Olds College builds new smart farm

OLDS, Alta. — The farm of the future has arrived at Olds College.

The first phase of the college smart farm in central Alberta is on 110 acres of cropland transformed with stationary soil monitors, digital weather stations, a wireless mesh network to provide wi-fi to the entire farm, use of unmanned vehicles and implementation of various other types of software.

“We will be using the latest technology aimed at improving productivity and efficiently and sustainability using resources,” said college president Stuart Cullum.

The farm integrates education and applied research for students and industry.

“It provides a venue for companies and entrepreneurs to bring new technologies to develop it, test it, scale it and develop it for the industry,” he said.

The college owns an additional 700 acres so the project can be scaled up to connect academic studies and applied research, said Jason Bradley, director of the Smart Ag program.

Different soils, moisture levels and crops can be studied. Eventually the work will expand to include livestock research.

“I tell people what we are doing with the smart farm is we are building land,” Bradley said.

“We are able to produce more out of the same without having to buy land. If we can improve the biome in the soil and the quality of soil, we are producing more with less.”

In addition, the college is seeking agreements to pool research with a network of other colleges and universities across Canada.

Local farmer and rancher Brad Dallas, who is a college alumni, seeded the first crop at the college for the smart farm field.

His family owned grain and purebred cattle operation near Bowden, north of Olds, has evolved with technology.

He uses sectional control on his equipment to prevent overlaps in the field to increase efficiency. He and his son, Dawson, have integrated auto steer, GPS, a weather station and variable rate fertilizer applications to expand to about 4,000 acres.

All the information goes into his smartphone and at the end of the year the family can calculate breakevens and yields and learn what happened in every field.

“You can make sure every field is making money for you,” he said.

“We are trying to pinpoint every single thing so we increase our bottom line.”

The Dallases are early adopters of technology and have learned as new ideas were released.

“It is a computer age, and to keep up to date you have to keep up,” Dallas said.

“You can’t go back and use the old tractor and the old way of doing things. It just isn’t efficient enough to be able to do it. We are going to have larger farms and you have to be more efficient.”

Yields have improved steadily with zero tillage but the only way to manage the weeds is more spraying. Technology allows them to maintain good records for the last 10 to15 years so they can manage rotations and keep ahead of weeds resistant to herbicides.

They also hired a full time agrologist to scout fields and provide advice.

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