Becoming One with the Machine

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The DOT Power Platform is designed to handle a large variety of implements commonly used in agriculture.

This new seeding innovation is one example of how new ideas are transforming precision ag.

Agriculture – like all other sectors – is changing fast, with new technologies and computing power now being employed to achieve things our grandparents wouldn’t believe. One example of these achievements is precision agriculture, and Saskatchewan-based SeedMaster has taken precision ag a step further on its evolutionary path by developing the DOT Power Platform.

The DOT Power Platform is designed to handle a large variety of implements commonly used in agriculture, mining and construction. Its U-shaped frame directly loads implements so that they ‘become one’ with the machine. It can be run by remote control or in completely autonomous mode.

DOT is the brainchild of SeedMaster founder Norbert Beaujot, and it’s one of a long line of innovations Beaujot has dreamed up and brought to reality over his long career. Both his background in farming and his education as an agricultural engineer at the University of Saskatchewan prepared him for this calling.

“As a company, we’re always striving for more efficiencies and profitability at the farm level, and on that continuous quest, we’ve developed quite a few pieces of equipment,” Beaujot explains. “We’ve grown in precision ag, in metering and everything else seeding related. We were the first to build an 80-foot and then a 100-foot seeder, both with high capabilities in metering and other areas of operation.”

Indeed, it was thinking about larger equipment that led Beaujot to come up with DOT.

“I was thinking, how do we regain efficiencies that we lost in going bigger?” he recalls. “It was an evolution of thoughts about this in the beginning. Of course, we’re always hearing about autonomous cars and autonomous buses in the media, which also got me thinking about autonomous agriculture. From having the idea, it was a series of sketches and brainstorming various designs, looking at how one unit can power all the different implements.”

For most of the next two years, Beaujot worked out all the details, everything from how to mount the steering and wheels to where the engine should sit.

“I didn’t want a traditional tractor design of course. The U-shape means DOT can drive ‘into’ any implement made to receive it, and you just have to attach hydraulic hoses and electrical, but someday that might be automatic as well.”

After the U-shape came to him as the best design, the other components had to be fitted, but he’s always really looking for a simple way of doing things, he explains. “I filed the patents pretty early on and to file, you have to work out a lot of details and provide sketches.”

Beaujot decided to place the engine and some other things on one of the side rails, making it possible for tanks and other things to be placed on the other side, and for seeding and tillage equipment to go below the rails. Then he had to scale the unit correctly for efficient operation on large farms.

In terms of autonomous operation on-farm, the first step is to load boundary and field obstacle information into the system. A few seconds later, the DOT software creates a path plan, which is then approved by the farmer and can be altered at any time to address changing field conditions. During actual operation, DOT’s short- and long-range sensors allow it to sense any issues in its path, and if it’s unsure how to proceed, it will send an alert to its farmer-owner.

A prototype DOT unit is busy powering a seeder, sprayer, land roller and grain cart on research fields. In 2018, there will be a limited release of DOT to select farms in Saskatchewan, followed by broader distribution nationally and beyond in due course. Since its launch at the Ag in Motion show in Saskatchewan in July of 2017, it’s not surprising that DOT has received a groundswell of interest inside and outside of agriculture from around the world.

Norbert’s son and DOT marketing and sales manager Cory Beaujot believes the seed-growing industry would benefit from the DOT model of autonomous agriculture in several ways.

“Pre-plotted-out maps of seeded areas dedicated to this variety or that and safe and easy transition between different varieties, are a couple of things that come to me right away,” he says.

Norbert adds: “The way DOT keeps track of everything — the day, weather, plot size, GPS coordinates and so on — it makes it easy for farmers to keep historical records and for researchers to replicate trials. Whether it’s a seed grower or non-seed-growing farmer, they don’t want to lose anything, don’t want to damage seed or waste anything, and DOT also assists with that.”

The Future

Cory notes that food security is of ultimate concern to a huge percentage of the world’s population today and that it’s only going to become more important as we march forward.

