AI: New v. old

By Matt Reese

I was recently giving a presentation to a farm group and a question came up about AI. Maybe for the first time ever, my mind immediately went to the 2024 definition of cutting-edge AI technology in agriculture instead of the 1938 definition of cutting-edge AI technology in agriculture.

In the 1920s and 30s, Russian scientist Ivanovich Ivanov developed the earliest techniques for artificially inseminating horses, cattle and sheep. By 1938 the practice had gotten started in the United States. Ivanov’s AI, of course, dramatically changed the future of animal agriculture. It was not that long ago I could safely assume that a reference to AI meant this one very specific practice in agricultural circles, but that, of course, has changed.

While the new AI has yet to eclipse the agricultural importance of the old AI, Artificial Intelligence is becoming a growing part of daily life for many people, including farmers. Maybe the most significant on-farm example of this is the use of (new) AI-powered milking robots that have been life-changing in terms of labor, data collection and improved milk yield for many small- to medium-sized dairy farms. Milking robot economics do not often work out as well for larger dairy operations, but Chris Weaver’s Williams County dairy operation milking just under 5,000 cows has implemented (new) AI in other ways to benefit the operation.

“We’re definitely focused on ways that we can educate the public and recognize who’s entering our facility and just being cautious. We don’t have doors where we can lock people out. People can kind of wander in, so we’re keeping track of that traffic. In the last 5 years we’ve installed video cameras on all our facilities. We have an AI system we’re installing that will actually notify us of human and animal interactions that are questionable so we can review and educate the employees about what they’re doing. In the event that there’s a more difficult situation, we can give a personal warning,” Weaver said. “We want to make sure we’re retaining and educating the employees to really take care of the animals at a different level. We’re going to go above and beyond. We want to have an open environment where people can walk on our farms in a safe manner and we want them to see that we’re doing a good job.”

Looking forward, Weaver sees AI possibly playing an even greater role in dairy production.

“I think technology could — and this is a bold statement — potentially revolutionize the dairy industry over the next 20 years. For years, breeder services and others put ear tags in the cows that can track ruminations and other things. We’re doing a little bit of a trial on a system that’s a bolus that you actually put in the cow and it’ll track how much water that cow is drinking, how much she’s moving for breeding purposes and about 10 other things,” Weaver said. “We have an employee looking at that instead of us going out and looking at every individual animal and checking temperatures and all of that. Now we have all that data on the computer and we’re finding early issues with the cows that we never found before. So, I think there’s a lot of benefit there. The challenge is that it’s a lot of expense. Am I spending the money on this technology too soon?”

Beyond dairy, there are applications for (new) AI for all types of livestock monitoring and extensive possibilities for tracking the minutia of crop production as well. Moving forward there are seemingly limitless possibilities for benefitting agricultural production.

Going back to the question about AI I was asked in my recent presentation to a farm group, my answer was different than it would have been a couple of years ago. The question was something like: In what ways does AI affect your job in agricultural communications? Even just a few months ago, my answer would have been, “not really that much, so far.” But I recently realized the incredibly handy feature I have on my computer that quickly and accurately transcribes audio interviews is powered by AI. For example, if Joel Penhorwood does a video interview, I can simply play the video on my computer and hit a button to transcribe the whole thing for the purposes of a written story. I used to have to type all of this in myself — a long and tedious task. AI also plays an increasingly important role in organizing and automating coordination between the print, online and radio components of Ohio’s Country Journal and Ohio Ag Net. In addition, there is plenty of technology available to write complete stories about farm topics using AI by simply entering a question or two. With that in mind, we asked (new) AI-powered ChatGPT 4 the following question: As the technology continues to improve, could artificial intelligence reach the agricultural significance of artificial insemination? I’ll defer to (new) AI for the final say on the subject with this answer provided:

The trajectory of technological advancements in agriculture suggests that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasingly transformative role, potentially eclipsing the longstanding significance of artificial insemination. AI’s scope in agriculture extends far beyond a single application; it encompasses precision farming, crop and soil monitoring, predictive analysis, and automated decision-making, among others. These applications can dramatically increase efficiency, yield, and sustainability, addressing both present and future challenges in food production. Meanwhile, artificial insemination, despite being revolutionary for genetic improvement and herd management, represents a more focused domain of influence. As the agricultural sector grapples with the complexities of climate change, resource scarcity, and escalating global food demand, the broad, integrative potential of AI to optimize multiple facets of farming practice and supply chains is likely to be viewed as increasingly vital. Thus, while both technologies will remain important, AI’s expansive impact across a wide array of agricultural processes positions it as a key driver of future agricultural innovation and productivity.

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