Autodoolers and automatic greenhouses: how a small high-tech farm works

Original author: Steve Lohr
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Farm Rivendale in the suburbs of Pittsburgh serves as a laboratory for applying technology to small farms

Each such vehicle is priced at $ 200,000.

About 150 Jersey cows grazing in hilly terrain owned by Rivendale farm located in Bulger, 40 km from Pittsburgh, wear collars that resemble fitbit fitness bracelets - they track their movements, food patterns and the process chewing. And they are not milked by people, but by robotized installations.

A nearby greenhouse, which occupies an area of ​​about 10 acres, where such ingredients of future salads as curly cabbage, rucola and baby carrots grow, are fully automated. Sensors and retractable metal screens control temperature, humidity and the amount of incoming sunlight. And soon, small mobile robots may appear on the farm, which will inspect 3 hectares planted with vegetables growing under the open sky, and find among them diseased plants and weeds.

Farming in the United States is becoming more high-tech. GPS-oriented combines, drones, satellite photos, soil condition sensors, and supercomputers help grow food for the country. However, such technologies are mainly developed for large farms, whose fields extend as far as the eye can see.

Farm Rivendale, having just completed the first full year of its work, offers a glimpse into the future of technologies that will be available for small farms.

The technology for large farms is designed to increase yields and reduce costs. On small farms, efficiency is also a priority. But even technology can eliminate hard and routine work - and such conditions can convince the younger generation to stay on farms instead of selling them.

Small farms usually grow special crops in a small area. Specialized farming requires a small-scale approach, for example, small robots, which are developed for Rivendale by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, and equipment from the expanding range of motion “slow tools” - farmer groups and engineers who develop affordable tools for small farms.

The owner of the Rivendale farm, Thomas Toole, says that the company's goal is to create a “boutique, high-tech farm, working thanks to technology, and delivering excellent food.”

Rivendale can afford this combination of advanced commercial technology and scientific experimentation, as Toole is a billionaire owner of many enterprises, an investor in high-tech start-ups and a former film producer. He is also a member of the Carnegie Mellon Board of Directors. So far, he has spent several million dollars on the development of Rivendale. But Toole plans that the farm will become self-sufficient by 2020.

Milk, eggs and other products from the Rivendale farm, spread over 70 hectares, go to selected local restaurants and hotels.

Therefore, Rivendale can put more experiments at the same time than other farms. But her work, as experts say, goes within the framework of a general trend, when small farms are looking for ways to grow healthy food and livestock, using less fossil fuels, fertilizers and recycled feed.

“We are seeing an increase in the frequency of using modern technologies and tools on small farms, and this approach is fully accepted at Rivendale Farm,” said Jack Algier, director of the Center for Food and Agriculture at Stone Barnes, a non-profit farm from Pocantico-Hills, pc. New York, one of the active supporters of environmentally sustainable agriculture on small farms.

Toole bought this land in 2015, and construction began next year. Now diversification prevails there - milking and raising cows, growing vegetables, fodder corn, chickens and even bees.

Together with pastures Rivendale covers 70 hectares. Farms in America for many decades gradually merged, and in 2017 the average farm size was 179 hectares, according to government statistics. And more than half of the product produced in agriculture, give the largest farms, of which there are quite a few, and which on average occupy 1076 hectares.

Milk, eggs and other products from the Rivendale farm, spread over 70 hectares, go to selected local restaurants and hotels. Products also come to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers baseball teams, of which Tul owns a part.

Suzanne Meyer, chief of agricultural cultures, describes Rivendale as a “startup” in the sense that the farm began with an ambitious idea, a clean canvas of the earth and in the spirit of experimentation.

Greenhouse automation panel that controls temperature, humidity and light.

If you go to Rivendale's barn, you will not meet people there - only cows, an automatic feed system and three robotic autodos.

On average, Rivendale cows are milked four times a day when they feel ready, compared to the traditional manual regimen, twice a day. And here, Jersey cows produce 15% more milk than the average for this breed, with more protein and milk fat in it, says Christine Grady, general manager of the farm.

“They eat when they want, lie when they want, and feed when they want,” Grady said. “Happy cows give more milk and better quality.”