“Various aspects of food security are beyond our control — climate, weather patterns, to a lesser degree global politics and so on,” he says. “That said, things like crop genetics, efficiency-enhanced shifts in the food production and distribution systems are under our control. This is where SeedMaster and DOT step in. If we don’t think out of the box, we’re more likely to replicate the inefficiencies of the past. Out-of-the-box thinking shakes things up, ruffles feathers, creates dialogues and leads to innovation and positive change.”

The absence of a good labour source for farms, Norbert adds, is another reason agriculture is going to continue to need innovative thinking.

Canadian futurist Richard Worzel agrees. He believes precision ag systems will become more prevalent because there will be fewer people willing or able to become farmers, and Canada will need more systems that both cut down on labour and increase productivity. He notes that “software programs that can watch for you and alert you, can come up with quantitative analysis based on in-depth analysis of massive amounts of data. DOT combines some of that and these systems will only get more common.”

While he notes systems like DOT are innovative, they’re not a true form of artificial intelligence. Worzel foresee a possible future where farms may have a true AI that a sub-system like DOT reports to when it runs into a problem, instead of reporting to a human being.

As for how he achieves his out-of-the-box thinking, Norbert gives much of the credit to his ability to simply dwell on a problem.

“In the first two years, there were very few days I didn’t think about it, some days three hours and some days 11 hours,” he says. “A lot of people would get bored. I don’t consider myself smart beyond the average, but I have the ability to focus intensely on a mechanical problem and come up with solutions.”

He adds: “I’ve read that Einstein would think and think and not get very far and go fishing and it would be there. So sometimes taking a break really works well. But when the subconscious mind comes up with something that seems complex, I’ve found it’s really a bunch of simple thoughts that come together.”

Pioneering work on Fusarium head blight in rye

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Based on the study's preliminary results, some rye lines, like the one shown here, are susceptible to Fusarium head blight, but most are in the resistant to intermediate range. (Photo: Duoduo Wang, University of Manitoba)

Unlike other cereal crops affected by Fusarium head blight (FHB), very little is known about FHB in fall rye from a Canadian perspective. We don’t know how serious a concern FHB might be in our rye crops. We don’t know which Fusarium species are infecting rye. We don’t have FHB ratings for our current rye varieties. And we have limited information on optimal timing for fungicide applications to manage FHB in rye.

So Jamie Larsen with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at Lethbridge and Anita Brûlé-Babel with the University of Manitoba have teamed up on a project to develop FHB-related information and tools that rye growers need.

“This research is new territory from a Canadian and even a North American perspective,” says Larsen, who has breeding programs for open-pollinated fall rye and several other cereals.

“Rye has not had a lot of attention from Canadian researchers and growers for a very long time. But the playing field has changed with the new rye hybrids. They are significantly higher yielding, they are shorter, and they are easier to harvest. So now there is renewed interest in rye,” notes Brûlé-Babel. “It’s important to get a sense of how rye responds to Fusarium head blight and whether there is going to be an issue with the disease and what rye growers should do in conditions where Fusarium is a concern.”

Larsen became interested in the issue due to several factors that have emerged in recent years. “Initially when I started working in rye, I had looked at the literature and I thought the disease wasn’t a major problem. Also, the main areas where rye is traditionally grown – north of Swift Current and around the Great Sand Hills area in Saskatchewan – aren’t huge Fusarium head blight areas. And rye has this natural ability to be tolerant to a lot of diseases. So I wasn’t too worried about Fusarium head blight,” he explains.

“But then I sent some rye varieties to Ontario as checks in a triticale experiment. And as I was walking along in those plots, I saw a rye variety with its head completely glued shut and pink with Fusarium. I’d never seen anything like it.” As well, he found out FHB occurs in Prairie rye crops through his work as the coordinator for the fall rye cooperative registration trial. Each year, the trial is grown at 15 locations across Western Canada, and in some years Fusarium-damaged kernels (FDK) have been found in the grain samples from the trials.

Another driver for Larsen was the potential, especially with the new hybrids, to sell more rye into the feed and food markets. To help in realizing that potential, he saw the need to know more about FHB’s impacts on rye yield and quality – particularly since Fusarium species can release toxins that can limit the use of grain in feed and food – and the need to develop FHB-resistant rye varieties and other tools to manage the disease.

