Open source + open mind = endless opportunities

DIY precision ag projects can improve operation efficiency. Asking questions and starting small can help get producers started.

By Kate Ayers
Staff Writer
Better Farming

Producers can take lead roles in digitizing and automating their operations, thanks to the introduction of open source software into the ag industry and the sophistication of electronic devices.

While the term “precision ag” may seem daunting to some producers, the accompanying tools and data can help farmers take better control of production, John Van De Vegte, OMAFRA’s engineering specialist for BMP technical integration and transfer, said to Better Farming.

Producers who are interested in starting DIY precision ag projects should begin with simpler tech, such as analog devices, Van De Vegte recommended. Analog devices collect data and cause a response using voltage, not software.

Farmers can use this data collection technology to better understand processes in their operations and use existing equipment to make those processes more efficient, he said.

And many software programs are available for farmers who want to take process automation a step further.

“The two most common software packages for microprocessors are Arduino and Raspberry Pi,” Van De Vegte said. The prices of these systems start around $20.

Circuit Board
    MLiberra/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“They are microprocessors on circuit boards. They have input slots where sensors, for example, can be added with associated outputs for USBs or data loggers.”

Farmers can use these microprocessors and programs of their choice to carry out desired tasks.

A carrot grower, for example, could control water usage when washing produce using a $2 float switch, Van De Vegte explained.

Or a poultry producer could examine the ammonia levels in his or her barn using sensors and software. This system could control the barn’s ventilation to ensure a healthy environment for growing birds.

DIY projects like these ones offer benefits, such as the low cost of parts and high accessibility to support.

“The cost of equipment is down around the realm where people are willing to try DIY projects and if (the attempts) don’t work out, they are not a huge financial loss,” Van De Vegte said.

“And the availability of ‘Internet of Things’ products means that we are a lot more interconnected and DIY technology is becoming more accessible.”

Farmers can use reasonably priced products from eBay, for example. In addition, Arduino and Raspberry Pi have useful websites with resources, such as learning tools and tutorials, that users can access to get started.

And producers do not need formal, specialized training to tackle DIY precision ag projects.

Rick Willemse, a grain farmer near Parkhill, took his farm’s precision ag system to the next level without having a computer programming background. He used an Excel spreadsheet to develop ReservoiRx, an interoperable and variable rate tool to help crop farmers in Ontario.

Willemse wanted to cut his fertilizer costs while increasing profitability. ReservoiRx uses algorithms and information from each field to allow Willemse to use the nutrients that are in the field and apply fertilizer only where it is needed.

Although ReservoiRx is not yet commercially available, developers are working to bring it to the market.

“Farmers should be able to improve their bottom lines and cut some costs while, at the same time, being able to create a balanced fertility prescription that is good for the environment,” Willemse said.

Indeed, some industry leaders believe DIY precision ag holds opportunities beyond its current applications.

“In terms of technology usage in agriculture, there is so much opportunity if we think about how to improve productivity, automation and … how to reduce costs,” Van De Vegte said.

“It could enhance operation efficiency and profitability.” BF

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