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How Sensors and Software Turn Farms Into Data Mines 62

Posted by timothy
from the counting-lo-the-ears-of-corn dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes that business intelligence tools have come to agribusiness, with farmers and cattle ranchers using many of the same tools found in numerous corporate cubicles, but fed by sensors you won't find in cubeland. "Machines (such as this one from DeLaval) keep track of all kinds of data about each cow, including the chemical properties of its milk, and flag when a particular cow is having problems or could be sick. The software can compare current data with historical patterns for the entire herd, and relate to weather conditions and other seasonal variations. Now a farmer can track his herd on his iPad without having to get out of bed, or even from another state. And Farmeron attempts to aggregate all farm-related data in a single Web portal. The company was started by Matija Kopi, the CEO who calls himself the 'Main Cowboy in the Saddle' and Marko Dukmeni, the CTO who is their Chief Tractor Hacker. They offer monthly accounts (starting at 25 cents per animal per month) to track animal physical characteristics along with milk production, medical treatments, and even particular feeding group schedules."
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How Sensors and Software Turn Farms Into Data Mines

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  • ROI? and First post? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    How much is this going to cost? (I don't think the "25 cents per animal per month" is a total cost, but I'd guess that that's just the monitoring fee.)

    Everything I see is hundreds of dollars per plant/animal monitored.

    Yes, probes can probably be used for years. However, if the per-monitored cost would come down, data on this stuff could go crazy.

    I'm not just being theoretical. I just bought a small farm a few weeks ago and want to do this very thing.

    Being an opensource kind of guy, I'd rather do it mysel

    • by cayenne8 (626475)
      How about we..I dunno....start trying to raise our livestock in a more NATURAL fashion....give them a bit more room, and quit feeding them fucking corn and other crap that they aren't designed to eat?

      Quit raising them shoulder to shoulder in todays feed lot situation. We could avoid many of the ecoli problems, and sickness and disease they have to give them antibiotics for...etc.

      I'd happily pay a bit more per lb, to have a more healthy meat products come out...less contaminated by growth hormones and anti

      • I'd happily pay a bit more per lb, to have a more healthy meat products come out...less contaminated by growth hormones and anti-biotics (contributing to the rise of anti-biotic resistant strains)....

        You and I might be willing to pay more but many/most people are not. If everyone was willing to pay more and demanded better products, what we consider upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods would be the norm. As it stands, price is a huge factor and the only way to get low prices is with some industrial techniques that are often a bit scary. Look up how orange juice is made and you'll never drink anything buy fresh squeezed again.

        how did we get to the stage where we need to electronically track the chemical makeup of their milk?

        Agriculture is a highly technological business and always has been. Your

        • by cayenne8 (626475)

          You and I might be willing to pay more but many/most people are not. If everyone was willing to pay more and demanded better products, what we consider upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods would be the norm.

          Well, if we had the federal govt quit giving subsidies to the feed corn industry...and gave it instead to farmers raising actual crops we could directly ingest without chemical voodoo in the lab prior to it being presented as food stuff....more stores would be like Whole Foods.

          And even with todays

      • And what is pure milk?

        Dairy farmers are not paid on the amount of the milk they produce, but on the quality of their milk – such as fat content. Different cows produce different quality of milk when on different feed. This would allow the farmer to adjust the feed to maximize profits. (I saw something like this at a land grant university back in the 80’s. They had a slightly higher need for raw day.)

        And I am not so sure about pure “organic” milk. We can debate the nutritional differ

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:20PM (#41375369) Journal

    The fact that business intelligence tools are also well suited to monitoring dumb animals dedicated to a life of exploitation and eventual slaughter is just one of those crazy coincidences, and has no deeper implications.

    • The fact that business intelligence tools are also well suited to monitoring dumb animals dedicated to a life of exploitation and eventual slaughter is just one of those crazy coincidences, and has no deeper implications.

      What do you mean, "also?"

      • Are you saying that I should invite the interns to the company barbecue after all?

        • Are you saying that I should invite the interns to the company barbecue after all?

          Invite? Hell, I was thinking about putting them on the menu!

    • by slick7 (1703596)

      The fact that business intelligence tools are also well suited to monitoring dumb animals dedicated to a life of exploitation and eventual slaughter is just one of those crazy coincidences, and has no deeper implications.

      Hmmm, how long will it take to go from business intelligence tools to intelligence tools used against a population? Are sheeple dumb animals?

      • The fact that business intelligence tools are also well suited to monitoring dumb animals dedicated to a life of exploitation and eventual slaughter is just one of those crazy coincidences, and has no deeper implications.

