Banner for AgTech: It's Here. Get Used To It.

Technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry. For our purposes as ag retailers, it is the development of machinery, equipment, seeds, chemicals, applications of each, as well as livestock management that provides farmers with a best-in-class method of improving the way they run their day-to-day business, to create a larger yield, to be more financially successful, without adding complexity.

That’s a lot of responsibility, and yet it’s one agricultural retailers around the country undertake on behalf of their customers.

Nowadays, it’s not just a thorough read-thru of the annual Farmers’ Almanac, rather farmers want advice on upcoming technologies—knowledge, if you will—that will enable them to make the best decisions moving forward.

If you believe you have yet to embrace AgTech (agricultural technology), you are mistaken. You utilize AgTech every time you check the weather on your phone, examine your product inventory on a computer, chat with a colleague or customer via an email, cellphone or social media.

It’s even utilized in the creation of newer herbicides, fungicides, seeds and feeds sold by ag retailers. It’s the latest equipment and materials we offer. AgTech surrounds us and is used by us daily.
We just need to get better at utilizing it and creating newer forms of technology to reach global goals while keeping in mind the different goals of our customers.

As you are aware, Canada has joined nations around the globe in an attempt to move to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the year 2050. The most recent foray into global climate change was held this past October 31 – November 12, 2021 in Glasgow at COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties.

The takeaway has Canada promising to place a cap on oil and gas sector emissions, which CAAR said will negatively impact the ag sector. It will result in increased costs for fuel, lubricants and more.

CAAR believes that farmers need to be part of the solution, not dictated to.

Canadian agriculture is not broken or environmentally irresponsible.

For our part, retails need to help farmers and communicate what solutions will work best from an ecological point of view.

CAAR supports the concept of Canada as a world leader of modern production agriculture—allowing farm freedom to evolve.

Innovation and best management practices continue to come from farmers and retailers to develop together.

Without farmer input, ideas may not be realistically implemented.

CAAR understands that not everything mentioned in this article will be specific to you or your customer. However, we ask that you keep an open mind and to think outside-the-box—maybe you can find a new or different use for something no one else has thought of to garner a niche market share. Maybe there are even partnership or investment opportunities.

Technological advances are wonderful, but completely useless if there’s no practical use for them.

For your edification, we have compiled a listing of some of the more intriguing new-ish technologies out in the market—things to be aware of and to better educate yourselves with prior to becoming involved with it yourself for your customers to move them onwards and upwards.


The Tech of Precision Ag

It’s the 21st century, so we know every ag retailer partner knows of AgTech, it begins with the emergence of precision agriculture in the 1980s.

It has been defined as doing the right practice at the right location and time at the right intensity.

For our purposes in the ag industry, it is any tech that allows a farm to be exacting in its day-to-day operation to increase yield, utilize fewer resources, make more money, and, if done correctly, lessen or eliminate GHG impact.

Since its inception, precision ag technology has been globally adopted, and continues to gain mainstream usage with every passing year.

But what exactly does precision ag encompass? How about variable-rate fertilizers and fertilization techniques—and the same for herbicides—variable rate irrigation, soil sampling, GPS (global positioning system), GIS (global information system), site-specific farming, remote sensing, robotics, drones, automatic tractor navigation, and yield mapping for starters.

The majority of these technologies have been available in North America for over 20 years, and even have their origins here. Thanks to subsidies in the 1990s, Europe was an earlier adopter of many of these technologies giving it a leg up on usage that has since been at least equalled by North American farmers.

GPS, for example, was borrowed from NASA and military applications, and is now being used for farm planning, field mapping, soil sampling, tractor guidance, crop scouting, variable rate applications, and yield mapping. And if that isn’t enough, it allows farmers to work during low visibility field conditions such as rain, dust, fog, and darkness because GPS used with autonomous vehicles means a more accurate performance of planting, spraying and harvesting using all of the available land in the best way possible. (Weather permitting on the spraying part, of course.)


RFID – Inventory Control

While not a new technology, Radio-Frequency IDentification (RFID) is still underutilized within the ag sector, though is frequently seen within the shipping and food packaging industries. While it is often used in the livestock sector, it is not necessarily in use in other parts of the ag industry.

Using radio waves, this tech captures information placed on an always active tag/label that is itself attached to an object. A hand-held or in-place reader device scans the RFID tag from a distance for the operator to utilize. The RFID tag will contain such information as the product name, date and time of purchase from the supplier/manufacturer, as well as the amount purchased. It is an effective tool for inventory and supply chain management, though it does possess limitations if it must be scanned through containers of liquids. It also provides product security for both you and the customer—no counterfeit products.


Laser Scarecrows – Pest Management

From netting to gunshots to propane cannons to old-school straw-stuffed scarecrows—if they only had a brain to deter bird pests. Fortunately, the laser scarecrow has a mechanical one.

Contained within a plastic shell that protects it from the elements, a laser scarecrow uses a laser (an acronym for Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation) set upon an adjustable telescoping pole ideally set at the same height of the crops. Initially designed to protect corn crops, the scarecrow emits beams of green laser light capable of traveling 185 metres back and forth at detected bird flocks to scare them away without hurting them physically.

