milkers — it means we need fewer people to get the job done. Finding labor is tough,” he says, adding if something goes wrong with a milker, a farm employee receives a text message so he or she can respond.

Wichman Farms is not alone in using technology. During the last several years, farmers have implemented technology to do everything from tracking rumination to using blockchain to share a complete “farm to fork” life cycle for customers.

“Technology advancements have led to ‘smart farming’ or ‘precision agriculture,’” says Brad Cook, partner and agribusiness industry leader for Wipfli. “Farmers are able to use these computing technologies to enhance crop and livestock production.”

Kaukauna-based Milk Source, which operates dairies in Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri, tags all its cows and calves with electronic identification, which provides an easy way to scan and track animals if they’re moved to a different pen. John Vosters, vice president of livestock for Milk Source, says the dairy uses a program called Bovisync to store its animal information.

“All of our herdsmen carry a phone with the Bovisync app that has all of this info that can be used to make treatment or breeding decisions,” he says. “We can also track movements and ruminations of cattle with some new technology that we are implementing at one of our farms. This will give us the ability to track a cow’s whereabouts 24/7.”

Vosters says the herdsmen also look at the information to determine whether a cow is eating normally, is in estrus (receptive to breeding) or is calving. That type of information is invaluable, he says.

In the field

GPS was a real game changer for farmers when it came to planting their crops, says Greg Blonde, Waupaca County Agriculture Extension agent with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. The tool allows farmers to get precise location information when it comes to planting crops and applying nutrients.

A few years ago, Blonde recognized a need to create an app that could help farmers determine the best time to harvest and sell their crops by using data about pricing combined with the size and quality of the farmers’ crop. To get the project off the ground, he worked with a friend who was just beginning to make  apps.

Today, Blonde has three apps that evaluate the best time to sell wet corn, standing hay and corn sileage. He says the app focused on selling wet corn was especially helpful this year due to the poor growing season.

“There’s a lot of immature corn, and the app does all the math for you,” Blonde says. “It looks at where current prices are, you add in how much you have to sell and it gives you an approximate price so you know whether or not it’s time to sell.”

Technology is increasing rapidly throughout the ag industry, so it made sense to develop useful tools farmers could access from their mobile phones, Blonde says.

“For the younger generation, they are used to apps, and it’s natural for them to want to go in that direction,” he says. “When you think about how much you use mobile devices in your life, it’s no different for people in ag.”

Once one of Blonde’s apps is downloaded, it can run without Wi-Fi or cell service — minus the up-to-the-minute pricing. In rural areas where coverage can be spotty, that ability is key, Blonde says. “The apps really help take out some of the guesswork about when you should sell.”

Users can also send the information they’ve gathered via email or text to another person. “I’ve worked with some farmers where I’ve sent them the information I had right to their email so it was there when they got back to the house,” Blonde says. “It’s a handy tool.”

The app was designed to allow users to view it easily on a 4- to 6-inch screen. “It’s very intuitive to use,” Blonde says. “The apps have made me more efficient at my job, and I’m finding it’s really helping producers and other ag professionals.”

For Milk Source, which raises crops at all its dairies to feed its herds, technology has made it easier to track field health, says Matt Wichman, the business’s director of agronomy. He says using medium-resolution satellite imagery whenever it’s available is a big help.

“That bird’s eye view allows me to monitor the good and bad spots in the field and allows me to be more efficient when I’m in the fields,” Wichman says.

Drones also help visually inspect areas. “Simply put, I can put a drone to scout out an area that is a half-mile walk,” he continues. “It’s an easy and efficient tool for providing significant information about our land and water resources.”

Managing all that data

As concerns increase about food safety and customers are more interested in where their food comes from, blockchain could play a huge role in agriculture, Cook says.

“The data gathered during the growth stage will be used through data analytics in understanding the investment and provide better return on investment for farmers,” he says.

As for tracking data, that can help provide an improved analysis of the supply chain to optimize shipments and pinpoint issues such as food recalls, Cook says.

“One of the best projects in this space is the IBM Food Initiative, where the pilot project with Walmart demonstrated a reduction in the time it took to identify supply chain-based issues in China from seven days to a few minutes,” he says.

But much like data collected in other industries, farmers also need to make sure their information is safe,
Cook says.

“Cybercriminals seek to make money by denying your ability to access your own data by using ransomware or selling your data to a competitor, so it’s important those in the ag industry are up-to-date on their cybersecurity plans and assessments,” he says.

The ag industry may also be at risk if a state-sponsored terrorist would want to go after the safety of the U.S. food system through cyberattacks, Cook says.

“These may seem far-fetched when applying to the agriculture-based business; however, the threats are real and warrant contemplation and developing an understanding of how one would recover from a cybersecurity attack,” he says.