Remote tractor diagnosis, disease-resistant pigs: Panel talks tech influence on ag
From left, Christoph Bausch of SAB Biotherapeutics, Alan Young of Medgene and Chad Yagow of John Deere, at a panel on agriculture and technology on Oct. 12, 2023, in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
SIOUX FALLS – Agriculture has already been remade by precision technology, but the rapid proliferation of algorithmic machine-learning tools will continue to alter industry norms for years to come.
That was among the key takeaways from a panel of ag experts at the South Dakota Biotech summit and annual meeting on Thursday at the Minnehaha Country Club.
Chad Yagow of John Deere told the audience that precision agricultural tools can now help farmers do things like apply the ideal amount of fertilizer to the spot where a seed is planted, rather than to an entire row.
For John Deere, the shift toward computer-assisted crop cultivation has reshaped the way the iconic farm brand does business, from a “hard iron company to a technology company.”
Yagow is one of 25 agronomists on staff now to help fine-tune the company’s analytical tools – quite a jump from the two employed eight years ago.
“We’ve switched to a production system mentality, where we take a look at, say, soybean production in the Midwest, or cotton production in the Delta, or sugarcane production in Brazil,” Yagow said. “We try to understand all the jobs that are going on there, and how Deere can add to the value that the customers are trying to generate.”
Implement dealers have had to adapt, as well, he said. Dealers can now get alerts from the smart farm machinery working the fields, then alert the owner to the issue “before a lot of them even know they have a problem.”
Sometimes Deere employees can “remote” into a software system to make adjustments without needing to make a trip to a farm. The company’s “precision upgrade” packages can be retrofitted to older machinery, he said, opening up the high-tech tools to farmers who can’t afford to drop tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment.
On the animal agriculture side, advances in computing power have allowed veterinarians to respond to and quash disease by adding the genetic sequence of a new or localized version of a virus into adaptable “platforms,” according to Alan Young of Brookings-based Medgene.
Young’s company has a federally approved platform technology, which he likens to a Keurig coffee maker. Adding a new virus to the platform returns a new vaccine, much like the coffee machine can make any flavor plopped into its holster.
“We actually have more advanced technology now in animal health than we do for humans,” Young said, owing in part to the ability to test new treatments in animals without the rigorous consent processes attached to human medication trials.
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Animal agriculture has gone a step further with genetically altered animals, trailing decades behind plant technologies like herbicide-resistant seed. Pigs can be born resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) through gene editing, and scientists recently released a study on bird flu-resistant chickens.
Regulatory issues and public perception can stand in the way, Young said.
“All of this has to be borne out with the challenges of getting that from the bench, through the regulatory environment and ultimately, implementation in the field and public acceptance,” Young said.
Moderator Christoph Bausch of SAB Biotherapeutics in Sioux Falls said the yearslong regulatory process can be daunting, but he also said that making the investment of time and treasure it takes to push through a novel technology can pay off.
Among other things, SAB uses genetically modified cattle to make medicine for humans. Cattle immune systems respond to disease as human immune systems would, making it possible to test vaccines without a threat to the health of human test subjects.
It took years to get approval for the approach, but it was worth it inasmuch as being first can serve as a guidebook for others.
“You can essentially write the book on your technology,” Bausch said.
SAB is currently focused on producing treatments for Type 1 diabetes, Bausch said, which is a form of diabetes present at birth. The goal is to delay the onset and progression of the disease, and the company has the financial support of investors like the JDRF Type-1 Diabetes Fund.
“We are on our way for Type-1 diabetes,” he said.
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