        Hmmm, how long will it take to go from business intelligence tools to intelligence tools used against a population? Are sheeple dumb animals?

        Tell you what, go try and shear/milk a couple, then come back and give us your report.

        Oh, and make sure to get it all on video. For, you know, research.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        Hmmm, how long will it take to go from business intelligence tools to intelligence tools used against a population?

        Is there a difference in the first place?

    • by vlm (69642)

      The fact that business intelligence tools are also well suited to monitoring dumb animals dedicated to a life of exploitation and eventual slaughter is just one of those crazy coincidences, and has no deeper implications.

      Didn't I see this same post in the recent /. article about the call center that wants to track when and how long the employees take a dump? If the cows had paid attention to what skynet was doing to the call center drones and nipped it in the bud, programs like that would never have expanded to the cows.

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:20PM (#41375373) Homepage Journal

    There are a lot of TV ads for farm equipment, seed, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. There's also a farm show early Sunday morning that's often quite interesting. Modern farms are tech marvels using smart phones, GPS, all sorts of mechanical wizardry.

    It ain't a mule and a plow no more.

    • Farming was high-tech in the 80's when I still lived on one. GPS and computer controls were being implemented that far back. These days it's pretty amazing. Things like fertilizer being dispensed based on a GPS map of the soil. The farmer just fills the machine and drives.

      Family farms really don't exist any more, it's mostly large commercial entities farming huge areas or gigantic CAFOs.

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        Family farms really don't exist any more, it's mostly large commercial entities farming huge areas or gigantic CAFOs.

        Every time there is a dip in the economy, Big Agriculture buys up distressed family farms.
        As a result, the subsidies that are supposed to be helping family farms are mostly padding the profit margins of those "large commercial entities."

        It's a big mess, but Big Agra has so much influence that it's political suicide to try and cut any farm subsidies.
        On top of all that, the Feds subsidise crop insurance premiums going to private insurers AND underwrite ~75% of those same crop insurers.
        Farming is not nearly th

      • by behrat (1389275)
        "The vast majority of farms and ranches in the United States are family owned and operated." http://www.nifa.usda.gov/nea/ag_systems/in_focus/familyfarm_if_overview.html [usda.gov] Having grown up in the dairy industry in the midwest, I can back this up from experience. And many of the family farms are embracing technology to improve yield, quality, and efficiency.
    • Historically farms have usually been hi tech to a degree. The exceptions seem to be more related to economic/social collapse than a lack of interest.

      In the early 80s I remember a bunch of Apple //e computers being delivered to a local university. They were for the agriculture department. They may have had the first microcomputer lab on campus. The computer science labs were dumb terminals connecting to the minis and mainframes via a serial port.
    • Everything's high-tech except the 50-year old grain trucks that now sport Antique tags, driven mostly by their own teenagers or someone else's hired for the summer.
    • by cayenne8 (626475)

      It ain't a mule and a plow no more.

      Sadly in some respects, it is not.

      It is industrial food supply....and taste and nutrition aren't the main goals any more. There's no room for diversity, which I think, could prove to be a national security issue concerning our food supply. Look how things are gonna hit price wise, when the effects of the drought on the corn crops in the midwest start sinking in. With no diversity and not growing many different crops (and raising different varieties of animals)...one natu

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        It is industrial food supply....and taste and nutrition aren't the main goals any more.

        Taste and nutrition never was a goal of farmers, at least in my lifetime, and I'm 60. Grocery store tomatos always tasted like cardboard.

        There's no room for diversity

        Do you have any idea how many different strains of corn alone are grown? How many different companies produce seed corn? You're not going to see anything like the Irish potato famine here. Same with soy and other crops. The only crop I know of that is in dang

        • by cayenne8 (626475)

          Grocery store tomatos always tasted like cardboard.

          I'm not that far behind you in years...but I *do* remember getting tomatoes in the grocery stores when I grew up, when they were in season, and they did taste good. I remember mom buying what today are considered 'heirloom' tomatoes in the regular grocery store...knarly, not perfectly round and red....and flavorful in the dead middle of summer.

          IINM they are. Farmers grow what grows best in their area, and what they can get the best price for.

          Give those s

          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            I love my meat too....but, I'd prefer it be raised in a more natural way.

            So would I, it would taste much better. I have a friend who raised a few hogs several years ago, and he had a friend who worked at an ice cream factory who would bring a pickup truck load of outdated ice cream mix to him every few weeks. He fed the hogs a mixture of half hog feed and half ice cream, that was the best tasting pork I ever ate!