FHB is not common in the Lethbridge area, but it is a widespread concern in Manitoba, and Brûlé-Babel conducts screening for FHB resistance as part of her winter wheat breeding program. So Brûlé-Babel and Larsen brought together their different areas of expertise to develop their plans for the project. Also joining the project is KWS, the German company that has developed several hybrid ryes for Canadian growers.

Evaluating Rye Lines for Resistance

Brûlé-Babel is screening fall rye lines for FHB resistance at her FHB nurseries at Winnipeg and Carman. To increase the potential for disease development, her research team inoculates the rye lines with Fusarium graminearum, the most common of several Fusarium species that cause FHB in Manitoba cereals.

The FHB responses of the rye lines are measured in three ways: disease levels in the field; FDK levels in the grain; and concentrations in the grain of deoxynivalenol (DON), the primary toxin produced by Fusarium graminearum.

In 2017, they evaluated about 70 rye lines, including materials from Canada, the United States, Germany, Russia and other countries, as well as lines from Larsen’s breeding program and from KWS. Current Canadian rye cultivars are included in the screening so growers will be able to get information on FHB ratings to help in choosing rye varieties for their farms. For 2018, the researchers have added more rye lines from KWS, so the total is now about 130 lines.

The 2017 results showed that FHB definitely occurs in rye and that some lines are more resistant than others.

“Overall, we’re not seeing very many lines that are as susceptible as our susceptible wheat checks. And most of the rye lines are in the resistant to intermediate range,” notes Brûlé-Babel.

The testing for FDK and DON in the 2017 samples will be done in the coming months by KWS. However, based on what Brûlé-Babel’s team observed in the field and as the grain samples were harvested, it appears that FHB infection often tends to cause the rye plant not to set seed. As a result, the FDK levels are lower than would be expected in a wheat crop with similar field infection levels.

Brûlé-Babel had heard anecdotally through their KWS collaborators that DON levels in rye tend to be quite low. She suspects this could turn out to be true if there aren’t many infected kernels in the harvested grain to contribute to DON in the samples.

“So my guess at this point is that the biggest problem from Fusarium head blight for rye producers might turn out to be yield loss as opposed to a crop that you can’t market [due to FDK and DON],” she says.

Once they have two years of data from the nurseries, Larsen will start making crosses with some of the FHB-resistant lines so he can develop new open-pollinated varieties with this trait.

Other Fusarium Species

Brûlé-Babel is also leading two other FHB/rye studies for the project. One study is looking into other Fusarium species that cause FHB in rye. “Not a lot is known about which Fusarium species infect rye [on the Prairies], so we’ve worked with Maria Antonia Henriquez at AAFC’s Morden Research and Development Centre. She does a Fusarium survey every year, collecting diseased plants from [spring wheat and winter wheat fields in Manitoba]. So we asked if she could also collect samples from rye fields,” explains Brûlé-Babel.

One of Brûlé-Babel’s graduate students, Duoduo Wang, has isolated the Fusarium species from the Manitoba rye samples. Wang has identified the species based on the appearance of the fungi when grown in the lab, and she will be doing some DNA marker work to confirm the identifications. The preliminary results indicate that the most common species was Fusarium graminearum, but other species were also present.

In 2018, Wang will be doing a greenhouse study to examine the infection process and see how the different Fusarium species interact with selected rye cultivars.

Optimizing Fungicide Timing

Wang is also working on the other study, which is investigating fungicide timing for managing FHB in rye. “Very little information is available on fungicide timing for rye for this disease. We need to develop some basis for timing recommendations,” says Brûlé-Babel.

According to Larsen, the general recommendation for fungicide timing for FHB in wheat is to spray two days after heading because wheat plants usually flower about two days after heading. But in rye, flowering might not start until seven to 14 days after heading. In that long heading/flowering period, what is the best time to apply a fungicide?

Brûlé-Babel also points out that, because rye is an outcrossing species, its florets are open for a longer period than the florets of a self-pollinating species like wheat, and it may be that a fungicide might interfere with pollination and seed set in rye.

