iFarm: A look at technological advances in farming | TheFencePost.com

iFarm: A look at technological advances in farming

Story & Photos by Sam Waters
Ft. Collins, Colo.

For centuries, people have dedicated their efforts to developing the science of agriculture. The horse and plow changed the face of agriculture and increased productivity. Then came the introduction of machines which changed agriculture indefinitely. In roughly the past 20 years, another change in agriculture revolutionized the way farmers manage their crops. The blending of "grand-daddy's way" and cutting-edge technology has created a rapidly expanding sector of the agriculture industry: precision agriculture.

Precision agriculture encompasses a variety of technologies, equipment and data collection that farmers use in a systematic approach to field management. Precision agriculture is a farmer's best means to maximize productivity.

The agriculture industry has been developing technologies since the early 1990s with the introduction of grid sampling and yield sensors. With the advancement of GPS systems and computers technologies, the concept of precision ag has developed into a new branch of the agriculture industry. Companies such as John Deere and Trimble have made technology readily available and easy to use. However, many Colorado farmers are slow to adopt the technology.

This might be due to the different primary growing areas of Colorado, the Front Range, the San Luis Valley and the Western Slope, being geographically separated. The communication between the different growing regions is sometimes lacking. It also might be due to the fact that Colorado is not often considered an agricultural state. But, agriculture contributes $41 billion to the state economy and employs nearly 173,000 people, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Another reason might be that farmers hesitate to learn the new technologies.

Marshall Beatty, agronomist and technology specialist for DuPont Pioneer, has worked in the agriculture industry for 22 years. He focuses primarily on technology.

"In the early days, the equipment in the tractors was fairly complicated to run. You almost needed someone like a computer geek, to figure it all out," Beatty said. "But the technology is much simpler now."

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There is a generational shift in farming.

"The younger generation of farmers who are coming into the agribusiness are already, from college, much more comfortable with technology. The older growers tend to be a bit more intimidated because they weren't exposed to it," Beatty said.

Farming from the office

DuPont Pioneer, John Deere and Trimble, among other agriculture companies, are developing technologies and database systems to make them more user-friendly and to maximize production.

Many agriculture producers are also using precision planting technologies. Using GPS enabled planters, farmers record all the different attributes of the planter including the speed and the amount of seed being distributed in the ground.

"We're working with our growers on the planting to go back and look at the data to try and fine-tune the way they plant," Beatty said. "We optimize a particular way to plant a field so we can get better yields and save seed and time for the growers."

Farmers collect the data from yield monitors and GPS systems and it to make operating and marketing decisions.

By analyzing precision ag data, farmers can determine how much money to spend on seed, fertilizers or how much water to use. They can also make distribution and marketing decisions.

Working the field and the office used to be separate jobs for a farmer. Not anymore. Tractor improvements and software in the office are now able to connect and share data thanks to programs like John Deere's Ag Management Solutions such as JDLink.

According to John Deere's website, JDLink gives farmers remote access to the location, performance and diagnostic data of their machinery. Farmers can easily see what equipment is earning and which machines are in use. Farmers can also perform preventative maintenance on each machine — all from the office using a smartphone or tablet.

"Mobile applications are starting to be a very big thing," Beatty said. "More and more growers have smart phones. They have iPads in the cab of their tractors. They're sharing data electronically. We've seen a big increase in the usability in the technology."

Auto-steer: Hands free farming

Auto-steer is a hands-free guidance system that helps farmers accurately drive across their fields without overlapping ground. Farmers no longer have to pay close attention to barely-visible field markers and instead can focus on a monitor display inside the tractor's cab.

Kirk Smith of U.S. Tractor in Montrose, Colo., has been selling precision ag equipment for several years. He's seen a slow but progressive movement of farmers in his area investing in new technologies and equipment.

"What usually takes them three hours, all the sudden takes them an hour and a half. That sells them right away," Smith said. "And word of mouth. You know farmers are social guys."

Getting beyond the initial price point is often the biggest challenge for farmers.

Installing auto-steer in a tractor capable of using the new technology systems costs approximately $20,000 to $25,000. Many farmers in Colorado have decided it is worth the investment.

To Justin Wagers of Golden Grain Farms in Woodrow, Colo., the investment is a no-brainer.

"I wouldn't farm without it," Wagers said.

Wagers' father embraced precision agriculture technologies in the 1990s.

"The farm has been here for 80 years or so," Wagers said. "… Our dad started with the yield monitoring in the early 1990s with one of the very first models that [John] Deere came out with. It was still experimental."

In 2006, Golden Grain Farms installed auto-steer on all equipment. Additionally, John Deere equipment at the farm is installed with monitors and receivers that provide them accurate GPS readout of their fields within inches of the actual size.

Auto-steering makes time spent in a tractor more productive. And because it runs on GPS, farmers don't have to stop once the sun drops behind the horizon. Wagers and the operators of Golden Grain Farms manage their expansive dry-land operation with one tractor, one sprayer and a combine.

