Precision agriculture driven by smart tools and digitization is leading transformative change in the global agri-food sector. This includes robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and sensors of all kinds that will help farmers produce more with less while supporting more productive soils and healthier livestock.
Discovery Farm Woodstock joins Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network
A Woodstock-area demonstration research farm is the first eastern Canada site for a national network of smart farm doing research…
To adopt these tools, however, farmers need to know they work and the industry needs trained staff to manage and maintain them. That’s where the Smart Farm at the Olds College of Agriculture and Technology in Alberta is carving out a new niche for itself.
Why it matters: The Smart Farm brings together producers, industry partners, faculty and students to address the challenges and opportunities facing the agriculture industry in a hands-on and practical way.
Since its founding five years ago, the Smart Farm has grown to 3,600 acres in six different geographic locations across two provinces. It is implementing some of the world’s best digital and smart agriculture technologies and practices while also giving students hands-on learning experiences.
The farm includes a 1,000-head capacity feedlot, the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production, commercial cow-calf and purebred Red Angus cattle herds and a sheep flock, as well as access to greenhouses, labs, incubator space, a brewery and the National Meat Training Centre on the Olds campus.
The college develops, validates and tests products in real agriculture settings to solve real industry problems focused on crop and livestock production, environmental stewardship, cereal breeding, smart and digital agriculture and autonomous farm equipment.
Dr. Daniel Karran, an ecohydrologist, is working hard to solve a key challenge for livestock farmers — how to remediate and re-use water from feedlot holding ponds. Currently, the water can’t go back into existing natural water systems or be used for raising livestock and irrigating crops because of its high nutrient load and the potential bacterial contamination.
Karran is evaluating whether floating islands of riparian plants can be used in the feedlot ponds to clean the water naturally so it can be safely re-used.
“We only get 120 to 200 mm of rain fall per year here and we want to exploit natural processes to make water more useable,” Karran said during a tour of his outdoor research area on the Olds campus.
“It is very expensive to truck water into a feedlot, and we believe farmers will adopt the technology if we can show that it’s a low-cost solution.”
Karran and his team are now in their first year of outdoor floating island trials. The islands themselves are a patented technology that are seeded with cold climate native Canadian plant species like sedges and rushes before being placed into the feedlot pond, where carbon dioxide is added.
“The islands are meant to be self-perpetuating and need to cover approximately five per cent of a pond’s surface area to be effective,” he said, adding the pond trial will wrap up in 2025. “We’re still in the proof-of-concept stage, and I think the islands are part of a multi-layer process for water remediation.”
The Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production plays a leading role in validating and demonstrating new practices and technologies for producers, according to manager Sean Thompson.
The centre receives funding from a variety of sources including industry, producers, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Centre and fee-for-service work to conduct research that will help livestock producers with on-farm decision-making.
“Right now, farmers are most interested in virtual fencing, and non-invasive monitoring of cattle,” Thompson said. “Labour is a big issue for farmers, but we need to make technology easy to use.”
Water is the main reason farmers check cattle in Western Canada, he added, so the college is currently validating an Australian water level sensor system that will send data to a smart phone instead. Other labour-saving devices being trialed include virtual fencing collars and the OneCup AI animal tracking system to monitor and manage livestock remotely.
The Smart Farm is also currently on its fourth consecutive growing season using the autonomous Raven OMNiPOWER platform for seeding, spreading and spraying, which has been instrumental in helping to evaluate the robot’s performance compared to conventional farm equipment.