Efficiency is a key to success in agriculture, and technology is helping producers maximize their resources now and into the future.
“It’s so important that we squeeze every bushel out of every acre we can,” said Chris Fennig, the founder of MyFarms.
Technology has helped advanced nearly all aspects of life and agriculture is no exception.
“I could remember when I was a child of five or six and my dad and hired hand were on either side of a horse and wagon …” said Dan Orr, a Richland Township farmer and former Jay County High School teacher. “We’ve gone from that to where we can tell exactly where we need to put phosphorus and potassium by the virtue of GPS. We can steer a combine without ever touching the wheel.
“To me its incredible and the technology of seed, when I was the age I just recounted I would say 75 bushels would have been the max we could count on,” Orr said. “Now on a yearly basis we can get perhaps 200 bushel, but in Jay County I would say 130 to 150 (bushels) on average.”
Jefferson Township farmer and Jay County Commissioner Jim Zimmerman recounted how producers used to set a spreader at a rate and then apply it to a field and hope for the best results.
“Technology has allowed us to do a more precise job,” he said. “It’s allowed us to control costs.
“You can drive across a field and never touch the wheel (of the tractor),” Zimmerman said, citing modern auto-drive tech that allows for more accurate coverage of fields.
Precision farming techniques can allow producers to tailor seed and fertilizer application to their fields, which can help to both minimize the amount of inputs needed and maximize the yield of every acre.
Fennig has focused on the value of precision farming using Global Positioning System technology and founded MyFarms, which will aid producers in managing and analyzing date for those precision practices.
“If we look at farmers in the $250,000 revenue category and up, about 65 percent of those guys have implemented some form of precision technology,” Fennig said, citing figures from a 2007 report. “About 43 percent of those have been guidance systems, basically helping farmers steer straight, and about 43 percent are yield monitors, and there can be some overlap.
“But if you compare that value … only about 25 or 24 percent are using that data to apply lime more efficiently,” he said. “What that means are guys are doing what’s easy. … It’s not easy to take data from multiple sources and change how you apply fertilizer and seed. Variable rate seeding, only about 8 percent are changing how they apply seed.”
Further utilizing those technologies can substantially increase efficiency. While Orr noted that average yields have about doubled in his lifetime due to advances in tractors, spreaders, seeds and fertilizers themselves, Fennig noted that using variable fertilizer and seed application push those modern averages up higher.
“People who variable rate apply their seed, aren’t going to save money on seed,” he said. “But they’re able to get another 3 to 7 percent out of those acres. That’s about 30 and 70 bucks out of an acre. That’s a really meaningful payoff for technology.”
A technological approach to agriculture is also a pathway toward conserving the environment, Fennig said. By utilizing more precise amount of fertilizer instead of a more blanketed approach, producers can help fight pollution by reducing over-fertilization.
“It’s not only better for business, but it’s better for the environment,” Fennig said.
In the future, technology is one of the keys toward gaining sustainability in agriculture. Achieving sustainability will require balancing many factors including maximizing efficiency in land use, providing adequate food production to support the population and growth and having a neutral impact on the global environment.
“In terms of the ecosystems, I think the way we farm in the long run is rather unsustainable,” Orr said of modern agriculture. “We may do it for another 25, 30, 50 years, who knows how long its going to be. But we’re going to have to go back to a more sustainable approach.”
Orr noted that when people think of technology, they often think of “gadgets” but that significant advances have been made and will need to continue being made in understanding the process of agriculture, which can also help
“Understanding the science of production and the natural systems we work in are also part of that technology,” he said.
Orr explained, for example, that he personally shies away from frequently utilizing Roundup Ready products, since evolutionary adaptations will eventually cause resistance to herbicides. Solving those types of process problems will be part of the equation.
Whatever the problems, technology will likely be at the heart of the solutions.
“’What I have seen is nothing compared to what you’ll see in your lifetime,’” Zimmerman said, recalling the words of his grandfather on technology, which he said rings truer and truer every day.
“Understanding the science of ag is part and parcel to ag tech too,” Orr said.
“I think tech is going to separate the winners from the losers,” Fennig said.