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Adopting new technologies into your operation

Andrew Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 31 August 2017

As I get older, it is just part of life to get a bit set in my ways. Change is inevitable, and sometimes changes come with more than a little heartburn. A good example comes from a form of new technology – social media.

A Facebook group I am a member of had a photo and article covering the introduction of an autonomous tractor. While there were plenty of “oohs and ahhhs,” there were also several angry responses citing the ability of larger farms to use technology as a competitive advantage over smaller rivals.

It really got me thinking about how we prepare ourselves and our children to farm in the future. As I thought about how much things have changed in the past 40-plus years, I am truly astounded at the advances that I have witnessed, even on our small dairy in the hills of Virginia.

An issue that I recall very well deals with one of my pet peeves in the farm machinery arena, the lying fuel gauge! We had a smaller tractor that I used to mow our hay crops. Well, let me stop right there and say that even calling that tractor “smaller” is evidence of change.

At 75 PTO horsepower, that 1990 model was 50 percent more powerful than Dad’s “big” tractor that he purchased to begin farming in 1959; yet, when the 75-hp tractor was purchased, it was installed as a useful smaller addition.

Big or small, this particular tractor had a lying fuel gauge; it always read full which meant it was only correct for a brief period after every fill-up. Invariably, I would be out mowing alfalfa at the far end of our farm when the rpms would go up and the sputtering would begin.

Doggone it – I was out of fuel. Adding to the frustration was the fact that it was a 2-mile walk back to the fuel pumps and while there were plenty of people that could bring me fuel, I had no way to let them know I was in need of their help.

How nice it would have been to have a two-way radio to contact my wife or Dad to bring me a splash of fuel so I could make it back to the barn and refuel completely. I looked into purchasing a radio but most had a 2-mile range, and while that was the distance I was from the pumps and my family, that range rating on the radio did not factor in hills and trees.

If a radio system was going to work for me, I would need a base station, booster and an antenna that drove the price into the thousands; frankly, it was out of my price range. Fast forward 25 years, and smartphones have solved the problems of both range and affordability.

A cell phone is basically a two-way radio at its core. I can now call, text or email a number of family and friends when I am stranded. That doesn’t mean they are free to help, but that is an issue for another time …. That aside, technology has come to our farm, and it is a welcome addition.

While it does upset folks that technology has a way of making people obsolete, it is a bit funny how fast things that were “newfangled” yesterday are commonplace today. A reoccurring theme is that while new technologies come with some pretty hefty price tags, generally speaking, as time moves on, the price and reliability of these additions make them more affordable and widespread.

Another reoccurring theme is that many of the new technologies we see in farm field machinery have made their way into the mainstream from military applications. GPS guidance, cellular communications and inter-vehicle communication or autonomous operating platforms are examples that quickly come to mind.

So what’s the big deal with that? It is very likely that technological advances will not slow down in the field of national defense any time soon, so we are very likely to see more advances to many parts of our lives, including our farms. It is also likely that we will see the trend of the gadgetry of today becoming obsolete at an ever-increasing rate.

It wasn’t that long ago that CD players and portable GPS units were the hot items to have. While there are still several in existence, their popularity has been greatly diminished because newer, smaller or handier tools and toys took their place. It stands to reason that as tools change, the work and workability will change alongside those advancements.

Some things will remain. There is still some need on farms for a tractor with four gears and reverse, two ranges and one clutch. At the same time, I cannot imagine the old steel-pan seat making a comeback. At least, that is the hope of my old back.

Looking into the future of farming, one facet that must be carefully evaluated is the availability of reliable labor. A friend, several years ago now, put the labor situation this way: “We used to have to explain how we wanted the equipment used to complete the task. Now, we have to show workers how to start the tractor.”

I can relate to that. The fact is, many of our decisions on our feeding, milking and cropping operations hinged on the ability of our equipment to allow as few people as possible to get the job done in a timely fashion.

What that equated to was bigger, stronger and more advanced equipment, which of course drove up the purchase cost as well as parts and maintenance. The trade-off was knowing exactly what was going on and what went wrong at any point in time, as well as knowing that a competent operator was either available or trainable.

That same thinking drives bigger operations – or perhaps more correctly, what we perceive as bigger operations. A talented, trained and motivated producer can take on more and accomplish more as their tools of the trade allow. The reality is that this is not limited only to agriculture, nor is it anything new under the sun.

In 1950, there were over 13,500 dairies in Virginia. Today, there are less than 1,000, and the amount of milk we produce is the same or greater. More recently in 1990, the number of herds in excess of 500 cows in Virginia was zero. Today, over half of our milk comes from herds of this size or larger.

So what do we tell our sons and daughters about their position in agriculture’s future? The future belongs to the savvy operator, one who can evaluate tools and technology and make a sound decision on the best course for the farm. Being flexible and able to roll with the punches has been, and will continue to be, a great advantage.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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