When John Kolk’s grandfather was a farmer 70 years ago, watering the land was painstaking work. Back then, one person armed with a shovel and gravity used flood irrigation to handle a maximum of 40 acres of land at a time. Today, one person armed with an app on their cell phone now oversees the watering of around 4,000 acres of farmland.
John Kolk has managed Kolk Farms Conrich in Picture Butte, 30 kilometres north of Lethbridge in southern Alberta, for almost 30 years and acknowledges operations have come a long way. Specialized technology designed for creating better results in the agriculture industry is changing entire production cycles on Alberta farms. Kolk uses an app on his phone to control central irrigation pivots that water his crops. With a tap of his thumb, he can control the volume of water, speed of its distribution and direction of the application.
“It used to be one person had to go and change each pivot each time, so they could maybe handle 10,” says Kolk. “[Now] one person can handle 30 to 40 pivots on their cellphone.”
The evolution of fertilizing and seeding methods is just one example of how technology is transforming Alberta’s agriculture industry. Between 2015 and 2016, farms in Alberta reduced their total expenses by 3.5%, while increasing total net income by 60% at the same time. By applying the right technology on farms, the next generation of farmers has a chance to improve efficiency and quality of production, while reducing the labour of operations and their carbon footprint.
Decisive Farming, a tech company based in the farming community of Irricana, about 60 kilometres northeast of Calgary, has three main focuses when working with farmers: precision agronomics, data management and crop marketing risk management. Decisive Farming has created a comprehensive online data platform called “My Farm Manager” that tracks different variables, like fertilizer application, the weather and margins on the farm in real-time, and is accessible via any browser and their mobile apps.
“When we look at gathering basic farm information and digitizing these things, and taking them out of [a farmer]’s head or notebook, we can actually start to apply them to a lot of different technologies that gain a huge amount of efficiency on the farm,” says Remi Schmaltz, chief executive officer of Decisive Farming.
Decisive Farming also provides patented technology that analyses the soil characteristics within a field through satellite imagery and comes up with a precise recipe for what each area of a field needs, seed and nutrient-wise. “It’s [about] understanding what’s going on in the field, maximizing the potential of each area of a field from a profitability standpoint,” says Schmaltz.
Jay Anderson and his wife Carol own JCA Farms, and seed about 4,000 acres of land each year. They first used Decisive Farming’s technology to help with fertilizer recommendations for their irrigated land in 2005. By 2013, Anderson had his entire farm linked up to “My Farm Manager.”
In 2016, when cold, wet weather caused problems for some farms, Anderson had a smooth harvest, which he credits to Decisive Farming. According to Anderson, he continually grows and sells high protein Spring Wheat into a special quality market because of the feedback he gets from satellite and soil assessment through Decisive Farming.
“We as producers should focus our efforts on getting full production out of each and every acre that we own or farm,” says Anderson. “Instead of buying more and getting bigger why not get better with what we have?”
Patricia MacQaurrie, Councillor with the City of Wetaskiwin – about 70 kilometres south of Edmonton in central Alberta – and chair of the Central Alberta Economic Partnership, says with urban municipalities growing and gobbling up farm land, farmers have to use technology to improve their results.
“We’re getting the most out of each sliver of crop, those technologies are allowing us to see better and better production out of smaller pieces of land,” says MacQuarrie.
In Alberta, new uses for technology on farms are showing up in sometimes unconventional ways, such as using solar power for irrigation pivots or drones for crop and cattle surveillance, something more and more farms are doing.
“Tech offers something new and exciting for each generation, yet we’re still holding on to our traditional farming methods, so we’re at this unique crossroads,” says MacQaurrie. “We’re really integrating a lot of unique tech into agriculture while still trying to maintain that family-owned farm experience.”