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Deciding about technology

Why do some farms leap ahead in technology while others wait? The reasons aren’t what you think

Four robots at New Galma Dairy near Ingersoll, Ont., milk the cows while a second automated system finds its way around the barn feeding cows and heifers by itself and a third machine beds the cows without human intervention.

Calves can decide when they want milk from a machine that identifies them and gives them their allotted daily feeding over several times per day.

New Galma is one of the most automated dairy farms in the country, and for Nicolaas Zeldenrijk, it feels like each decision has led to the next as the family learns to manage not just by expert cattle stockmanship, but by data.

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For example, when the family automated both its milking and its feeding systems, it found there were never any times when all the cattle were up out of their stalls simultaneously, which would have been their best chance to bed them, so they added a new automated bedding system from Denmark that runs above the stalls on a rail, dumping whatever bedding is used and separating manure solids.

All the technology has paid off in labour savings, as Nicolaas and Wilma Zeldenrijk and their children run the farm where about 200 cows are milked.

The Zeldenrijks’ dairy farm is an example of the type of labour-saving technology being adopted across the agriculture sector in Canada.

The productivity of Canada’s on-farm labour has spiked in the past eight years, especially compared to the previous 50 years. In fact, our agriculture labour productivity growth is going up at a faster rate than that of the total Canadian business sector.

Canadian agriculture labour productivity has increased by 50 points between 2007 and 2015 from a base of 100, a more than six per cent annual growth rate, according to Statistics Canada.

By comparison the total business sector has only increased by 4.4 points since 2007.

The Statistics Canada category includes forestry and logging, but a close look shows crop farmers have done the most to increase their labour productivity, up 51 points in 2013 over the 2007 base of 100. Livestock farmers are at 21 points over 2007. (Forestry and logging performed reasonably well too, up 26 points over 2007.)

Unlike farmers, efficiency in the agriculture support sector achieved just a seven-point increase by 2015. That’s a bit under one per cent per year.

This trend is not new. Statistics Canada’s numbers back to 1961 show that between that year and 2007, agriculture labour productivity outpaced that of the total business sector. That means a 3.7 per cent per year increase in agricultural labour productivity from 1961 to 2015, says Matthew MacDonald, assistant director of the national economic accounts division at Statistics Canada.

There are several factors that go into measuring labour productivity, says MacDonald. “To understand the factors behind this growth, the multifactor productivity program (MFP) divides this growth in labour productivity into its key determinants: capital intensity (changes in capital per hour worked), investment in human capital, and MFP, which includes technological change, organizational innovation and economies of scale.”

At New Galma dairy, the Zeldenrijks were like many farmers who adopted robotic milking, but they were the second in the country with a robotic feeding system, using a robot that moves around the barn autonomously feeding the cows. They were approached by Lely to trial the system and they agreed.

“In the beginning there were some issues, but there have been a lot of fun things too. We’ve had so many visitors,” he says during an open house day for Lely where dairy farmers roamed the New Galma barn and others in the area, learning from each other.

As with the Zeldenrijk operation, farms are more likely to add new technology if they are also continuously focused on getting better sources of production insights.
photo: John Greig

The driving of productivity and the adoption of new technology from farmer interaction isn’t a surprise to Eric Micheels, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Micheels and fellow researcher James Nolan published a paper in 2016 in the academic journal Agricultural Systems that looked at how farmers adopt technology, focusing on how they access their networks of sources and peers. They also looked at the capacity of the farmer and farm to implement the technology.

Productivity increases and technology “go hand in hand,” Micheels says.

“Productivity from a sector level is all fed by individual farm-level decisions on being more efficient. If the goal of Canadian agriculture is to increase productivity, one way to do that is to help farmers in that adoption process.”

The technology has to be available, but adoption comes down to the willingness to embrace change, skill level, and the availability of peer groups of farmers.

“I looked at concepts of social capital and absorptive capacity, how connected that producer is to their broader network,” says Micheels. That includes connections to other farmers, extension specialists, researchers, input suppliers and people who have knowledge of how technology has functioned on other farms.

The research identified several factors that influence technology adoption. One is farm size, as most readers might expect, but it’s actually farm size based on employees, not acres. Again, it is the access to more diverse ideas that matters.

“It’s the employees as a source of ideas. Maybe they’ve worked on other farms, maybe in another industry,” says Micheels.

Other factors include the presence of successors, and tied to that is the stage of life of the business. Farms closer to being wound down or sold will have fewer reasons to adopt technology.

Even though farmers continue to age, however, the rate of labour productivity isn’t declining, according to Statistics Canada figures.

“They might be 57 and they might say they’re going to farm until they’re 77,” says Micheels. “There’s no defined retirement date.”

That’s why stage of life of the business is more important than the age of the operator in judging technology adoption.

For instance, Bryan Cook’s son Jeff was finishing secondary school and wanted to farm, so it was time for the Cooks to reinvest in the long-running family dairy operation. Their farm was located in Caledon, on the edge of the rapidly growing municipality near Toronto.

They sold that farm and bought an empty farm an hour north near Stayner, Ont., building a dairy barn with extensive technology, including automated milking, feeding, bedding and automated monitoring of milk for a cow’s heat, pregnancy, ketosis and mastitis detection. They also milk close to 200 cows with four DeLaval milking robots.

For Cook it wasn’t just about making work easier for him, it was also about providing the best environment for cows to be productive too — another productivity outcome.

“The cows go about their day without interruption,” he says. “I let them be the boss pretty much of where they want to go.”

The lack of human intervention means less labour for the humans involved in the operation.

Cook’s barn was also part of an open house that drew dairy farmers from across the province.

Micheels found too that the income of the farm wasn’t as much a factor in technology adoption as the desire of the farm to grow to another level.

If a farm has $1 million in gross sales and wants to get to $1.2 million, that would drive innovation, says Micheels. But the desire of a farm with $500,000 in gross sales to get to $600,000 would also drive similar innovation.

Micheels also found that managerial experience was more an indicator of technology adoption than education level.

“It’s more important to maintain that (education) flow,” he says. “What is your investment year by year into learning about changes in the industry?”

About the author

Field editor

John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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