Who’s to blame?

Variable-rate technology is getting adopted, but not nearly as quickly as many farmers would like. Finally, this may soon change.

When variable-rate technology first came onto our radars roughly 20 years ago, it was supposed to revolutionize agriculture.

We’re still waiting. But maybe not for much longer. In fact, maybe we don’t have to wait any longer at all.

The advanced equipment systems needed for variable-rate technology have started to become available in the past five years, to say nothing of the gigabytes of data that can be analyzed and turned into prescription maps.

That’s why there’s been such a concerted effort to introduce farmers to the Precision Agriculture Advancement for Ontario (PAAO) project.

For the past two years, growers have had access to the project’s crop portal, a computer-based system that allows growers to input their own data such as yield maps and soil test results, some of which they may have collected years ago. As is often the case, the more information a grower is willing to feed into the crop portal, the more comprehensive and relevant will be the prescriptions that can be generated.

Nicole Rabe is one of three individuals from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) working with the team from Niagara College who also helped develop the crop portal. The three-year project is being funded by the Grain Farmers of Ontario, with the initiative to end in October 2017. Rabe concedes that it’s been a long road to this point, and she agrees there are several reasons why.

Nicole Rabe
photo: Supplied

“We started in 2012 when we sat down with equipment dealers, consultants, CCAs and some advanced growers at the Outdoor Farm Show,” says Rabe, the land resource specialist with OMAFRA. She also works with Ian McDonald and Ben Rosser as part of the ministry’s contingent with the PAAO portal. “There were maybe 15 people in that room, and we knew of the work at Niagara College, but it was a year-and-a-half by the time the project was approved, and it was a huge pitch to the Grain Farmers of Ontario.”

Even four-and-a-half years ago, few people grasped the total concept of data, and it was difficult to set a budget for an idea that was so broad and encompassing. The equipment has been available for variable rate for some time, although its accuracy and manoeuvrability weren’t exactly up to scratch in the beginning. An added impediment has been the agronomics of precision agronomy and the fact that farmers don’t understand how to implement it fully.

That’s why early adopters were making strides, but the middle “mainstream” group weren’t gearing up.

“The amount of data being collected on the farm had been forever increasing during those years, but it had idled out somewhere,” says Rabe. “It was sitting on a dusty old hard-drive or a thumb-drive or in a binder on the shelf, and we didn’t have full-scale adoption in that middle group of farmers.”

Rabe knows there are some big promises being made about precision ag, but there’s a lot of confusion too. So, are these systems ready for Ontario and Eastern Canada? Are they ready for the farm? And where is the data going?

Those were concerns even at the beginning of the PAAO project, and they’re why Niagara College was brought in. Ontario needed a system that would be rigorous, with a multi-year yield analysis capability. The group also wanted it to be free, at least for now.

“And short of me running around to every tractor and combine with a memory stick, we would have to have a place to safely store any information of co-operators that came on board with a potential project in Ontario,” says Rabe. “It was logistical as much as it was about teaching farmers not to be afraid of data, and how to analyze that data, starting with material that they might already have.”

They soon ran into another roadblock, however. Farmers excel at learning all sorts of technology and science, but the learning process with precision ag seemed much too slow.

“The precision ag industry right now has made it difficult for farmers to navigate and learn how to get started,” says Rabe. “There’s so much out there that farmers are probably a little lost. But our project has tried to step it back and say, ‘Let’s take a look at the field. What can we fix that’s an issue?’”

“Before you get started in precision ag, is there a drainage issue? Is there a pH issue?” she asks. “You have to get some of that basic agronomy on that field under control first. Farmers need to examine the amount of variability across the farm, define objectives for managing it and then determine what management or equipment decisions need to be made to support those decisions.”

It’s a matter of taking baby steps and setting specific goals.

Overwhelming or an opportunity?

Brandon Yott believes that the farmers who soldiered on and who started climbing up the precision ag ladder will soon start reaping the reward, not just with better production, but with a chance to get into consumer markets that demand transparency.

