Embracing technology on the farm (or how can this doohickey make me a better farmer)

Juan Mayta and Mary Tangen on the "Embracing Technology" panel at MN Ag EXPO 2014.

Juan Mayta and Mary Tangen on the “Embracing Technology” panel at MN Ag EXPO 2014.

It’s one thing for farmers to use the latest in farming technology. It’s another to make sure they’re getting the maximum return on their bottom lines when they invest in new technology.

That was was one of the many insights a panel of experts shared during a forum at MN Ag EXPO 2014 titled “Embracing Technology: Tools for Maintaining Future Profitability and Stewardship.”

Farmers today have access to more gizmos and gadgets than ever before. New technology can do everything from auto-steer tractors to pinpoint which areas of a field may need more nitrogen than others. Technology advancements are great for agriculture overall, but can also produce so much raw data and information that it overwhelms individual farmers.

“What do you do with all of this information? Where is the return on investment?” said Mary Tangen, who leads the Ag Innovation Lab for DTN and focuses on enterprise management solutions for producers. “You need to be able to take all of this information generated by new technology and transfer it to the financial picture of your farm.”

Bernie Paulson runs McPherson Crop Management and has seen agriculture technology evolve over the last 20 years. He says one of the keys to taking advantage of technology is to not get consumed by it.

“Don’t let it overwhelm you,” Paulson said. “Don’t think you’re too old or too young. Find good partners to work with and work at getting everything brought together in one place so you have the ability to make decisions that improve your farm and your bottom line.”

It’s not just a farmers’ bottom line that can benefit from technology. Environmental stewardship and water quality are also boosted. Paulson shared a story about a farmer who, thanks to automatic steering and seed/sprayer/fertilizer shutoff, no longer had to worry about accidentally planting or spraying too close to a buffer strip.

“It improves operator efficiency. The farmer spends less money on wasted seed and fertilizer and the environmental impact is lowered,” Paulson said. “Sounds like a great deal to me.”

Increasing efficiency in nitrogen application is also a result of technological advancements. And there is plenty of progress to be made in this area.

“What we’re trying to do is change the behavior of flat rate,” said Juan Mayta, Integrated Farming Systems Field Specialist for the State of Minnesota.  “Are there areas in that field that need more than others or less than others? When you optimize seen and nitrogen investment, you become a better steward of the environment.”

As farmers are continually working to learn and incorporate new technology into their operations, they also face another challenge: public perception. Technology can result in misleading narratives being pushed by agriculture’s detractors and accepted as fact by the non-farming public.

Farms of all sizes benefit from technology. Just because more farmers are using technology, it doesn’t mean “big ag” is getting too big or “corporate farmers” are taking over the countryside as some would have you believe.

“Is the general public afraid of farming technology?” Paulson asked. “I don’t know if they’re afraid, but they sure are skeptical. Wherever you are, you need to talk to your neighbors. Tell them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

“When people don’t understand something, they tend to assume the worst,” said Jamie Seitzer, Sales Effectiveness Manager at DuPont Pioneer.

Regardless of perception challenges, farming technology is here to stay and constantly evolving. And who knows what new advancements are on the horizon?

  • The ability to plant multiple hybrids on the same field
  • Remotely placed sensors in drainage or irrigation systems so you know information before it’s visible to everyone else
  • Weather stations that tell you the exact weather conditions on specific fields — just because it’s raining at home doesn’t mean it’s raining 10 miles away where one of your fields is located.

Those were just a couple of things mentioned by panelists as technological advancements on the horizon. Whether you’re a farmer still trying to catch up with what’s out there today, or you’re waiting anxiously for the next big thing, technology has had a major impact on farming.

“We shouldn’t be doing the same things that grandpa did,” Paulson said. “We can do things better.”

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