From the rye lines being screened in the nursery, Wang has selected an FHB-susceptible cultivar, a cultivar with an intermediate response, and an FHB-resistant cultivar to use in the fungicide trials. The trials will take place at Winnipeg and Carman. The fungicide will be Prosaro, a commonly used fungicide that is registered for FHB suppression in wheat and barley.

The trials will compare four fungicide timings: at 50 per cent heading; at 10 per cent anthesis, which is when 10 per cent of the flowers on the spike have extruded anthers; at 80 per cent anthesis; and at six days after flowering. Brûlé-Babel’s team will be inoculating the plants with Fusarium graminearum. The trials will also have two types of check plots: inoculated with no fungicide and non-inoculated with no fungicide.

Larsen hopes they’ll be able to figure out an easy-to-use general rule for FHB fungicide timing in rye similar to the two-days-after-heading guideline for wheat. He adds, “The hybrids are typically a lot more uniform in flowering timing than the open-pollinated ryes, so fungicide timing for open-pollinated ryes might turn out to be a little trickier.”

Practical Results

This pioneering project will lead to practical information, improved varieties and other tools for rye growers in Western Canada and perhaps other regions of the country.

“Providing good information for farmers to make decisions is very important. Part of the reason we’re doing this research is to make sure there won’t be any surprises in terms of potential Fusarium problems for rye growers,” Brûlé-Babel says. “I’m quite excited about the revival of interest in rye because it’s a very good crop for many uses and definitely contributes to diversification on the landscape.”

This FHB research is part of a larger project led by Larsen on rye disease issues that also includes work on ergot and rust. Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Western Grains Research Foundation, Western Winter Wheat Initiative, Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission, FP Genetics, KWS and Bayer CropScience are funding the project.

Lyster, Whiting Honoured by Alberta Seed Growers

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Norm Lyster, centre, was presented the ASG's Honorary Life Award by ASG co-vice-president Renee DeWindt-Hoyme, and ASG president Ward Oatway.

The Alberta Seed Growers honoured two individuals at their recent annual general meeting in Banff, Alta.

Norm Lyster was presented the Honorary Life Award in recognition of his valuable service to the seed industry in Alberta.

Lyster attended his first CSGA AGM in Banff as a seven-year-old in 1961 and has been involved with the Canadian Seed Growers in an official capacity since 1976.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in agricultural economics, from the University of Alberta, where his thesis focused on market risk and the maturing risk reduction market for feed pea producers. He also obtained an MSc Ag. in 1999, majoring in marketing and trade, under a fellowship from the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange.

Lyster has worked as owner, operator and manager of Lyster Farms Ltd. Integrated Pedigreed seed production, processing and sales since the 1980s. He is a CSGA recognized Select and Foundation Grower, and accredited grader and operator with the Canadian Seed Institute.

Lyster’s involvement in the Alberta and Canadian Seed Growers has been long-running and multi-faceted. He was elected a provincial director of the Alberta branch of the CSGA in 1999 and served as national representative from 2003-2014. He was then elected president of the CSGA and served from 2014 to 2016 in that capacity. He is currently the past president of the organization.

Trent Whiting, centre, was presented with the Bill Witbeck Outstanding Service Award by ASG co-vice-president Tracy Niemela and ASG president Ward Oatway.

This year, Trent Whiting was presented with the Bill Witbeck Outstanding Service Award, for his outstanding contributions to pedigreed seed production.

Whiting, Alberta/B.C. marketing representative with SeCan, has a degree in agriculture from the University of Alberta. For over 25 years, he has worked closely with seed growers in the seed industry. He started his seed career in Edmonton with UGG Forage and Special Crops in a production role. He remained with UGG/ Proven Seed until 2007, then a short time with BrettYoung before joining SeCan in the spring of 2008.

Whiting is a coach to his friends, his members at SeCan and his competitors in the industry – he has a drive to make all those around him better, and puts the needs of his members and their customers ahead of his own interests.

In his role at SeCan, Whiting helps his members and their customers choose the best products for their farms – this may not always be a SeCan product and this is noted and appreciated by all. Recently, Whiting has taken on the added responsibility of stock seed production at SeCan in the west.

Congratulations to Norm and Trent for their past and on-going contributions toward a strong seed industry in Alberta.