You ain't seen nothin' yet in terms of technology's changes to agriculture, say editors of Primediabusiness agricultural publications who chaired a roundtable forum at the National AgriMarketing Association convention at Kansas City.
“In the early and mid-1990s, farmers were somewhat slow in adopting the new technologies that were becoming available,” says Greg Lamp, editor of Corn and Soybean Digest. “But they gradually began using yield monitors, doing grid sampling, and using other systems that resulted in the accumulation of a lot of data about their operations. Now, it's all coming together and farmers are jumping on the bandwagon to employ technologies that make use of those data.”
With global positioning system (GPS)-driven equipment, growers can achieve great precision in production practices, Lamp says. “New equipment auto-steer systems, for example, are to the point of sub-inch accuracy.”
While farmers are now beginning to “really start seriously looking at assisted-steering for farm equipment,” the day is coming, says Karen McMahon, editor of Farm Industry News, when equipment will be robotically operated.
This will result in “very different-looking tractors,” which may have no mechanical linkages and may be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
And she says, “We're moving toward the truly wireless farm.” Many farmers already have wireless networks to keep track of equipment, operations, livestock, etc., in real time. “It's possible to track a feed truck 30 miles away and know how much feed is being augured off at various locations.”
Advanced sensing technologies and optics in spraying systems, McMahon says, will allow farmers to customize chemical applications for greater efficiency and accuracy. “There will be less mass field spraying. Instead, the sprayer will sense what needs to be sprayed where — and satellites will be watching it all and recording it in a computer database.”
Modern farmers are “multi-million-dollar men and women,” says Forrest Laws, executive editor of Farm Press Publications. “For Sunbelt farmers, 6-row cotton pickers are becoming the norm, rather than the exception, as are $250,000 combines, quarter-mile center pivot irrigation systems, and other very costly equipment.
“My grandfather grew everything on his farm, from corn to cotton to soybeans to chickens to pigs. That farm, which seemed too big to me as a youngster, would fit in a corner of one of today's multi-thousand-acre operations and his soybean crop could be harvested in less than an hour by one of today's combines.”
Precision farming systems and techniques are now widely used, Laws says. “We're seeing a much broader use of variable rate technology, and researchers have even more in the pipeline. University of Georgia researchers, for example, are working on variable rate irrigation.”
High tech systems are enabling pork producers to maximize feed conversion and hold the line on costs, says Dale Miller, editor of National Hog Farmer magazine. “Robotic feeding and monitoring systems, which can be changed quickly and easily, insure optimal nutrient management.”
Trace through DNA
And he says, many producers are now using automatic weighing systems. “Pigs can be quickly trained to walk through the device, which records their weight. When they reach marketing weight, it can even detect pigs in a desired weight range and direct them to a separate pen for loading.”
By sampling a sow's DNA, all offspring from that sow can be traced back to the farm of origin for information as to how the animal was fed, medicated, etc. “Using this system, you could find out where the pork chop in today's lunch originated,” Miller says.
New systems, using sophisticated monitoring devices — including lasers — are now being used to limit dust and control odors in hog production facilities.
While the beef industry has been somewhat slower than other animal sectors in the adoption of new technologies, “It has made great strides recently,” says Joe Roybal, editor of Beef magazine.
The incident last December of a case of BSE (“mad cow”) in the U.S. “gave new urgency” for the industry to move to animal identity systems, he says.
“Mandated animal ID will be a reality, and the radio frequency ID system appears to have an inside track for eventual adoption. USDA has been careful not to indicate that this will be mandatory, but many in the industry see it as a requirement in the global beef trade for food safety and to allay concerns of the consumer.”
Eight animal identity bills are now before Congress, Roybal notes.
As with other agriculture sectors, equipment for the hay and forage industry is getting bigger and more sophisticated, according to Neil Tietz, editor of Hay and Forage Grower magazine.
In remarks prepared for the forum, he noted that a disk mower-conditioner in the $300,000 range is now available, driven by a big Mercedes engine. “Industry sources are predicting it's only a matter of time until we'll be seeing 1,000-horsepower forage harvesters.”
Hay “is going from a product that's produced and used on-farm to one that's grown and shipped elsewhere,” Tietz says. “Every hay producer is wanting equipment that will help him to harvest and dry his crop faster.”
Farm service retail businesses “are at a crossroads,” says Den Gardner, editor of Apply magazine. “In the future, they're going to shake out into two categories: cash-and-carry and full-service retailers. The full-service retailers will more and more become consultants to farmers.”
These businesses have been “perhaps a step behind farmers” in adopting new technologies,” he says. “They've wanted to be sure it pays before adopting it.”
More of them are now keeping records for their customers and serving as data storage facilities, “although there are some concerns about the safety of these data.”
Utilization of computerized technology will be a must for the growth of these businesses, Gardner says, and finding “computer geeks” to manage these systems “will continue to be a challenge.”
Variable rate application “as a buzzword” in the early to mid-90s, he says, but it just wasn't practical or affordable for many dealers, and the jury's still out on it.
“The bigger issue is finding custom applicators — and not necessarily new technologies,” Gardner says.
The weekly and monthly Primediabusiness agricultural publications reach some 800,000 subscribers, and are supplemented with Web sites and daily newsletters.