“Traditionally, you have early adopters, traditionalists and loyalists, but that’s changing into just two groups,” says Yott, product development and marketing specialist with the Agromart Group, based near Thorndale, Ont. “You have your Fred Below ‘believers’ who grasp ‘the Seven Wonders of 300-bushel corn,’ who understand that to make money, you have to spend money… and then you have growers who’ll say, ‘Grandpa used Triple 17, so I’m going to use Triple 17.’”

That’s creating an either-or market for many farm retailers, and it’s forcing them to pick which side they want to support.

“Where’s the future?” asks Yott. “When we go into that next industrial revolution, the people who aren’t using that data and that have those inefficiencies in business won’t be here. If you’re really looking at your farm as a business, you’re going to drive those inefficiencies out.”

Then there’s the talk of how variable rate dovetails with calls for accountability and traceability. That could be an important step towards encouraging more usage. Part of the challenge in selling variable rate is its characterization as a cost, not an investment. Many of the services a dealer provides today are part of a per-acre thought process, some of which is blended with fertility or cropping plans. Why get a new costly system when the old one works fine — for less?

Yott has heard some in the industry question the pricing and how it may vary depending on what’s being provided. As the cost rises, so does the need for the producer to understand all that’s involved and for the service provider to validate the value of the tool versus what others may provide.

“Some people say, ‘At $4 corn, how can you afford precision ag?’” echoes Yott. “But the real question is ‘At $4 corn, how can you not afford precision ag?’”

“In a lot of those cases, we haven’t given them the tools, or we haven’t been disciplined enough to go in with them in the fall and say, ‘Look what we did,’ and sit down with those business-minded individuals and say, ‘We’re going to make your business better.’”

Too much attention, says Yott, has been focused on what’s new and shiny instead of what’s useful. And that comes back on the dealers, he insists.

“A lot of these guys — what are you giving them? What are you selling them?” asks Yott. “They want ease of business, they want to know they made the right decision, and they want the tools they can show to their banker, to show to the mother at the grocery store — that he’s not hiding anything from her, and to know that he has a business to pass on to his children. Precision ag allows you to do all of that, but you still have to want to do it.”

It’s all voluntary

Paul Raymer points to another hurdle for variable-rate technology: it’s all voluntary. Whatever happens to be driving it, be it economics or a look to future, a lot of it has to do with mindset. The primary task — and sometimes the hardest one — is for a grower to determine where they want to go. Then they have to determine whether precision ag can get them there.

Then the job still isn’t done. You have to find the right tool. Is it variable-rate technology for fertilization, or strip till or planting? Raymer adds that there are a lot of different options available to growers these days.

Paul Raymer.
photo: Supplied

“There haven’t been a lot of pressures to get into it,” says Raymer, who manages Practical Precision along with his father, Barry. “We have decent climate, good soils, and, relatively speaking, growers are making some decent margins. If they’re making the bank happy and the accountants happy, and they see this technology, sure they might have a smartphone, but for them to go and chase that much more, I don’t think they see that much incentive.”

Raymer echoes a statement from Rabe that farming has become a 12-month-a-year occupation. When farmers want to be in the field planting or harvesting, some dealer or service provider is trying to get them into variable-rate systems.

“But tell me a grower — and the percentage has to be at least down into the single digits — who doesn’t have a smartphone on their waist or in their pocket,” says Raymer. “That speaks for itself when you look at those devices because they’re simple and fairly nuisance free, and it’s usually instant gratification for what they’re seeking, which other tools in the precision ag umbrella don’t necessarily deliver. The closest thing is the yield monitor.”

At last, some good news

For all of the hurdles, inertia and less-than-sunny realities, the good news is the technology isn’t going away. Right now it may seem like “a pig moving through a snake,” as Raymer describes it. But he agrees with Yott’s contention that the day is coming when it becomes a valued means of proving all the things that have been done on the farm, and providing an assurance to end-use customers.