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:22PM (#41375407)

    Farmers don't need iPads. They need to have the government stop screwing up the markets and inadvertently creating monopolies like Monsanto. They created genetically altered seeds that, when they blow into neighboring fields, they sue those farmers, forcing them into bankrupcy, and thus getting a cheap new addition to their mega farm.

    The other problems caused by government is they're endangering the food supply -- look it up online, we're about one drought away from a food shortage right now, the corn supply is down to about 6 months now, the lowest its been since the 50s. Part of it is because 40% of our corn gets turned into ethanol (a non-viable alternative to gas, used presently as an additive, at a premium), instead of food. Part of it is because the mega farms don't do proper crop rotation, but instead follow the market -- leading to diminishing yields and land overuse. And part of it is, ironically -- subsidies. The government steps in and says that there are certain price floors and ceilings for farming... and since eventually every farmer has a bad harvest, and they can't pay their mortage or whatever, they go bankrupt. It's inevitable; Just a matter of time. And then their land is bought up by the next door mega farm.

    The consolidation of the agricultural industry is going to screw us; and iPads are not going to help. Not in the slightest. What's even more funny... not many younger people want to work on a farm. A lot of family farms are closing up because the kids moved away. Not much money in it... So you're asking people in their 50s and 60s "Hey, wanna use an iPad to do something you've been doing for the past, uhh... forever?" No. They don't. They're worried about making the next mortgage payment and repairing the roof of the barn. an iPad is not high on the list, and it offers no real benefit in productivity or return on investment. It's a convenience, nothing more.

    • by Endo13 (1000782)

      Wish I had mod points for you. I know quite a few farmers personally (including an uncle) and you are exactly right.

      • Wish I had mod points for you. I know quite a few farmers personally (including an uncle) and you are exactly right.

        I grew up in the country. I would hope I learned a bit more than what manure smells like in the spring during that time. :) I moved to the big city though when I turned 18. The country is a fine place to take a stroll, but there's not much to do there. And it is perpetually about 20 years behind where anything going on in the city is. Gas pumps are still manual, people still write checks for groceries, and teenage drivers go down the middle of the road... not because they're new to driving, but because that

        • by samazon (2601193)
          Don't be so sure. I work "in the country" managing the tech associated with land division and soil management, as well as... some other things. They want better technology, because more productivity = more $$, and the smart farmers recognize that they have to evolve, at least in a business respect.
        • by perpenso (1613749)

          ... most people in the country know what a computer is... they simply don't have much use for one ...

          Strange, in the early 80s the agriculture department at a local southern California university setup what was probably the first microcomputer lab on campus. The ag students were using existing software packages for farm and ranch and some were developing new software. They were taking this tech back home during summer breaks and showing mom and dad how to use it and incorporate it into the farm or ranch operations.

          From chats I've had with family that moved to semi-rural Texas I get the impression that

        • I'm not sure where you're from, but where I was raised in Iowa farming operations have been technologically integrated for quite some time. There are two kinds of farms, the kind of farm that became technologically integrated and bought up everybody around them, and the farm that went out of business (to be fair there is a third kind, where they grew a non-typical crop for local sale at a higher price). A small farm is inefficient, the machine costs eat away any profits. A large farm is expensive, but the h

    • There is research into using iPad controlled quadcopters and image processing to monitor crop conditions - I saw a demonstration of a quadcopter system at a research station in Idaho last week. You can quickly find areas of a field that need more water, etc. You can't say iPads (or equivalent) will _never_ help.

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      Farmers don't need iPads. They need to have the government stop screwing up the markets and inadvertently creating monopolies like Monsanto. They created genetically altered seeds that, when they blow into neighboring fields, they sue those farmers, forcing them into bankrupcy, and thus getting a cheap new addition to their mega farm.

      Not that manipulating the food market always turns out well... but to say that they "created monsanto" is a stretch... Plus, the farmer they sued in the incident you mentioned, he sprayed roundup on his *own* non roundup-ready field, waited for the untainted corn to die, then harvested the tainted corn so he could have the monsanto genes to plant with the next year. Sure, genetic IP is a sketchy domain, but the guy really did willfully infringe.

    • Farmers don't need iPads. They need to have the government ...

      The two are completely unrelated. Tablets are just a modern way to do things that farmers have been doing for centuries. Looking up data (almanac), researching historical trends (memory, chats with neighbors), communicating with suppliers and buyers, etc.

    • They created genetically altered seeds that, when they blow into neighboring fields, they sue those farmers

      This is basically hogwash. I realize you are just repeating the story because you have heard it repeated over and over, and just assume it is true. But you should still check the facts before repeating it yourself.