"The time saving, the fuel savings are unbelievable. The biggest one is just the ease for the operator," Wagers said. "You can work a 16, 17, 18 hour day and get out of the equipment and still be ready to go at it the next day."

Auto-steer technology may be a significant expense initially, but farmers are discovering that it is worthwhile investment. One tractor covers the ground of two tractors in approximately the same time. This time-saving aspect of precision ag technologies is one that appeals to farmers.

"The technology is always paying for itself," Wagers said.

Irrigation app?

Precision ag technology is aptly named, given the accuracy of the GPS systems. By using GPS satellites, farmers see images of their fields and can map the field to their advantage. Auto-steer obviously operates via GPS, but so do planting and irrigation systems.

Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise, located in Towaoc, Colo., operates 109 center pivots for irrigating 7,700 acres of alfalfa, sunflower seeds, corn and wheat.

Alan Phelps is head of irrigation operations at the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise. He uses a computer program that allows him to manage the center pivots on the farm without having to go out and manually control them in the field.

"The web based system gives me the ability to be anywhere in the world that has Internet access and pull up my systems here at the farm and either remotely start them, shut them down, monitor them and tell me exactly what's going on at any time," Phelps said.

Center pivots, originally water-powered, have electric motor systems that can be controlled remotely from a computer or smartphone. Farmers can download apps onto their smartphone or tablet and irrigate their fields from anywhere with Internet access.

"I'm able to control the pivots with an app they provided us for my smartphone. I can be driving out and in a field and be driving by a pivot … And I can pull it up on my smartphone and tell you what's wrong with it," Phelps said.

Phelps manages the 109 pivots with the help of just two other people. Without that technology Phelps would need the help of approximately 15 other people and would have to manually check on the pivots several times a day.

Vaughn Cook, production manager of the farm, has been happy with utilizing all of the different precision ag technologies on the farm.

"The productivity is much greater utilizing these technologies," Cook said.

Precision decisions

Because the initial cost of implementing precision ag technologies can be thousands of dollars, some farmers may hesitate. But admirers of precision ag say the investment is worth it.

One of the biggest appeals to farmers is fuel savings.

"With the high dollar fuel, [farmers] make less trips per acre and burns less fuel," Smith of U.S. Tractor said.

To farmers who use furrow irrigation, like many on the Western Slope, having perfectly straight and even furrows is ideal. Many farmers decide to invest in precision ag technology for this reason initially but after using it they find that it is helpful in many other ways. It has an "economic boost" Smith said.

"I see a farmer buy one system for one tractor or one combine and immediately see some benefits from it with yield savings, fertilizer savings, pest management savings, herbicide savings. And then all of the sudden they want more," Smith said.

Because the technology constantly evolves, Smith trains annually. He is required to take online classes as well as attend training sessions where he learns how to use the new technology hands-on.

There are some drawbacks to precision ag technology. Because the technology is fairly new, most farmers have only operated with it for a couple of growing seasons. Yearly re-education on how to operate the systems is a problem witnessed by many in the agriculture industry. And while analyzing input and output data for their fields can be helpful, sometimes it is overwhelming.

"Sometimes its data overload," Marshall Beatty of Pioneer said. "A grower may collect five to 10 years worth of data and there will be so many data layers and so many data points that they become overwhelmed about how to go about analyzing the data."

Another issue that arises when farmers learn to operate the systems is becoming too dependent on it. Since many of these technologies, like auto-steer, rely on GPS programming and remote control access via cell phones depends on satellites, the agriculture industry is subject to issues with modern technology as well. Just like offices in the city can face computer glitches, farmers in the field face them as well.

A large concern facing agriculture today is the growing populations around the world and whether or not there is enough arable land to produce enough food. There is also a concern about protecting the environment and limiting the impacts of humans. While precision agriculture is not seen by everyone in the industry to be the answer, it is widely seen as a huge step in addressing these sorts of problems.

"It's increased the stewardship of the land and water," Beatty said. "They now have a fertilizer applicator applied precisely only what it needs in a location in the field thus reducing runoff and reducing discharge in rivers or waterways."

Since precision agriculture technologies have become so widely used in agriculture, many growers are playing "keeping up with the Joneses" or rather Farmer Jones.

"I think it's critical. In today's world, I frankly don't know how farmers can survive long term without using technology," Kirk Rolfs said.

Kirk Rolfs is a senior agronomist with DuPont Pioneer and deals with farmers on the Western Slope who are raising alfalfa seed. According to Rolfs, it is critical for farmers to understand what their fields are doing overtime.

"If guys want to be competitive, if they want to be productive, I think you have to use technology," Rolfs said. "The old style of 'that's the way my daddy did it,' I'm not sure that really is beneficial to a grower anymore." ❖