It takes one or two weeks for the cows to get used to robotic autodos and built-in stimuli, says Rodney Rankin, manager of milking operations. At the milking stations there is a sub-food with vanilla flavor, but cows cannot constantly feed on snacks. Sensors and scales - and the cow's weight can vary daily by up to 34 kg - do not allow cows to go there with an unfilled udder.

Rodney Rankin, manager of milking operations. Without the use of technology in Rivendale, it would take five workers, and now usually one is enough.

Autodishers have appeared a long time ago, but their technology is constantly being improved.

When a cow hits a stall, its udder is washed with rotating brushes. Lasers direct breast pumps to each of the four nipples. On average, milking lasts six minutes. After this, the cow udder is cleaned with iodine and steam.

Robotic tweakers have already appeared a long time ago, but their technology is constantly being improved, and it requires even less manpower than a few years ago.

Each such device costs $ 200,000. Without them, an automatic feeding system would have required five workers to work in the barn, and now there is usually enough one, Grady said.

The autobats used in Rivendale are manufactured by the Dutch company Lely, the industry leader. In some European countries, up to 30% of cows are subjected to machine milking, and in the United States this proportion is only 2%, according to Matthew Haan, an expert on milking technology from the agricultural program at Pennsylvania State University.

Such a gap, Haan said, is mainly due to generous government support in Europe, which supports milk prices and higher wages of workers better than in America. These factors encourage European farmers to invest in automation.

In the US, even large producers with a large population of cows in California, where the work was hard before, are already starting to try robotic troughs. This, in particular, is due to a change in immigration policy, which may create a shortage of labor on farms. But so far, the main buyers of such technologies are small businesses with between 120 and 240 cows, said Steve Fried, sales manager for Lely in North America.

George Cantor, the chief systems engineer at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, is leading in Rivendale a project to develop “robot scouts” who can recognize diseased plants and weeds in vegetable fields, and then send notifications to a smartphone.

His team conducted work in the fall and collected data in the fields, and then moved to a university laboratory for the winter. Kantor said that in order to distinguish healthy plants from sick and weeds, they will use computer vision and machine learning.

The next step is getting rid of weeds. When organic cultivation of pesticides are avoided. And in order to dig and pull out a weed, an operation to seize and hold the stem is required - Kantor said that this task is much more difficult, and progress in this area is slower.

Some of the techniques used in Rivendale are more like a hack than high tech. Suzanne Meyer, the head of agricultural crops, loves the device for harvesting, the engine of which is a cordless drill, as well as a small electric cultivator [eng. tiller], dubbed Tilly, is one of the options for implementing “slow tools”.

Rivendale’s farm uses new technologies, including a robotic cow feeder.

Michael McGowan, a former senior researcher at the Los Alamos Laboratory, bought a farm in Oregon ten years ago, started growing vegetables there and found that there are no tools available for small farms. Therefore, he began developing his own, including Tilly, whose basic model is selling for $ 495, and opened the Carts and Tools business in Corvallis.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, a leading distributor of equipment for small farms, has increased its business fivefold over the past 10 years, says Adam Lemieux, product manager for the company's tools and consumables department.

For most of the farmers who have been in business for a long time, AI stands for “artificial insemination” [Eng. artificial insemination], not like digital magic [artificial intelligence]. But the new generation of family farmers are happy to accept robotic helpers and smartphone apps.

“They think differently, trying to understand what the future holds for their family farms and how technology will fit into it,” said Jeff Ainsley, vice president of Red Barn Consulting, which advises family farmers.

One of them is Scott Florey. After receiving a diploma in dairy products at Virgin Technology, Flory returned to the family farm in Dublin, pc. Wyoming, in 2009, with a bunch of ideas for its modernization.

Since then, four robots from Lely have been installed on the farm, they have equipped the cows with trackers and doubled the number of cows, reaching 240 heads, without increasing the farm staff. The farm remains under the care of the family, it is managed personally by him, his wife Laura and his parents, Dale and Janet.

“Without these devices, I would not be in the dairy business today,” said Flory, who is now 30.

The owner of Rivendale, Thule, has no doubt that sometime advanced technologies will change small farms. But, observing Rivendale’s work last year, he said: “As a result, you begin to extremely respect farmers and the fact that their work is hard and difficult. The main thing here is to mix art and science in the right proportions. ”

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