Unlike ammunition scare tactics, the laser scarecrow is silent, so noise pollution is not a consideration.

Some versions of the tech are solar powered, and other systems possess auto-targeting of flocks. But best of all, pesky birds do not seem to be capable of adapting to the new tech.


Bee Vectoring – Crop Management

Forget about the box—sometimes you need to think outside the hive. 

Developed by Canadian firm BVT (Bee Vectoring Technology) headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario, crop pollination is achieved by using bees to deliver a fungicide to the plants.

The Vectorhive system uses honeybees or bumblebees—customer choice—to deliver the company’s biological fungicide, Vectorite with CR-7, that is able to combat most common crop fungal diseases such as Botrytis Gray Mold.

Put away the thoughts of wearing a top hat and tails and cracking a whip, these BVT bees are pre-trained to perform the task at hand. Sort of.

Beehives supplied by BVT are placed around your field. As the striped fliers exit the hive to perform pollination duties, they walk across a tray containing Vectorite that attaches itself to the bee.

Flying from crop flower to crop flower, the Vectorite clinging to the bee is delivered to the plant—the fact that the flower is the most susceptible to most fungal diseases is not a coincidence. Once on the flower, the microbial fungicide colonizes on the plant and provides disease protection to it.

All told, you gain disease resistance, plant growth enhancement and a natural means of extending the shelf life of crops—and done without needing to spray a field.


Pheromones – Pest Management

Pheromones are a chemical secreted by a living organism that impacts the behaviour—sometimes positively, other times negatively—of another organism coming into contact with it.

There are a few companies currently in the mix using pheromone technology to combat the use of pesticides that can harm beneficial insects or negatively impact the environment, including Provivi, a Santa Monica, California-based company.

The natural and affordable Provivi product uses the natural pheromones of beneficial insects to disrupt the mating process of damaging pests, such as the fall armyworm.

Even better, the pheromone product does not damage, kill or disrupt the mating cycle of beneficial insects.

It is applied by placing a bag filled with the pheromone product in a field which slowly diffuses it into the surrounding atmosphere to affect the pests.

Trials of the pheromone system have proven quite successful in the protection of large-acreage crops such as soybean, rice and corn.

Again, not a new technology—first utilized in the 1980s with lab-generated pheromones—current tech of natural insect pheromones used by Provivi has enabled it to be used on large-scale farms.

Although still pending regulatory approval in Canada, it did recently receive the okay for sales to proceed in Europe.


Virtual Fencing – Animal Control

Tired of the cost, labour and time expended in the maintenance and repair of fences around your cattle property? Two words: virtual fencing.

It’s a fence that’s there, but not there.

We’re unsure just how many companies are producing a virtual fencing product, but the Vence Corp. system caught our eye even though it is only currently available for use in California.

Because cows respond to sounds and can be easily directed, Vence created a wearable device by a cow that uses GPS, PDA (personal digital assistant), wireless networking and a sound amplifier to provide verification to the farmer of the animal’s location.

Then using proprietary algorithms of where a farmer wants his virtual fence to be, a cow can be automatically moved using its wearable device to stay within its designated border.

Yes, it’s expensive right now, but so were VCR players and microwave ovens when they first became commercially available. Regardless, this is an AgTech with plenty of potential.


Automated Farm Equipment

Although this is still part of the milieu of precision ag technology, it is deserving enough of its own space.

Automated farm equipment is an all-encompassing term for an autonomous farm vehicle—such as a driverless tractor, combine or seeder.

This technology has been around for many years, only recently being more widely adopted thanks to stronger AI tech that manufacturers employ to ensure safety concerns are met.

These vehicles utilize precision ag technologies to follow a pre-determined path to perform the same function as a manually-driven vehicle. In our current global pandemic status, labour constraints are a concern, with only hope being the key to resolving it.

Using automated farm equipment resolves the labour shortage issue and removes time constraint problems as the vehicles can run 24/7—or at least as long as the fuel tank holds out.

For the farmer, automated vehicles are capable of performing a pre-determined task perfectly, freeing up operator time to perform other tasks around the property.


Water Recycling – Livestock Management

The realized concept of Calgary, Alberta’s Livestock Water Recycling, the LWR system reduces the overall volume of stockpiled manure, separating and creating a fertilizer source as well as creating a high-quality water for use around the farm.

Yes… it turns poop into usable water and crop fertilizer. At this time, the LWR recovers 17-percent of the waste as liquid nutrients rich in phosphorous and organic nitrogen, 75-percent as potable water, leaving just eight percent of the effluent solid which can be further treated for conversion to an additional fertilizer source.

The water-savings are impressive, as the cleaning process removes all disease-causing pathogens found in livestock manure, leaving behind water that can be used for flushing the barns, irrigation and consumption.

Fully-automated and capable of easily providing maximum uptime with 24-hour operation, the LWR system is controlled from a touchscreen or tablet or remotely-monitored via a PC computer or tablet.

