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Robotic Milkers and an Automated Greenhouse: Inside a High-Tech Small Farm

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BULGER, Pa. — About 150 Jersey cows in the rolling terrain at Rivendale Farms in Bulger, some 25 miles west of Pittsburgh, wear Fitbit-like collars that monitor their movement, eating and rumination patterns. They are milked not by humans but by robotic machines.

A nearby greenhouse, about a quarter-acre in size and filled with salad-bowl crops like kale, arugula and baby carrots, is automated. The temperature, humidity and sunlight are controlled by sensors and retractable metallic screens. And soon, small robots may roam the farm’s eight acres of vegetable crops outdoors to spot disease and pluck weeds.

Farming in America is increasingly a high-tech endeavor. Combines guided by GPS, drones, satellite imagery, soil sensors and supercomputers all help the nation’s food production. Yet that technology is mainly tailored for big industrial farms, where fields stretch as far as the eye can see.

Rivendale Farms, which has just completed its first year of full operations, offers a glimpse of technology coming available for smaller farms.

Technology for giant farms is all about increasing yields and cutting costs. For smaller farms, too, efficiency is paramount. But technology can also eliminate a lot of tedious, routine labor — a lifestyle payoff that can help persuade a younger generation to stay put on family farms rather than sell out.

Smaller farms typically raise specialty crops on limited acreage. Specialty farming requires a scaled-down approach, like the small robots being developed for Rivendale by scientists at nearby Carnegie Mellon University and the expanding array of equipment from the “slow tools” movement, a group of farmers and engineers designing affordable tools for small farms.

The goal at Rivendale, said Thomas Tull, the farm’s owner, is to create a “boutique, cutting-edge farm, enabled by technology, that produces great food.”

Rivendale can afford its combination of cutting-edge commercial technology and science experiments because Mr. Tull is a billionaire serial entrepreneur, investor in tech-related ventures and former film producer. He is also on the board of Carnegie Mellon. He has spent several million dollars on Rivendale so far. But the plan, Mr. Tull said, is for the farm to become self-sustaining by 2020.

So Rivendale can try more things at once than others can. But its efforts, experts say, are part of a broader trend among small farmers seeking to raise healthy food and livestock using less fossil fuel, fertilizer and processed feed.

“We’re seeing greater use of modern technology and tools in smaller, soil-based farming, and that vision is being wholeheartedly embraced at Rivendale,” said Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit farm in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., that has been a leading advocate for sustainable agriculture on small farms.

Mr. Tull bought the land in 2015, and construction started the next year. It is now a diversified operation with milking cows, breeding cows, vegetable crops, corn for feed, chickens, even honeybees.

Rivendale, including pasture land, cover crops and woods, spans 175 acres. Farming in America has been consolidating for decades, with the average size of a farm being 444 acres in 2017, according to government statistics. And more than half of the value produced by the nation’s agricultural sector is generated by a small fraction of very large farms, 2,660 acres on average.

Rivendale’s milk, eggs and produce are sold to selected local restaurants and hotels. It also supplies food to the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which Mr. Tull is a part owner.

Walk into the dairy barn at Rivendale and there are no people — only cows, an automated feed system and three robotic milking machines.

The Rivendale cows are milked four times a day on average, when they feel ready, compared with the traditional twice-a-day regimen when humans manage the milking. And its Jersey cows produce 15 percent more milk than the average for the breed, with a higher protein and butterfat content, said Christine Grady, general manager of Rivendale.

“They eat when they want, lie down when they want and feed when they want,” Ms. Grady said. “And a happier cow produces more milk and better milk.”

It takes a week or two for the cows to get accustomed to the robotic milkers and the built-in incentives, said Rodney Rankin, who leads the dairy operations. The milking stations have vanilla-flavored feed pellets, but a cow cannot just come back repeatedly for the treats. Sensors and a scale — a cow’s weight can vary by up to 75 pounds in a day — prevent cows without reasonably full udders from getting in.

Once the cow is in the stall, the teats and udder are washed with little rotary brushes. Lasers scan and guide the milk suction devices onto each of the four teats. Milking time is six minutes on average. At the end, the cow is sprayed with iodine and steam to clean its udder.

Robotic milkers have been available for years. But the technology has steadily improved, requiring far less human assistance than a few years ago.

The machines cost about $200,000 each. Without them, and an automated feeding system, the milking barn at Rivendale would require five workers instead of being mainly overseen by one, Ms. Grady said.

The Rivendale robotic milking machines are made by Lely, a Dutch company and a leader in the industry. In some European countries, up to 30 percent of the cows are milked by machine, while in the United States the share is about 2 percent, estimates Mathew Haan, a dairy technology expert at Pennsylvania State University’s agriculture extension program.

The gap, Mr. Haan said, is largely explained by more generous programs that support milk prices as well as higher labor costs than in America. These two factors have encouraged investment in automation in Europe.

In the United States, even large-herd producers with thousands of cows in California, which have been labor-intensive operations, are beginning to try robotic milking machines. That is driven partly by changing immigration policies that may create a shortage of farm workers. But to date, the main market has been smaller operations with 120 to 240 milking cows, said Steve Fried, Lely’s North American sales manager.

George Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics institute, is leading the effort at Rivendale to develop “scouting robots” to identify disease and weeds in the vegetable field, and then send smartphone alerts if there is a problem.

His team did field work and collected data in the fall, then shifted to a university lab for the winter. Computer vision and machine learning, Mr. Kantor said, will be deployed to distinguish healthy plants from diseased ones and weeds.

A next step would be to get rid of weeds. Organic farming avoids pesticides. And digging up or pulling weeds, Mr. Kantor said, would require hand-like grasping and holding, a more daunting robotic task, where progress has been slower.

Some technology at Rivendale is more neat hack than high tech. Susanna Meyer, the head of crop production, is fond of a greens cutter whose engine is a battery-powered electric drill, and a small electric tiller called the Tillie — one of the slow-tools implements.

Michael McGowen, a former staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, bought a farm in Oregon a decade ago, started growing vegetables and found there were no affordable tools for small farms. So he designed his own including the Tillie, whose basic model sells for $495, and set up a business, Carts and Tools, in Corvallis, Ore.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a leading distributor of the small-scale farming tools, has seen that business increase fivefold over the last 10 years, said Adam Lemieux, the company’s product manager for tools and supplies.

To most longtime farmers, A.I. stands for artificial insemination, not digital wizardry. But a new generation of family farmers is welcoming robotic assistants and smartphone apps.

“They have a different mind-set, and they are all trying to figure out a path ahead for their family farms and where technology fits in,” said Jeff Ainslie, a vice president of Red Barn Consulting, which advises family farmers.

Scott Flory is one of them. After earning his degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech, Mr. Flory returned to his family farm in Dublin, Va., in 2009, with ideas for modernizing its operations.

Since then, the farm has installed four of the Lely robotic milkers, equipped the cows with activity trackers and doubled the number of its milking cows to 240, without adding workers. The farm remains almost entirely a family affair, run by him, his wife, Laura, and his parents, Dale and Janet.

“I wouldn’t be in the dairy business today without this stuff,” said Mr. Flory, who is 30.

At Rivendale, Mr. Tull, the owner, has no doubt that advancing technology will transform smaller farms someday.

But after closely observing the operations at Rivendale this past year, he said, “You come away with a tremendous respect for farmers, and that the work is hard and complex. The key is getting the right mix of art and science.”

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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