Specialists ponder why ranchers are slow to adopt solar technology

When it comes to adopting new technology, ranchers aren’t warming up to solar and wind power as quickly as they are to other technologies — and the reasons why vary widely, according to specialists .

Statistics Canada data from the 2016 Agriculture Census highlight what technologies ranchers bring in more readily as part of their operations.

The agency calculated the numbers by using what it calls an adoption rate, which determines how many Canadian beef ranches have brought in new tech.

As it turns out, only 5.9 percent of those operations have adopted solar power and only 0.8 percent have brought in wind.

On the flip side, ranchers were quick to adopt smartphones or tablets, with about 40 percent of farms using them. Computers and GPS mapping also scored high, with adoption rates of slightly more than 50 percent and about 25 percent, respectively.

However, the numbers don’t specify what kinds of solar-powered equipment, such as water pumps or electrical fences, producers are bringing in.

New tech is supposed to make life easier by saving producers time and money, so why are many so slow on solar?

There are many reasons.

For one, cattle producers are cautious with new technology, said Marianne Possberg, a beef production specialist with the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association.

“If they know the current practices are working and the alternate practice is unknown and might hurt animals, they are less likely to adopt something new,” she said.

“If there’s a power outage, some aren’t sure whether there will be enough electricity or not for waterers or electric fences, which might affect the health of their animals.”

She added that producers are becoming more comfortable as better technology becomes available.

“Some of them have been showed a portable watering system that’s been working quite well,” she said, referencing a recent tour conducted by Ducks Unlimited and Saskatchewan Agriculture.

Still, governments could make grants more available, said Richard Gerlach, owner of Waterboy Solar in St. Albert, Alta.

He referenced Alberta’s On-Farm Energy Management program, which became available to producers in February 2016 but has since stopped accepting applications because provincial officials are asking for more funding.

“When (grants) change, people get tired of that because many only like to buy when they know they’ve got a grant,” said Gerlach.

There’s also perception that some solar-powered pumps have been unreliable in the past, he added.

“A lot of people sold a lot of stuff that didn’t work so well and it’s because they didn’t know better or didn’t care. Some also thought it was magic but didn’t understand it,” he said. “But it does work well if you understand it.”

Possberg said if ranchers experience issues, the word soon spreads and before long many become skeptical. But that also holds true for when they have good experiences with equipment, she said.

Quentin Stevick, a rancher near Pincher Creek, Alta., agreed that ranchers must have a good understanding of the systems and continuously work with them.

“Although it may be energy free, it’s not labour free,” he said. “I have to check them every day, and if I’m not here, someone else has to check them because some of strangest things can cause them not to function. Cost is certainly a factor, too.”

He chose solar for two reasons: He can’t get power far out on the pasture and he wants to be environmentally sustainable. It’s part of a larger push to “leave this world better than when I got here,” he said.

“I walk my talk, and I use the cattle to harvest that grass to cycle the nutrients and put it back on the lands through urine and manure.”

Despite the slow uptake, there may be a shift coming.

Possberg said more cattle producers are starting to bring in solar technologies.

“From an anecdotal perspective, they are,” she said, noting that Saskatchewan Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program has helped with the increase.

“But every farm has their own reasons for adopting and not adopting. It’s a large industry and you can’t speak for everybody.”

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