Smart Farm helps make high-tech agriculture a reality

Cervus Equipment works on the Smart Farm at Olds College during last year’s harvest. | Olds College photo

Olds College is showing how computers will revolutionize the way modern prairie agriculture is about to be carried out

A computer control room isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people think of farming, but Stuart Cullum says such technology is already sort of here.

“I mean, a lot of what’s happening on the farm can be seen on a computer in a control room, so to speak — a person can pull a lot of the data from their farm up on their smartphone or up on their laptop,” says Cullum, who is the president of Olds College.

“I think the concept that you’ll be able to monitor and control agricultural production remotely in a control room setting, or on your laptop or on your iPhone, I think that’s very much happening, and I expect that it’ll just continue to evolve and increase over time.”

Everyone from students and researchers to the agriculture industry are helping make the high-tech future of farming a reality at the college’s Smart Farm, he says.

It is a working farm near the town of Olds, Alta., that acts as a 2,800-acre living laboratory for cutting-edge technologies. Besides grain and cattle operations that include a feedlot and a cow-calf operation, it also has lambing and horticulture operations, a brewery and a meat program, he says.

More than 50 partnerships have been established between Olds College and various companies. They include Cervus Equipment, which signed a memorandum of understanding in 2020 to manage crop and infield operations on 380 acres of the Smart Farm.

As part of a five-year agreement, the company is providing labour as well as a full fleet of John Deere farm equipment.

“In return, Cervus will use the Smart Farm as a training and demonstration site for Cervus’s employees and customers,” says a statement by Olds College.

Such collaborations not only allow businesses to develop next-generation technologies at a commercial scale in a real-world setting, they expose students to the latest innovations, says Cullum. It also helps the college create new programs and conduct applied research through the collection of data, he says.

He pointed to the increasing ability of farm equipment to gather data that can be used not only to lower inputs while maximizing yields, but to also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The need to be economically sustainable complements the goal of being environmentally sustainable, he says.

“Farmers are all for that. They don’t want to use a drop more of diesel than they have to, they don’t want to emit anything more than they absolutely have to, so I think what we find with our agriculture system is we actually are very good stewards of the land and our environment.”

Some of the obstacles farmers face about gathering data include connectivity “and being able to acquire that data in a consistent way that allows them to actually make use of it … And through our Smart Farm, we want to be a place, and a learning environment, where our students and the industry as a whole can learn how to utilize data better and make it more useful for them in their own operations.”

The John Deere equipment that is being provided by Cervus involves everything but spraying, with the company practising broad acre farming of crops on its 380 acres, says Cullum.

Cervus is using data from the Smart Farm “to find better ways to utilize the land and the inputs.… Collecting and finding insights from this data helps us to deliver new ways for our customers to be more productive on their own farm,” says Kyle Henderson, director of product support for Cervus, in a company statement.

Another trend that might be investigated through the partnership with Olds College is autonomous agriculture, says Cullum.

“I don’t think there’s anything specifically identified today, but you know, it’s a five year agreement, so we definitely have the opportunity to explore autonomous applications together.”

The Smart Farm includes the Dot power platform, which is a diesel powered, U-shaped mobile frame that can hold agricultural equipment and does farm tasks autonomously, somewhat like a self-driving car. Autonomous production was used on more than 1,000 acres of the Smart Farm last year, says Cullum.

“We’re one of the first in the world to have a fully autonomous fleet on our campus.”

Although such technologies are starting to scale up, there are several issues that need to be examined, he says.

“And that’s one of the reasons why we have it on our Smart Farm is so that we can address those economic and social and environmental considerations, those efficiency considerations, some of the complexities around it.”

Farmers are sophisticated businesspeople who by their nature are early adopters of technologies that can improve their bottom line, says Cullum.

“And so I think I think that’s where a place like the Olds College Smart Farm is so valuable because we can be a little more bold in applying technology and practice. We can try some things, and some things might work, some things might not work.

“We can take those kinds of risks, and then our producers and the agriculture sector can take those learnings and apply them on their own farms.”

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