The LWR system helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, making manure management more intelligent while at the same time making food production more sustainable.


Drones – Crop Protection

Remember those radio-controlled planes and helicopters you used to fly when you were a kid? Thanks to a whole new level of technological advancement, these are the drones you are looking for.

While drones are now being used to perform soil and crop analysis from the air using specific cameras and converting it into language usable by a farmer—including examining for crop hydration or pest management—we found the drone tech of Kray Technologies to be unique.

A Ukrainian enterprise, the Kray drones are being used to perform crop spraying of fertilizers and pesticides directly to the field.

Just one drone is capable of attending to 1,200 acres a day working at a speed of just over 110kph, while using less fuel and staff than standard spraying technology.

Flying in automatic mode, the Kray drone uses an advanced computer vision system that allows it to adjust its trajectory to conform to the terrain and avoid any obstacles in its path.

The company claims that only 15-percent of the drone’s workday is spent on battery changes and fertilizer refills, with the remaining 85-percent spent performing field spraying duties.


Variable Rate Fertilization – Crop Maintenance

Yet another precision ag technology with a long history, variable rate fertilization aka variable rate technology examines the terrain of a field to determine the best placement—both location and rate of application—of nutrients to improve the odds of a plant accepting the nutrients for optimal growth or crop protection.

The concept of variable rate technology is used for: fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide application, seeding, tillage and irrigation, weed or diseased crop detection, and even manure spreading.

There are two methods of variable rate fertilization: sensor-based and map-based. Sensor-based uses sensors on an automated farm vehicle to determine specific materials and quantity required for optimal plant growth. Its drawback is that it can only measure at a depth of four to six inches.

Map-based tech will create its own map of the landscape after examining the soil data and then use it to control application rates within each map zone.

Other benefits show it improves farm productivity by reducing material usage, helping the farmer save money.


Wearable Livestock Tech – Animal Welfare

We’ve all seen cows wearing tags on an ear for identification—but new wearable livestock tech has taken things up a notch as it is also able to monitor an animal’s daily activity and health while providing herd insights.

Some tag technology simply monitors individual livestock temperature to enable quicker response time. Separating a sick animal and having it examined by a veterinarian before it infects the herd will save financial resources—just how much does it cost to purchase medicine for a herd anyway?

Cow collars are used to record animal body motion, with one such device manufactured by Lely that has a rumination microphone that evaluates the way a cow chews its cud, alerting the farmer if a change is detected. Changes in cud-chewing are a sign that the cow may be developing a health issue.

There’s also an e-pill from Vital Herd that when swallowed by a cow, sits in the rumen for the entire lifespan of the animal. From within, the device sends data to the farmer using Cloud-based software, collecting body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and pH levels for a more inclusive health monitoring system, allowing a farmer a quicker response time to any singular animal health issues before it spreads to the rest of the herd.


Robotics – Everything Ag

Robots and robotics have been around for decades. Robotics is a branch of technology involving the actual robot—programmable machines that work autonomously or semi-autonomously.

Recent advances have created the cobot, a cooperative robot machine that is able to work alongside human workers in a safe manner for both. Following Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics: a robot shall not harm a human, cobots are replete with numerous safety features such as automatic shut-off if danger to a person is detected.

Within our agricultural industry, robots have been developed and continue to be developed for everyday application in the field and around the farm as a tool a farmer can utilize to increase efficiencies, lessen stress, provide real-time monitoring and remove the possibility of human error.

Because not every crop can be harvested in the same manner, companies are developing crop-specific robotic harvesting tech to ensure product integrity.

Along with picking all manner of fruits and vegetables, milking of dairy livestock et al, robots are being used to spray crops and to package them.

With pandemic restrictions denying physical crossing of international borders for some migrant workers, robotics is also seen as a viable solution that will improve efficiencies and safeguard global food security.

Robot and robotics usage will only continue to expand its reach within the agricultural sector. Familiarization with the tools available to a farm and farmer would be in the best interest of our market segment.


Offset Carbon Credits

This is more of a conceptual technology than a physical one, but it is still useful to be aware of.

A carbon credit is a term used to describe the environmental benefit from an initiative that avoids, reduces or removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

An offset credit may be used to compensate for greenhouse gas pollution emitted by another source.

It’s a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It’s a growing business involving many private businesses that will pay farmers et al for any ag carbon credits earned or for any ecosystem service improvements. It’s a way for these large non-ag businesses to “buy” their way out of any carbon/GHG-related penalties related to their inability to conform with environmental regulations.

It will be interesting to see how the carbon story plays out – will farmers be recognized for past investments and be rewarded? Is it a way for farms, farmers and ag retailers to earn extra finances for their sound sustainable practices?

Providing a farm with options to be “more green” is a way the ag-retail industry can help.

Farmers don’t merely look at the ag retailer as the entity that sells them supplies—they view the ag retailer as a trusted advisor. Make sure you keep on top of trends and technologies to better-serve your customer, because their well-being is directly tied to your own.


Related articles