Sally Johnson was jolted awake by the ring of her cellphone one night this summer.

It wasn’t the emergency call or text message from a family member one might expect in the wee hours of the morning. Instead, it was an alert from an app she uploaded to track Stella, a pregnant horse at Virginia Tech’s Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Stella was in labor. The smart halter she wore sensed her heightened activity level, information that was instantly relayed to Johnson’s phone. Johnson jumped out of bed and returned to the barn in time to assist the thoroughbred with giving birth to her foal, Paco.

This type of innovative technology and examples of industry partnerships, beyond valuable to farmers, their animals, and their crops, were on display at the inaugural Ag-Tech Field Day. The MARE Center, located on a 420-acre farm in Middleburg, was host to the exhibition that featured dozens of technology industry representatives, Virginia Cooperative Extension agents, university faculty and administrators, and local farm and stable owners.

Hundreds of visitors of all ages and from throughout the commonwealth and beyond visited the booths that highlighted the latest digital tools, apps, and services available to horse owners, livestock producers, and row crop farmers.

Johnson, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesSchool of Animal Sciences and head of the equine exercise program at the MARE Center, helped organize the event that was sparked by an idea to showcase the important intersection of technology, cybersecurity, and agriculture. Susan Duncan, the former director of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture who passed away in October, spearheaded and helped secure funding for the event through a grant from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. The center was created to leverage science and technology to create transformative solutions to support agriculture and food systems, the environment, and communities in the commonwealth and beyond.

Representatives of the Loudoun County and Fauquier County Extension offices were major partners and organizers of the inaugural event. Agents from these offices provided training, helped with event promotion, attracted venders and attendees, and actively participated in the event. They also recruited several local schools to attend and organized an educational scavenger hunt for students. Becca Emory, programs assistant for the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, and MARE Center superintendent Tait Golighty, were also contributors.

“The event was an excellent opportunity for effective collaboration between multiple departments and offices within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, including the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture, the MARE Center, local Extension units, as well as Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture,” said Extension agent James Hilleary, who serves as Loudoun’s ANR-Livestock Agent and Unit Coordinator. “In addition to developing relationships across Blacksburg, Petersburg, and Middleburg, other immediate impacts from the field day were increased exposure to the MARE Center as a technology hub and increased awareness of the depth and breadth of knowledge available to the community from Loudoun and Fauquier County VCE.”

“The agricultural industry has gained so much from the advances in technology and from the important partnerships we have formed with industry leaders,” Johnson said. “Not only are these innovations making the work of growers and farmers easier and more efficient, this technology is also benefiting the livelihood of the plants and animals that they rely on. Today, agriculture and technology go hand-in-hand, and that relationship is an important one to showcase, support, and advance.”

Jimmy Mullins of Virginia State University (left) explains his aquaponics display to participants at the Ag-Tech Field Day at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Photo by Mary Hardbarger for Virginia Tech.

Jimmy Mullins of Virginia State University (left) explains his aquaponics display to participants at the Ag-Tech Field Day at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Photo by Mary Hardbarger for Virginia Tech.
Jimmy Mullins of Virginia State University (at left) explains his aquaponics display to participants at the Ag-Tech Field Day at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Photo by Mary Hardbarger for Virginia Tech.

Similar to the technology behind Stella’s smart halter, created by the company NIGHTWATCH, the software system EquiTrace and its microchip technology also was represented at the exhibition. EquiTrace was founded in Ireland by a pair of veterinarians to help stakeholders, such as racehorse owners and their caregivers, trace horses and their health. The software is linked to a microchip inside the horse that can report its GPS location and important health information, such as temperature and prescribed medications.

Horses aren’t the only livestock to reap the benefits of smart technology. At the Datamars Livestock booth, representatives highlighted a smart ear tag used on cattle. With just a quick click to the lobe, a smart ear tag not only serves the traditional role of marking a cow’s sex and flock, it also collects a small sample of its DNA – much like the popular ancestry DNA kits do with humans.

Outside the tent filled with vendors, visitors were drawn to a large white drone resting underneath the Xelevate tent. The US-1 is one of many unmanned aerial vehicles Xelevate staff test at the company’s drone testing facility, located about an hour outside of Washington, D.C. Unlike smaller drones, the US-1 can hover in the air for about 70 minutes, compared to average drones that can only fly for about 20 before needing a charge. Other advances the company is exploring is the attachment of sprayers and multi-spectral cameras to help growers assess the growth and water levels of their crop.    

Water is essential to plants and animals, alike, made evident at Jimmy Mullins’ makeshift aquaponics display inside a horse stall. Mullins, tour manager of Randolph Farm, is teaching farmers how to grow lettuce and raise tilapia in harmony and ultimately, to make more money than just selling one or the other.

Waste from the tilapia is filtered and altered to produce nitrates that are beneficial to plant growth. Nutrients from the plants seep back into the water in which the tilapia thrive.

“It’s the circle of life on display,” Mullins said.

Mullins was just one of many Extension agents on hand at the exhibition to offer advice and to connect stakeholders with industry partners. They also were there to educate, especially the younger students in attendance. Five area high schools sent students to the event on a scavenger hunt. The winners of the hunt – students from Fauquier High School – were awarded a prize representative of the ag-tech exhibition: a trophy adorned with symbolic relics of the past, present, and future agricultural industry.

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