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Cost cutting with new agricultural technology

Technology is moving at a pace we couldn’t have imagined. Can it help you?

If you’ve ever wondered what the future will be like, Jack Uldrich has the answer. It will feel like you’re sitting in a driverless car for the first time as the vehicle careens around pylons and executes high-speed turns.

In other words, a little nerve-wracking.

Uldrich, a futurist and author, showed us a video clip of an alarmed woman in a driverless car during his presentation at the Canola Council of Canada’s conference in Banff in early March. As he outlined how technology is set to reshape our lives, the message seemed to be that, like it or not, things are changing. Understanding the implications of new technology is crucial to thriving in the coming decades.

The pace of change over the last century has been incredible. A while back, someone was telling me about fence phones in south-western Saskatchewan. What’s a fence phone, you ask? Why, it’s a home-made phone line strung along a barbed-wired fence, in lieu of a fancy government phone line.

That was about 50 or 60 years ago.

When I was a kid, we had a party line. We had our own ring — I think it was two long and one short. I imagine party lines were great technology for people who liked to eavesdrop on their neighbours.

That was less than 30 years ago.

A century ago farmers were still using heavy horses to work fields. When comparing the technology used on farms today, the contrast is staggering. And the pace of change isn’t slowing.

Most of you have probably heard of 3-D printers — handy little machines that allow you to create everything from plastic shoes to guns from the comfort of your home. But did you know a Minnesota company is using them to “print” combine parts?

It’s always hard to know exactly how this technology will roll out. Uldrich suggested farmers might be printing their own replacement parts. Maybe. Or maybe your local parts place or dealership will be able to print your parts on the spot, rather than ordering them in. Or maybe some farmers will use 3-D printers to customize their equipment or help launch their own machinery lines.

University of Georgia researchers are “tweaking” canola genes, Uldrich said, to turn it into a winter crop. And other researchers are sequencing bacteria genomes. The idea is to stick the bacteria in a bioreactor that contains carbon dioxide from coal plants. Depending on how their genes are tweaked, the bacteria would transform carbon dioxide into either ethanol or biodiesel.

“I don’t know if this will necessarily scale, but if it does, it’s a game-changer because essentially carbon becomes a closed-loop system,” Uldrich said.

I used to write for Genome Alberta’s Livestock News and Views blog, so I know there’s no shortage of promising genetic research on everything from disease susceptibility to feed efficiency.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking genomics always offer quick, easy solutions. When it comes to viral diseases, for example, an animal’s genetic vulnerability is rarely due to one region of the genome. Finding a chromosome that accounts for 10 per cent of that susceptibility is a significant discovery.

The research is worth doing, but it still takes time and work to figure this stuff out.

Technology often offers both benefits and risks. For example, agricultural companies ranging from John Deere to Monsanto have purchased satellite and data analytics companies. They’ll collect and analyze data in their customers’ fields, and use that data to help farmers bump yields, cut costs, or otherwise improve production.

But some farmers are understandably skittish about this idea. A Reuter’s story from last November cited concerns about traders and land brokers getting access to that data to manipulate markets and land values.

The same article mentioned that Monsanto, John Deere and DuPont Pioneer had met with farm groups in the U.S. Together, they’ve set down principles stating that farmers own their data, farmers should be told who the data is shared with and how it’s used, and farmers should be able to get their data back and opt out of services.

The same conversation needs to happen in Canada. If it is happening, and I’m out of the loop, send me an email or tweet.

Uldrich suggested we all remember that what served us well in the past might not work in the future. Producers should stay informed about technology and reflect on how it might affect their business, he told us. He suggested the free e-newsletters from MIT Technology Review.

I’d also suggest thinking about what you want from all these gadgets. Do you want technology like Google’s driverless car, which will make all the driving decisions for you? Or do you want technology that gives you the tools to make better decisions yourself? What are you willing to give up for these new tools and what’s too important to relinquish?

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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