VIDEO: Farming by the numbers in the Alta. foothills

A farm family finds having all the information available using precision agriculture lets them make sound choices

AIRDRIE, Alta. — When farmers began using precision agriculture to operate their farms, “they started at the wrong end of the horse.”

So says Larry Woolliams, who along with his father, began using data on their farm nearly three decades ago.

It has formed the way that the Woolliams farm.

The Airdrie, Alta., grain farmer’s father began capturing data from the combine’s yield monitor as soon as the technology would allow it. He also kept his as-applied map shape files.

“We’ve always known that would tell us things about the fields that weren’t as obvious as we would have liked,” said Woolliams, who farms 9,000 acres in the province’s foothills.

He still farms with his parents, “who are reaching that slowing-down phase of their farming career.”

The farm includes his and his wife Kortney’s land and a base of rented ground, which also brings with it some retired producers who provide an experienced labour pool.

“Farmers saw the tool, and used it, for guidance, and that is where it stopped for most of them,” he said.

“And there is value there, enough to pay for it with savings on overlap and reduced stress on the operator. With the ability to run longer and better, it just makes efficiency.”

Visitors to the Woolliams Farms office, strategically located inside the operation’s shop, don’t see the usual baskets and piles of paper — just a few invoices and statements that come in the mail. In 2018, Woolliams Farms went paperless.

“We believe in the use of technology and what it can do to make our farm more efficient,” said Woolliams, who grows malt barley, canola, peas and wheat.

“I wasn’t much older than my own kids (Paige and Trace) when my dad started looking at digital farm record keeping,” he said.

At the start of his journey to use precision agriculture in ways that the rest of the industry hadn’t yet, he approached a local equipment dealer after a meeting that was introducing sprayer guidance to growers.

“I asked him, ‘could I put this on a swather?’ It took some serious playing, but we made it work. There were great efficiencies available with that,” he said.

As soon as the technology would support it, the family began using variable rate fertilizer strategies.

However, even in the rolling hills of Alberta, Woolliams discovered that he was better off not second-guessing Mother Nature and fertilizing to an overall yield goal.

“But we discovered that variable rate seed works for us,” he said.

Planting rates based on assumptions made from previous years’ yield and other factors worked well to create even fields and generally maximized per acre returns.

Last fall, the farm was caught up in the early winter conditions that hit a large swath of the western Prairies. Woolliams needed more combine capacity once things dried out. Getting four new combines wasn’t hard, but putting experienced operators in the seats proved to be a challenge.

“The technology is what saved us,” he said.

“You can take someone with limited experience, set the machine and let them go to work without any real concerns of whether they are doing a good job.”

With four new John Deere 780 machines sporting 35 foot flex headers, he was able to able to get the harvest in.

What he didn’t know when he bit the bullet on the machines was how much of an improvement they would be over his two-year-old units.

“It was three-quarters of a mile per hour and four to six bushels per acre of yield in down crop, and that is all about technology doing its job,” he said.

While he is not sure he would notice the same difference in dry conditions with standing crop, he said his ability to measure his results using software means he has been able to understand the value that an investment in new equipment can bring to the farm.

The data collected using precision agriculture has formed the way the Woolliams family farms near Airdrie, Alta. | Michael Raine photo

“There is some pretty big sticker-shock on buying new equipment,” he said.

“You really need some good evidence to convince yourself to spend that much money.”

However, that is what his data analysis is showing him.

“Three-quarters of a million dollars for a sprayer just doesn’t seem OK,” he said.

It turns out that after projecting his return on investment for a new sprayer with carbon fibre booms, just 10 feet wider, and with pulse width modulation rate, spray quality and nozzle selection control, it was enough to justify the purchase.

“For my acres it made sense, but you need the acres to make it pay,” he said.

Data also drove him to swap two air seeders and tractors for one larger unit — a Deere 850 cart and 1870 drill.

“But without good information, I don’t think my gut would tell me those investments were right for us,” he said.

To understand his data, Woolliams developed his own software, which he dubbed Platinum, that provides a full picture of the farm, both financial and agronomic.

“It lets us look at the entire picture, from a farmer’s point of view,” he said.

That project is something the farm will be rolling out for other farmers later this year.

“I figured I needed one more thing to do, but it works so well for us it seems like something other farmers could really make use of,” he said.

For the rest of this growing season, The Western Producer will be following Woolliams Farms as it passes through the year, using technology to guide its decisions.

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