Agriculture becoming more data driven

·3 min read

Wheatland County’s namesake is noticeably tied to its vast fields of grains. While these crops will remain central to the county’s economy and culture, the way they are grown is changing rapidly, thanks to new data-driven approaches that are making farming more efficient and productive.

Agriculture continues to change in ways which benefit producers and consumers alike, at an accelerating pace, said Matt Gosling, an agronomist and founding partner of Premium Ag, which has an office in Strathmore. “In the 17 years that I’ve been doing agronomy, it’s changed quite rapidly,” he said. “Especially in technology and data management.”

Gosling works to help farmers make decisions to grow crops, including fertility and pest control, what to plant and where to plant it, and when to harvest. Conducting this work is increasingly data-driven, he said. “Capturing good data helps me make better decisions for the farm.”

There is still some resistance to this approach, but it provides a compelling bottom line. “A lot of farmers are very nervous about data – who owns it, what they’re going to do with it, that sort of thing,” said Gosling. “But I support data capturing, because it helps us make better decisions to advise the farm to make money.”

Information Gosling and his field crews collect include many variables, such as in-season fertility, weed and insect distribution and abundances, and crop health. The position of each reading is recorded via GPS, then the spatial distribution of these variables within or between fields can be studied by software known as geographic information systems (GIS).

While there are many recent technological advancements in agriculture, such as autonomous agricultural machinery, one of the most promising is precision agriculture, which refers to approaches to observing, measuring and responding to this variability, in an effort to maximize yields while minimizing inputs.

“The adoption (of precision agriculture) has been quite rapid, but there’s still a lot of room to improve it,” said Gosling. “There are a lot of people out there chasing that game.”

Currently, almost all farming operations use “corner to corner” spraying to control weeds and pests, he said. But these new sensor technologies are supporting the development of targeted spraying, so that products are used only where they are needed.

One exciting area is the development of new sensor technologies. Camera-based sensors can be mounted on equipment, then images are recorded and processed, providing real-time information about what is happening in a field.

“It takes precision agriculture to a whole new level, when we can spray only the areas of the field that need to be sprayed; and we are adopting some new technology in-house that helps us to do that,” he said. Using this approach, variable rate fungicide has been practiced for a while and has been successful, he added.

But a major development will be accurate weed detection, especially performed in-crop. This would allow producers to have their equipment automatically target areas where weeds are present or at high densities, rather than spraying the entire field evenly.

“That will be a game changer in my opinion, and one that I think will be a big feather in the cap of farmers trying to tell their story to consumers, because consumers are demanding,” noted Gosling. “Our industry has really struggled with trying to tell our story to the consumer to tell them that the last thing we want to do is spend a bunch of money on more inputs – let alone overuse them – especially ones that are potentially hazardous to our health and the environment.”

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times