In the 20-plus years Darryl Slingerland has worked with Alberta Agriculture’s environmental services branch, he has seen plenty of changes in the technology used in the field.
Most of the changes have left him “quite excited,” while at times the farmer has found himself overwhelmed by the speed of progress.
There are many technological advances that have greatly impacted farming, but Slingerland feels that several of the major advances in technology fall under the precision agriculture umbrella.
Precision agriculture refers to the increasing use of mapping, GPS and smaller computers to control seeding, fertilizing, and pest and weed control. The finely tuned machinery saves farmers money by saving on seed costs, fertilizer costs, and pest control costs, all while maximizing crop yields and quality.
Combines today come with sensors to determine the amount of yield to the finest grain, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), a.k.a. drones, are slowly entering the market as the cost of the technology makes them affordable, and people build sensors and programs for the devices.
It is not just the government or learning institutions doing research to advance technology. Eager to stay ahead of the competition, machinery manufacturers are building research divisions to ensure their machines have the latest in technologies. They also work to ensure those latest technologies are quickly made old technologies through the development of new advances in short order, Slingerland said.
Interest groups also dole out a generous number of grants to fund research projects within their interest spheres, Slingerland explained.
One of the more exciting ideas emerging from research is a seeder that can seed two or three varieties of seed at a time. Slingerland used canola as an example of how the machine would work.
“If you have a dry area, the machine knows and will use a canola variant that does well in dry areas,” he said. As the farmer continues on and reaches soil with a higher moisture level, the machine would seamlessly switch to another variant of canola that would function better with the increased moisture.
“Right now, farmers have to manually change the seed to have that effect,” he said.
The precision of the programming in farming machinery computers is growing at a rapid pace, and there are seeders out there now that can ensure the crop is seeded between the rows from the previous year’s stubble. This makes it easier for the seed to take root in the soil, and there’s less competition as the stubble’s roots are not in the way.
The technology is not limited to just seeding, Slingerland noted. It applies to crop spraying as well. There’s very similar research going on in that area, working on designing a machine that can be loaded up with pure nutrients at the outset of spraying. The machine would then mix up different levels of nutrients to suit the soil, as entered by the farmer on the field map.
The precision of these sprayers is such that it can also spray in between rows of seeded crop, ensuring that seed and crop are not burned by errors in nutrient output, Slingerland explained.
Automated tractors, much like driverless cars, are starting to pop up at farm shows, though they are not yet out on the market, Slingerland explained.
“Automated tractors are coming,” he warned. “It’s still in the research stages, and there’s a few issues they’re trying to figure out.”
Slingerland predicted that it would not be long before some areas, which are flatter and less topographically unique than central Alberta’s rolling plains, will have automated tractors trundling along.
Still, the impact of the newest, cutting edge technology is yet to be seen, Slingerland cautioned.
“Some advances have unexpected repercussions,” he said.
Despite the unexpected, Slingerland said that farmers are treating the land upon which they work better than ever.
“Farming is producing food with less impact on the environment,” he said. “In some cases, we’re even making it better.”