“We’re just delivering the lay of the land as it is, but it’s really up to any farmer on how to utilize it or how to get the ROI,” adds Raymer. “To them it’s an easy cost they can absorb, maybe not in the first year, but maybe amortized over a number of years on at least one of the crops in their rotation.”

For Rick Willemse, variable rate is a matter of “when” and not “if.” The Parkhill, Ont. farmer developed his own variable-rate algorithm nearly 10 years ago, and it became the model for the PAAO system. He marvels at the fact that one night during harvest, he was in his tractor with the auto-steer activated, he had his Bluetooth headset on with his iPad slaved to his phone, all while working on a Google document with someone 150 km away. In that context, he believes the technology is advancing at a reasonable rate and in the right direction. If he’s critical of anything or anyone, it’s that the companies involved in selling the technology are perhaps trying to sell a little too quickly without considering the impediments and challenges facing the farmer.

“As it is now, the CCAs are looking for reasons to do what they’re doing,” says Willemse, who’s made numerous presentations on his experiences with precision ag and variable rate. “For the most part, in any talks I’ve given I basically tell people that everyone is trying to make it too complicated.”

Instead, Willemse agrees with Rabe and Raymer, saying that growers need to simplify, and move in a direction that’s right for their operations. The spread of the technology is inevitable. What slows it is the time it requires to properly set it up, to familiarize oneself with its workings, and learn more about its strengths and weaknesses.

“To take it to the next level, you have to have the time to process all of that data,” Willemse says. “We’re now doing four to five times what we used to do, and we have our economies of scale maxed out, and every time we find a solution to making things cheaper, it simply makes our profit margin less. So we have to adopt this stuff — or die.”

As an example of what the technology provides, Willemse can be out driving his tractor doing strips at 7 p.m. and know that he’ll be working until well into the next morning. He can do that thanks to auto-steer, whereas 10 years ago, he’d have been done at midnight. Another example is the advent of RTK technology combined with auto-steer. Now he can take a 12-row strip-till implement and match it to a 24-row planter.

A lot of farmers, particularly 55 and older, aren’t adapting to the changes while 20-something newcomers are embracing it, mostly because they’ve been raised on this technology. There isn’t the same learning curve or the amount of time required to become efficient with the tools.

“The technology is evolving and farmers are used to not having things evolve as fast as they are now,” adds Willemse, pointing to no till’s adoption in the 1980s, which took at least 10 years. Adoption of auto-steer has come in roughly four years. “You can see the accelerated advancement in technology in agriculture now. It’s scary what we’re going to have to deal with in five years. For a lot of people, it’s getting ahead of them.”

This technology, he notes, is unlike anything else that agriculture has dealt with. Bt corn hybrids (and subsequent advancements) and glyphosate-tolerant soybeans had easy adoption and learning curves by comparison. But with precision ag, Willemse says it’s something that farmers need to grab hold of and get suited to their farm. Otherwise, they risk being crushed by the pace of what’s still to come.

What’s ahead for PAAO

The second year of the three-year run for the crop portal is all but complete; Rabe and the others will spend much of the winter analyzing the numbers from the 25 original participants in the program, all while encouraging more farmers sign on to the portal. There is also an opportunity for participants to engage in validation research for their prescription maps, using check strips or “learning stamps” in partnership with the University of Guelph to check agronomic rates in each zone and do statistical analysis. As Rabe points out, this is groundbreaking in North America.

What happens to the crop portal after funding ends in October is not clear at this point, says Rabe. Will there be another project? She’s not sure but she believes there will be parts that are leveraged and carried forward in some form. She adds that Niagara College’s Dr. Michael Duncan, who helped build the portal, has some potential investors who are interested. His mandate is to work on a functional model for small and medium businesses, make research applicable, involve industry, and mentor students through the process.

“I’m hoping there are some innovative individuals who see the value,” says Rabe. “In the meantime, it’s our job to publish the 25 case studies and come up with some sort of story about how each field did during those years — and what we learned and what we didn’t learn.”

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