      The farmer in question was Percy Schmeiser [wikipedia.org]. The pollen didn't just "inadvertently" blow onto his field. He intentionally planted crops downwind of his neighbor's fields, collected the seed from only the adjacent area of those fields, planted the seed the following year and sprayed it with Roun

    • by Nemesisghost (1720424) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:32PM (#41376411)

      Farmers don't need iPads. They need to have the government stop screwing up the markets and inadvertently creating monopolies like Monsanto. They created genetically altered seeds that, when they blow into neighboring fields, they sue those farmers, forcing them into bankrupcy, and thus getting a cheap new addition to their mega farm.

      The other problems caused by government is they're endangering the food supply -- look it up online, we're about one drought away from a food shortage right now, the corn supply is down to about 6 months now, the lowest its been since the 50s. Part of it is because 40% of our corn gets turned into ethanol (a non-viable alternative to gas, used presently as an additive, at a premium), instead of food. Part of it is because the mega farms don't do proper crop rotation, but instead follow the market -- leading to diminishing yields and land overuse. And part of it is, ironically -- subsidies. The government steps in and says that there are certain price floors and ceilings for farming... and since eventually every farmer has a bad harvest, and they can't pay their mortage or whatever, they go bankrupt. It's inevitable; Just a matter of time. And then their land is bought up by the next door mega farm.

      The consolidation of the agricultural industry is going to screw us; and iPads are not going to help. Not in the slightest. What's even more funny... not many younger people want to work on a farm. A lot of family farms are closing up because the kids moved away. Not much money in it... So you're asking people in their 50s and 60s "Hey, wanna use an iPad to do something you've been doing for the past, uhh... forever?" No. They don't. They're worried about making the next mortgage payment and repairing the roof of the barn. an iPad is not high on the list, and it offers no real benefit in productivity or return on investment. It's a convenience, nothing more.

      I'll give a bit of background so you'll understand where I get my info. I currently work for a company that underwrites the USDA's Federal Crop Insurance as a software developer. We don't sell this insurance, but contract with various insurance agents around the country who do. The way that this program works is we underwrite the insurance, and assign a % premium and risk to the USDA, the rest is ours. Farmers do not have to purchase crop insurance, but if they do not they won't qualify for certain disaster relief. My particular job has included working on software that maps a farmer's fields and allows him/her & their agent to report what is planted on each field.

      Wow, where to begin. I guess I'll start with how farmers don't want this iPad stuff. This is one area where I know for a fact that you are wrong. Yes, the older farmers aren't nearly as interested in it as your average teenager. But that does not mean that they don't appreciate what it can and does do for their farming operation. The older generation of life long farmers who own their land usually aren't the ones farming it. Most of the fields we insure are multi-shareholder setups. Basically, a "farmer" leases a field from a landholder for a % of the profits. These younger farmers who are leasing the land are the ones who are using this new tech. We've seen a large demand for the ability to use this precision farming information when reporting what was planted. Farmers are demanding more & more tech in their farming operations. Yes, the older generation who now mostly lease their land don't have any need for it, but the younger generation loves it.

      Next, Monsanto's "wind blown" lawsuit was in Canada. I say that because I'm assuming that by "government" you mean the US government, although all governments create some sort of monopolies. Their other lawsuits were clearer cases of infringement, either by resellers knowingly selling gen-mod grown seed or farmers reusing grown seed instead of disposing/selling like they contracted to do. While I don't agree with what they patented or how they've c

    • For farmers in my area, there are lots of young people who want to work in agriculture, but when the time comes, they don't have the Capital.

      Farm prices are good, but the expense of land, irrigation equipment, tractors, planters, harvesters, make it an extremely Capital intensive kind of business.

      A family farm might make enough money to employ the owner and one child. When the owner dies, they have to make the decision, do I pass the entire farm to the one child working it, or do I try and be fair and give

    • Which is why it's important for you to learn how to grow your own food. Visit you're local farmers market every Saturday, find a small family farm that raises organically grown food. Here is a pretty good blog post on no till gardening

      http://twentyfirstcenturyrenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2012/08/how-to-no-till-gardening.html [blogspot.com]

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Farmers don't need iPads.

      A little ten acre hobby farm like my grandpa had doesn't need GPS and an iPad, but anything that can raise yield gets you more money in a commercial farm. And iPads raise yields

      They need to have the government stop screwing up the markets and inadvertently creating monopolies like Monsanto.

      Monsanto is far from a monopoly, there are hundreds of chemical companies producing the same types of products; Bayer is one. They don't just make aspirin, they also make fertilizer and weed kille

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:26PM (#41375479) Homepage

    Anybody have any experience with those?

