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Published in Manufacturing
Swisslane Farms Inc. in Alto has leaned on a variety of automation measures to improve efficiency. Swisslane Farms Inc. in Alto has leaned on a variety of automation measures to improve efficiency. COURTESY PHOTO

Ag 4.0: West Michigan farmers turn to evolving technology to bolster efficiency

BY Sunday, October 11, 2020 04:41pm

ALTO — A key aspect of Industry 4.0 technology is finding a way to automate processes that are repetitive, dull, dirty or even dangerous.

Scraping cow manure from the alleys of large dairy barns certainly checks a few of those boxes, which is why the family at Swisslane Farms Inc. in Alto implemented a robotic system to do this dirty work for them.

“Before, you’d have a person and a skid steer, or something like that, cleaning the alley ways,” said Anna Link, a junior partner and director of human resources and public relations at the farm, which was established in 1915. 

“It still needs attention. It still needs someone maintaining it. But now it’s done on a preventative maintenance schedule rather than every single day, three times a day.”

Automation and technology doesn’t end there for Swisslane. The farm stands out as a prime example of how Industry 4.0 concepts and automation have made its way to the agricultural space. Sometimes referred to as Ag 4.0, this technological evolution has helped spark newfound efficiencies within these businesses.

The classic — and perhaps outdated — view of today’s farmer often entails working hard manual labor from sun up to sun down. Not everybody attributes cutting-edge technology to these settings.

However, Tom Kelly — CEO of Industry 4.0 knowledge hub Automation Alley in Troy — said it’s quite the opposite. His organization has consulted with farms and other food businesses to bring advanced technology to these rural settings.

In fact, Automation Alley was fresh off an Industry 4.0 assessment with a dairy farm in the thumb of Michigan when Kelly spoke to MiBiz.

“Agriculture is doing fantastic things in Industry 4.0,” he said. “In many ways, they’re ahead of manufacturing. Just think of John Deere — their tractors have been autonomous for years.

“We think there is a lot we can learn from them and we think we can teach them some things about manufacturing,” he added. “But I love what’s happening in agriculture.”

Efficiency and consistency

While Link admitted Swisslane Farms isn’t necessarily a pioneer of advanced technology, the family farm certainly has a history of early adoption. Link said her father was always receptive to avenues that bolster efficiency while focusing on preservation of the land, including being an early adopter of artificial insemination and no-till practices.

About a decade ago, the family decided to expand operations and knew it was only possible by leveraging automation and technology.

This led them to the centerpiece of the farm’s automation infrastructure with a robotic milking system by Iowa-based Lely North America Inc. The system features eight robotic milking units.

The milking units were not only convenient and able to milk a single cow in the 2,000-cow herd in under 10 minutes, but it allowed Swisslane to take a holistic approach to cow care through big data and providing workers with a snapshot of each cow’s activity and health throughout the day.

Ultimately, a healthier cow leads to more milk, evidenced by the fact that Swisslane produces 20,000 gallons of it each day.

“You can’t get better quality milk unless you’re focusing on every little detail of the cow,” Link said. “If you want this one thing, you have to take care of all the little things behind the scenes.”

Each cow in the herd is outfitted with an ID tracker and a collar that essentially acts like a Fitbit. Swisslane workers are able to see how many times a single cow has chewed throughout the day, which can indicate an abnormality in feed intake. All of the information is accessible through a smartphone interface.

“The thing about the robots is that we have so much data that we almost don’t know what to do with all of it,” Link said. “That allows us to customize that milking experience for every single cow, customize their herd health plan. The data points range from their weight to their milk speed, how many pounds of milk they produce per minute, how much feed they’re eating.”

Link said Swisslane continues to seek out new ways to appropriately implement automation and technology into its operation. It has also experimented with a robotic feed pusher, which ensures that cows are able to reach their feed and eliminates an eight-hour-per-day job for a person on a tractor.

The farm is also looking into automated ventilation and heat abatement systems to cool the cows in the summer months. This includes fans with misters that are on thermostats.

“If we’re going to be a dairy farm, we need to continue to rely on technology because the cow is so habitual and they thrive when they have consistency,” Link said. “Any change in routine or a change in environment, that puts stress on the cow. We want to eliminate any disruption to their schedule.”

No more guesswork

Just as technology has transformed the barns of Swisslane, automation out in the fields has had an even more pronounced effect.

Precision agriculture technologies aren’t necessarily new and cutting-edge — GPS on tractors emerged in the early ’90s — but they’re not used by all farmers despite driving real results.The tenets of precision agriculture include yield mapping, soil mapping, auto-guidance machinery steering and variable rate technologies (VRT).

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture looked at cost savings sparked by these technologies specifically on corn farms. It showed that farmers that use VRT with soil mapping save around $20 per acre in costs. Yield mapping helps corn growers save $25 per acre.

Kory Brodbeck, who works at Brodbeck Farms in Lake Odessa with his father Kevin and brother Kyle, is among the many to reap the benefits of VRT. This is where farmers take samples of the soil roughly every 2.5 acres, have it analyzed in a lab and then determine which nutrients it needs. This information goes into a prescription map that is uploaded to the spreader, which will automatically deliver the needed nutrients to each portion of the field.

Beyond VRT and auto-guidance steering, Brodbeck and his family continue to explore possible technology to add at the farm, carefully assessing which would deliver the desired ROI.

He has dabbled in drone imagery, where farmers use drones to survey the land, in some cases providing an accurate count of plants per acre.

“This spring was a good example of when it could be very useful,” Brodbeck said. “We planted all our crops, got six inches of rain and we’re out there where some of the seed didn’t grow or some was a week behind. You can get out there and look.”

Brodbeck, 41, said he expects technology and innovation to continue advancing as newer generations of farmers move into the space. Right now, a third of the 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. are over the age of 65.

“I’d say the younger generation is more up on (technology) for sure,” Brodbeck said. “There are a few older guys that have adapted well. In a lot of those cases, they have some younger guys on the farm. Overall I think the younger generation is looking more at that type of stuff.”

Bruno Basso, a professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University, works with hundreds of farmers across the state and country to enhance traditional yield mapping measures, using predictive tools and simulation capabilities.

Through remotely sensed images that are frequently collected by his fleet of drones, Basso captures detailed images of the field, akin to an X-Ray of the human body.

Through his program called SALUS (System Approach to Land Use Sustainability), Basso can help farmers forecast yield — not just for the season but even decades away. Additional features allow him to factor in weather events, like an extended drought, in order to play out every possible scenario.

“Being able to know how much will be produced helps you know what needs to be applied in terms of nitrogen or how many seeds you need to plant and when you need to plant,” Basso said. “All these scenarios of ‘what if’ — they’re not being done by trial and error out in the field. You can simulate it.”

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