Microsoft butters up Land O'Lakes for agriculture support using AI, cloud and IoT

Land O'Lakes and Microsoft team up to devloe AI and cloud capabilities to support farming in rural communities. (Microsoft)

Over the past several years, the agriculture industry has been rocked by trade issues, workforce problems and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, but Microsoft is bringing its cloud, AI and IoT expertise into a partnership with Land O'Lakes to help farming become more stable and profitable.

Land O'Lakes is one of the nation's largest farmer-owned co-ops with 150 million acres of cropland in its network. Land O'Lake's membership is comprised of more than 300,000 producers that farm about half of America’s harvested fields.

Over the years, farmers have been using computer modeling, algorithms and replicated trials to derive insights on soil moisture levels, seed varieties and soil analysis, but working with Microsoft Azure will provide even more insightful data on crops, weather and fields.

For starters, Microsoft and Land O'Lakes will develop a connected "AgTech" platform built on Microsoft Azure. The new platform will combine Land O'Lakes portfolio of tech tools, such as WinField United's R7 Suite, Data Silo and Truterra Insights Engine, under one unified architecture.

“Land O’Lakes is one of the most important food suppliers in the U.S., and our nation’s farmers and consumers rely on its ability to rapidly adapt to changing market forces through innovation,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in a statement. “Through our partnership, we will apply the power of Azure and its AI capabilities to help Land O’Lakes solve some of the most pressing challenges facing the industry and bridge the divide between rural and urban communities.”

Through the agreement, Microsoft becomes Land O’Lakes’ strategic cloud provider, and Land O’Lakes will migrate the majority of its IT infrastructure onto Microsoft Azure.

By standardizing its technologies on Azure and using Azure FarmBeats, Land O'Lakes will be able to gain new insights that will enable intelligent agriculture solutions. Those solutions will allow farmers to be more productive with their time and resources.

The benefits include early mitigation of plant stress to guide precisely where and when farmers should take action on their fields for ideal growth conditions, maximization of yield potential by planting the right seed varieties and nutrients, optimizing fertilizer investments, and ensuring accurate output ratio to meet demand properly, all while lowering the farm carbon footprint.

On top of the AgTech platform, the companies will work together to advance an aggregator of data with Data Silo, as well as leverage Microsoft Azure and its AI capabilities and insights from WinField United Answer Plot test fields to support more decisions for the placement of crop inputs such as seeds and treatments, with the goal of increasing return on investment across each acre.

Land O'Lakes and Microsoft will also develop a "Digital Dairy" solution, which will use edge competing to capture the data from farms in rural areas that have slow or no internet services. The dairy solution will also use AI to provide data-driven analytics for dairy producers.

The dairy initiative will combine multiple data streams—including weather, feed management and animal health—from sensors and third-party applications. With the Digital Dairy platform, dairy producers can monitor when cows need to be fed and ensure that milk doesn't go bad in the supply chain.

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Through the Digital Dairy solution, the companies will enable traceability throughout the Land O’Lakes supply chain, providing transparency for milk, butter and cheese products.

In addition to long days during growing seasons, as well as field maintenance during winters, farmers are under duress because every season can be different. Using AI, Azure and other technologies takes some of the risk out of the equation for farmers by making each growing season more predictable and productive.

"If you’re at break-even today, the technology gets you to a spot where farming is exciting – you become a profitable farm," said Land O'Lakes CTO Teddy Bekele, in a blog post, when asked about the benefits of Azure and AI. "And you would not have to add more acres or put yourself at greater risk to get there. It just means you’re making better-optimized decisions with the technology.

"For the smaller farmer who is facing a drop in commodity prices, they may be operating in the red. An improvement of 10% to 30% means they are no longer losing money. A life-altering change."

On the broadband front, the companies are launching pilots that will lead to long-term programmatic solutions in rural communities. Combining Microsoft’s Airband program and specific locations within the Land O’Lakes owner network, broadband will be deployed to rural communities along with services including telehealth, educational resources and digital skilling.