    I'm talking about the ones where the cow gets up and walks by herself to the (robotic) milking machine. The machine throws water on the udder to clean it, and then positions the suckling cups on the teats.

    The cow can (and does) go for milking as many times per day as she wants, as opposed to the normal 2 times per day, every 12 hours.

    Anyway, what's the cost of these things? Cost of maintenance per year? Do they have ongoing problems?

    Also, any different between the major makers? Delaval, Lely, GEA?

    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:35PM (#41375629)

      Anyway, what's the cost of these things?

      Like most farm equipment, not cheap, especially new. Think loan. Big. Loan. I know you're looking for a more exact number, but there isn't one. They're usually custom built systems; sold one at a time. The larger the capacity, the lower the individual component cost.

      Cost of maintenance per year? Do they have ongoing problems?

      Like any customized solution, the answer is "it depends". It depends on how big the herd is, how many stations it has, etc. And as far as ongoing problems... well, it's automated. It makes the job easier, but you still have to watch it. You can't just set one up and walk away. These are live animals. Sometimes they do things that aren't predictable.

      Also, any different between the major makers? Delaval, Lely, GEA?

      Same as the difference between a Dell and a Compaq. Some of the parts are interchangeable, some aren't. Some pride themselves on service, some on cost. Some cater to very large farms, others to medium sized. Some have blue hoses, and others clear. Farm equipment is purpose built... tell me about the purpose, and I can tell you what equipment would be best. Like, for example, you'll notice I didn't say automatic milking machines cater to small farms. That would be because the equipment costs more than the savings in labor. A lot more.

  • We've got clients in this business and I've seen IT used in all sorts of ways there.
    I even remember a TV presentation plenty of years ago about automated monitoring/feeding of cows on a farm here in the Netherlands.
    The principle is simple, tags and sensors, and the rest is software to make sense of it.
  • by houghi (78078) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:06PM (#41376019)

    They handle the cattle like office workers

  • by vhfer (643140) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:28PM (#41376339)
    I worked on the project that was eventually bought out by De Laval. It was originally called HerdStar. I kid you not. Never got sued by the maker of the dominant word processing software of the day. That statement should pretty well pin this down in time, and if not, this will: The first several generations were written in Fortran for the 8080 machines widely available at the time. Certain stuff they wanted to work faster or differently than Fortran could offer, I wrote for them in 8080 assembly.

    One thing the dairymen told me was that one of the first signs of an animal getting sick was that it would usually eat less. Our system at the time each animal had a collar with a transponder on it-- an unpowered device about the size of two decks of cards. Something like a very primitive RFID chip. How much each animal ate was recorded and any unusual patterns were brought to the attention of the owners or managers. As soon as such pattern developed, the animal could be examined and treated. This makes good economic sense, because healthy cows produce more. But it struck me as compassionate as well.

    We also discovered that some cows would game the system, realizing that every time they stuck their head into the feeder, that auger would start up and dump grain into the trough. We fixed it so they would only get a healthy amount at a crack. They figured out that putting your head in, pulling it out, and putting it in again would get you another pile of goodies. We modified it again, so it wouldn't do that. The cows that had been gaming the system were fine, but certain others would never go back after it stopped delivering feed for them. So we modified it again so that even if you'd already had your allocation, sticking your head in again would still net you another handful. Just enough to keep them coming back when they got hungry, and more importantly, the next day, and the day after that, etc.

    It was really fun trying to outthink cows. It wasn't nearly as easy as you'd think.

    • It was originally called HerdStar.

      By Northhouse Associates / Compco in Milwaukee, circa 1978?
      Lots of ex UW-Milwaukee CS friends worked there.

  • Sell Bossie to McDonalds ASAP.
  • I've seen models at county fairs. They contain computers, GPS guided pathing, hazard cameras on all sides. I think you can have the computer pretty much design and automate your plowing or harvesting. You are there to prevent unexpected problems.
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:40PM (#41377471) Homepage

    This is just on Slashdot because it's some minor iPad app. This isn't where the action is. Here are the the top 5 tech trends in precision agriculture. [precisionag.com]

    The biggest trend is automatic steering. Self-driving cars are still experimental. Self-driving tractors are mainstream farming. Automatic plow height adjustment is routine. (The bottom of each furrow should be level, so extra water isn't needed to get over the high spots.)

    The second biggest trend is integrating sensors and controls. Measuring soil properties and adjusting inputs (fertilizer, seed, sprays) to compensate is a key part of precision farming. The trend is to do this continuously based on real time measurements, rather than based on a few samples taken in advance.

    The overall effect is to reduce wasted inputs and thus costs, improving profits. It doesn't increase yield per acre much, but it may make it feasible to farm more acres.

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