Sensor sensibility

Canadian farmers are dithering when it comes to using specialized sensors, according to a Glacier FarmMedia survey.

In an online survey filled out by 428 farmers from late August to mid-October, only seven percent of respondents said they have fully adopted the use of specialized sensors, and only 20 percent are actively testing them.

In the survey, farmers said they are agreeable to greater use of sensors and view them as labour-saving, time-saving and more affordable than some of the other technologies they were asked about.

However, most farmers are not rushing to be early adopters, with 37 percent saying they will be ready to use specialized sensors in three to five years, and 30 percent saying they will be ready in one to two years.

For the survey, specialized sensors were defined as sensors that can measure, monitor, control and gather information on field operations. These include yield monitors, variable rate controllers, directional guidance controllers, electrical conductivity sensors, soil moisture sensors, and leaf wetness sensors and weather sensors.

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Tavis Huebner, 26, works a 4,500-acre farm with his father near Spalding, Sask. He considers himself to be a slow adopter of the latest sensing technology.

He said technology such as GPS is widely used even by smaller farmers because they are a relatively low-cost investment that provides a significant return. However, it takes a large farm’s economy of scale to recover the costs associated with the latest sensor technology.

“GPS and auto-rate, which we use, took our overlap down from around 20 percent to less than five percent. So it provided huge savings on inputs instantly. To get that next five percent improvement, there is a hell of a lot of cost to get into it.”

Most farmers passively use yield and moisture monitors that come standard on combines, even if they aren’t very accurate.

Huebner said farmers have to make significant equipment investments if they are to use information from yield monitors in a more active way to help build useful tools like prescription maps.

“You can hire an agronomist and they can put the prescription maps together, but you still have to put the capital cost out on the seeding end and the sprayer end of it. You either have to be all in or all out.”

Huebner said producers are also hesitant to use more sensors because of the steep learning curve required.

“You pretty much have to be a computer guru to get into that stuff. If you have one thing fail on you, you can be sitting all day doing nothing, waiting for a computer guy to come out and tell you what’s wrong,” he said.

He added most farmers can’t afford the down time when support from the nearest dealership can be an hour away.

Anthony Eliason farms with his family on a 5,000-acre farm near Outlook, Sask. He considers himself a moderate adopter of cutting edge sensing technology. He uses GPS and auto-steer guidance in sprayers, tractors and combines, and he is looking at getting into sectional control for his seeder.

To monitor the farm’s 1,200 acres of irrigated land, Eliason, 32, installed soil moisture sensors last year. The sensors are connected to a wireless network, which enables him to monitor soil moisture from his phone.

“I can actually start up my pivots, have them all set to my phone and never have to drive out into my field and (trample) crops to turn things on and off, which is nice,” Eliason said.

Before buying, he tested soil moisture sensors through a dealership to gauge how they fit into his operation.

The sensors proved to be a big time saver because he no longer has to drive fields to take core samples and dig holes to see the moisture profile.

When deciding which sensors to buy, Eliason said he looks for sensors that will either save him time, or help prevent a potential disaster.

He said bin temperature sensors can help keep growers ahead of potential problems, such as heating issues with straight-cut canola.

Eliason is in charge of managing the sensors on his farm, but his dad also recognizes the importance of having these new technologies.

“When he was my age, he was one of the first guys that put in irrigation,” Eliason said. “He understands that sometimes you have to take that risk to try something new.”

Chris Herrnbock farms 3,200 acres with his family near Humboldt, Sask., and is among a younger generation of farmers ushering in strategies that rely on the use of advanced sensing technology.

“Those of us who are under 40, most of us have been playing with computers for a long time and we are a lot more technology literate, and I think a lot more willing to try it. When you grow up with it, it’s not a foreign concept,” he said.

Herrnbock has always liked and tinkered with electronics, a hobby that is now helping him farm. For instance, he built and programmed weather stations with probes that have become important pieces of farm equipment.

“The way the software works is it calculates what full saturation is in the soil, and then gives you a percentage of that. You can log onto the weather stations any time to see where it’s at,” he said.

Herrnbock sees a time in the near future when swarms of smaller robots perform tasks now in the realm of large, high-horsepower farm machinery.

But in the meantime, he uses whatever technology and sensors he can get his hands on, as long as it makes production and economic sense.

“Economic pressure forces us to be more and more efficient. More and more of this stuff is going to be a requirement. The days of just spreading fertilizer willy-nilly have come and gone,” he said.

Through the use of combine yield monitors, soil testing and drones, he produces prescription maps that allow him to apply product with his air drill at a variable rate.

He also uses NDVI imagery from his drone to create prescription maps that enable him to top-dress nitrogen in cereal crops at variable rates.

His drone takes thousands of images as it flies a quarter section in a grid pattern. Then DroneDeploy software changes the different shades of green in the crop into the NDVI image. He then uses Farm Works software to convert the NDVI image into zones, and then creates a prescription for the different zones.

“It’s about 30 minutes to fly a quarter section, then it takes a few hours for DroneDeploy to create the NDVI imagery. So typically, you’d go fly a bunch of fields on a Monday, and then by Tuesday afternoon you’d have the NDVI imagery. And then after that, basically it takes maybe 15 minutes to create a prescription map out if it,” he said.

The drone and software Herrnbock uses allow him to more closely adhere to a more ecologically friendly and efficient nutrient management strategy, by staging nitrogen applications on about 1,000 acres of cereals each year.

“If you have a year with lots of moisture and good yield potential, you can really push for an 80 or 90 bushel crop. When you’re in a dry year with no moisture, you can hold off and save yourself that $25 to $30 an acre,” Herrnbock said.

“We tried doing the front loading, where we did it all with the air drill in one pass. Yes, it’s convenient but there is so much that gets lost.”

Sensing technology will become easier and less expensive as it develops, and Herrnbock said it will begin to assist in all aspects of farming.

“Hand-held sensors for soil and plant tissue is $300, a drone is $2,000, the weather station I cobbled together with about $200 worth of materials.

“You’re not spending $700,000 on them. As robotics come out, more and more drones come out, there will be a place for them because some of the larger machines are being priced so far out of the market that when something less expensive and more efficient comes into the market, I think there will be a lot of adopters going after it,” he said.

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