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Precision farming on the prairie

Saskatchewan farmer and content creator Mike Mitchell shares his thoughts on what technology fits on his operation, what might need improvement, and the challenges of using complex tools in the remoteness of Canada’s vast prairie landscape.

Unique farm geographies bring unique technological challenges. For Mike Mitchell, the large acreages, wide spaces, and sheer remoteness of Southwestern Saskatchewan highlight practical limitations on what could be highly effective and important tools.

Technology is important – but sometimes, more complexity means more in-field problems.

Over-complicating ag-tech

Mitchell describes himself as someone excited about the capabilities of new technology, including data and automation tools. However, he feels developers might be over complicating things by not fully considering variations in on-the-ground conditions – both general and specific.

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Mike Mitchell: "“Variable rate is a lot of work and a lot of money. Then you need to upload them into all your monitors, and sometimes they don’t want to upload.” - Photo: Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell: "“Variable rate is a lot of work and a lot of money. Then you need to upload them into all your monitors, and sometimes they don’t want to upload.” - Photo: Mike Mitchell

Poor cell service

Poor cell service is one example of an overarching issue. Mitchell’s business is spread across a wide area – one where broad rolling horizons can astound those used to more enclosed terrain. Much of the area is very remote, meaning cell service is often weak and very intermittent. Even when present, signal strength can vary significantly from one part of the field to the next.

This reality makes contacting and coordinating with colleagues, as well as using digital tools reliant on cellular connectivity, a major challenge. In fields near the United States border, the added expense of using overpowering foreign networks is another compounding (and expensive) issue.

The scale of Canada’s prairie region also adds an interesting – and sometimes frustrating – element to troubleshooting.

We just need to keep things simple. We’re a hundred miles from anywhere

Fixing equipment hardware and software, Mitchell says, takes a long time since parts, manpower, and backup equipment need to be moved across vast distances. These delays, which can be very costly, happen more frequently as the number of additional parts and systems increases. Other factors, such as whether a repair needs to be done by a company expert or completed with an imported part, only exacerbate the issue.

“Automation is good when it works. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer it is,” says Mitchell. “We just need to keep things simple. We’re a hundred miles from anywhere.”

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An Air Tractor 402 turbine spray plane with 400-gallon tank capacity. Mitchell’s brother Brian pilots the craft. - Photo: Mike Mitchell
An Air Tractor 402 turbine spray plane with 400-gallon tank capacity. Mitchell’s brother Brian pilots the craft. - Photo: Mike Mitchell

Middling success with variable rate

For Mitchell, variable-rate technology exemplifies the challenges posed by the broad, intermittently connected open landscape. “Variable rate is a lot of work and a lot of money. Then you need to upload them into all your monitors, and sometimes they don’t want to upload,” he says.

“It just throws a huge logistical wrench into things. It’s completely useless to have a million-dollar seeding machine in the field, and you can’t upload a file.”

Despite a significant acreage, Mitchell says the variability of their soils is comparatively low. This allows them to take a more general, whole-field approach to soil sampling. Doing so is significantly cheaper and less time consuming than the much more intensive approach required for variable rate prescriptions.

We can do everything right, but if we don’t get the rainfall, it’s not going to matter what you do

Overall, he believes variable rate does have a purpose in areas where the land is inherently more varied. But in his experience, the relative consistency of their soils – and the relative constancy of dry conditions – make net returns hard to find.

“We have drought eight years out of ten. We can do everything right, but if we don’t get the rainfall, it’s not going to matter what you do.”

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A 620 hp 9620Rx John Deere 4 tracks, pulling one of the farm’s Bourgault air seeders. - Photo: Mike Mitchell
A 620 hp 9620Rx John Deere 4 tracks, pulling one of the farm’s Bourgault air seeders. - Photo: Mike Mitchell

Sectional control a clear winner

Conversely, Michell views sectional control as one of the most valuable tools on their farm. Used in seeding as well as spraying, the technology helps them efficiently reduce issues stemming from mile-long fields and slightly off-centre navigation.

When five seed drills are used to seed a 1,700-acre field, for example, small gaps between those seeders (a not uncommon occurrence despite GPS) can be miles long. Being able to shut off the bulk of a machine to cover remaining gaps is a huge boon to efficiency and input savings.

He also considers sectional control preferrable to individual sprayer nozzle control, given the additional wear-and-tear repeated on-off activity has on sprayer solenoids.

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Mike Mitchell's Fendt 9 combine. - Photo: Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell's Fendt 9 combine. - Photo: Mike Mitchell

An enthusiastic – but cautious – approach to innovation

Time management and the cost of breakdowns are always top-of-mind. From automation to artificial intelligence, Mitchell believes the possibilities for ag-tech are profound.

But as he, his family, and their employees cover their far-ranging acreage, they need to know the technologies they invest in are reliable, as well as fixable when problems do inevitably arise. Incorporating increasingly complex systems can be counterproductive by extension.

The price also needs to be right

Combined with sky-high equipment prices, the sheer cost of fixing problems – particularly when warranties have expired – is a significant deterrent to tech adoption. Indeed, Mitchell says they are considering moving to some older technologies because of the staggering and ever-growing cost of new equipment. Better problem-solving support and longer warranty periods could, in his opinion, make a significant difference.

“I want to stress, these are my farm’s issues” he says. “If they’re going to start bring out new technology, what’s it going to cost? Can we net anything? We’re not getting paid more for our bushels.”

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Mike Mitchell: “We run all the colours around here. Case, John Deere, Fendt – we like them all. They all have their pros and cons.” - Photo: Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell: “We run all the colours around here. Case, John Deere, Fendt – we like them all. They all have their pros and cons.” - Photo: Mike Mitchell

Mike Mitchell, Faith Hope Farms

Location: Saskatchewan, Canada.
Established: Mitchell’s grandparents established their prairie homestead in the early 20’th century. The home farm is still part of the family operation. He now farms with his brothers, father, and spouse.
Crops: Main crops include wheat, durum, canola, chickpeas, red lentils, and green lentils. Other crops such as soybeans, sunflowers, and oats have been grown occasionally.
Acreage: 40,000 acres in total. Fields range in size from 40 to 5500 acres, with an average of 640 acres (equal to one section).
Employees: Faith Hope Farms maintains six full time employees, as well as seasonal hires.
Equipment: Mitchell operates a wide-ranging, multi-coloured fleet designed to cover more acres using fewer resources. Some makes and models include:
• Bourgault 3320 XTC (eXtra Terrain Contour) air drills with an 84-foot swath, 1340-bushel tank capacity.
• 9620Rx John Deere 4 tracks
• Fendt 1050
• Fendt Ideal 9
• John Deere S690
• Case 4440 and John Deere 4060 high clearance sprayers.
• Air Tractor 402 turbine spray plane with 400-gallon capacity.

Interested in Mike Mitchell’s perspective? Visit his YouTube channel!

2 comments

  • C Willness

    Mike you haven’t tried SWAT MAPS variable rate services. With Bourgault carts its easy as pie to load prescriptions. Plus I can guarantee you that water collecting areas within a field have a bigger opportunity than water shedding areas.

  • NJ Edwards

    Poor phone signal can be a problem even in the Uk.
    It is a shame that technology cannot be used to its full potential because of a poor phone .The concern of expense,reliability and backup is of great concern to farmers who operate on such low margin, in some years a negative one!!!!!
    I am sure many of “The Farming Forum” members think the same wherever they farm on the planet.

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