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The future of farm technology

When farmers travel to Louisville in February for the National Farm Machinery Show, they’re doing what visitors to the event have done for 53 years – look for innovations. While farming has changed dramatically in that time, the drivers for change remain the same: higher efficiency, improved productivity.

The economics of raising food, demand that the farm be more productive than ever. The average farmer today feeds 165 people, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. And that higher productivity – it was just 25 people in 1960 – comes as fewer people work on farms than ever before. In effect, farmers are replacing human muscle with iron and teaming that machine with far-reaching new technologies.

The GPS system in your car that tells you where to go is also the basis for an ingenious technology that allows today’s farmers to take their hands off the wheel when going down a row. With that tool alone, they can count on making straighter rows, reducing overlap, and covering more acres in an hour. Pair that GPS information with an on-board tool for measuring yield and farmers are mapping output across the field in real time.

These graphic maps of yield information help farmers spot trouble areas faster than ever. A colorful red, yellow and green yield map goes red when there’s a problem in a field. Most often this trouble is caused by poor drainage, or perhaps an area of poor fertilization. Having that information allows growers to manage that field more precisely each year, and guides where farmers invest on their farms for best returns.

The days of farming a field as if the entire area is the same are over. Farmers have long known about varied soil types in their fields, and new mapping tools can show what areas may need more fertilizer while others need less. This helps improve yield, may cut fertilizer use for the entire field, and increases profit potential.

This precision variable rate application approach also helps make sure the fertilizer applied to that field – with the key nutrient being nitrogen – stays in place. That popular nitrogen nutrient can be mobile in the soil, leaving plants and heading to nearby waterways if not properly managed. These new tools help make that happen.

Changes in agriculture

Agriculture technology is essentially broken into two broad areas of development – software and hardware. Essentially this ‘software’ is what farmers plant or apply to a field. The ‘hardware’ involves the tools used to till, plant, spray and harvest a crop.

On the software side of the development of better plants, crop protection products and new approaches are bringing change that also results in better yields, and potentially higher returns.

An example of the benefit of developments here occurred in 2017. In a year where farmers faced droughts in some areas, and floods in others, producers still put a record crop in the bin. These new-tech crops and input products are making a difference in the farmer’s ability to produce food.

For example, plant breeders now have a range of tools available using biotechnology knowledge that helps identify key genes for higher yield, or genetic defenses against a specific crop pest. Not all of these advancements result in what is called a genetically modified crop, yet work in molecular biology is helping improve crop production on a range of crops.

On the crop protection side, the innovation stretches from precise, low-dose tools that target only the pest while leaving beneficial crops and insects untouched; to targeted products that take out weeds early in the season so farmers don’t take a drop in yields. The rising use of biological-based products, a growing business now, will also alter all parts of this area of agriculture, using key bacteria or fungi to help boost plant performance or control pests in new ways.

High-tech hardware

Those hulking machines you see moving through fields as you drive down the road are each doing a specific job. That tractor could be pulling a tillage tool, a planter or a spray system. Each of those tools is required for a different part of the farm process. But these days as that machine does work in the field, it’s also becoming a sophisticated information gathering tool.

As that GPS-guided tractor moves through the field, it’s recording the chore. If planting, the farmer is tracking the corn hybrid or soybean variety placed in the soil, by location. Many farmers these days plant more than one variety of seed in a single field to take better advantage of different soil types. That information is tracked in what is called an as-applied map.

Information is tracked during tillage, planting and spraying by each machine going through the field. At harvest, the combine or picker also captures in-field yield data. And all of this information is collected in a central place so a farmer can sit down and analyze what’s working, and what isn’t, on the operation.

That same information helps guide following-year decisions for fertilizer, seed, and crop protection products. And all of that data helps a farmer better understand costs for more precise decision-making.

And these machines and the tech keep advancing. Prototype machines show the potential of automated tractors that run without drivers. Advanced systems that can incorporate drone information, help with precision application. And cloud-based data management allows farmers to share key information with crop advisers for enhanced production.

Auto-steering is a more common feature on tractors than ever before. Those GPS-guided farm machines allow producers to take their hands off the wheel and let the machine stay on course, and it allows the operator to keep better track of work in the field. Yet that tech is just one step away from automated machines that hit the field for new tasks. While a very popular idea, the robot tractor is still in the development stage.

Other automated technologies are coming though, including small machines that move through a field spraying individual weeds, or treating only sick plants. As computer vision systems get better, these tools will have more value.

Similar technologies are being applied on the livestock side as well with tools that help dairies better track cow performance and robot milkers that lower labor costs. For beef producers, tracking cows and their performance is getting more precise and genetic tools are brought into play for better breeding. And for swine, managing herd data (and individual animals) helps producers better manage costs and boost returns.

The days of a farmer in overalls riding in an open-station tractor with the sun beating down on his back are ending. You find it from time to time, but for today’s business farmer the tools in use help that producer manage every acre to the square inch, with an eye of keeping costs down while still raising productivity.

And the challenge is real. The world population will top 9 billion by 2050, requiring a doubling of food production while being land limited and restricted on water use. American farmers are bringing a wide-ranging set of tools to bear to meet that challenge.

More about Farm Progress:

– Willie Vogt is editorial director of Farm Progress, a major agricultural publisher serving farmers across the United States

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