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Forces changing the way we farm

John Long for Progressive Forage Published on 30 September 2016
Farming along time ago

Almost 100 years ago, the first Fordson tractor rolled off the assembly line introducing a mass-produced gasoline tractor line that combined many of the features found in other designs and packaged them into an affordable, lightweight tractor.

Widespread adoption of this technology through Ford’s brand recognition and large dealer network changed the face of farms around the world. Tractors and other farm equipment have changed greatly in the years since these early models mowed hay, broke new ground and hauled in the harvest.

Old sturdy tractor

There are plenty of opinions out there as to how new developments in technology will influence how we operate our farms and ranches in the future. Here are just a few of those technologies that are already changing or will change how we go about raising crops, forage and livestock in the future.

Big data

If you have read any type of news headline lately, you have probably heard the new buzzword “big data.” What do we mean by that? Big data refers to a set of information collected that is so large it is difficult to comprehend by looking at it the same way we did in years past with smaller data sets.

As microprocessors get smaller and cheaper, we are able to collect data at speeds equal to hundreds of times each second. In just a short amount of time, the number of data points collected can be enormous. Sifting through all of this information and providing something useful and applicable to the industry is the major focus of universities, consultants and producers alike.

There are many different technologies that have been introduced to the agricultural industry that contribute to the amount of data we have available.

Whether that is an unmanned aerial, or ground system mounted with an array of sensors collecting nutrient use data, or a livestock management system that utilizes RFID tags to automatically maintain records on weight, feed intake, progeny and production – the amount of data that is or will be available to producers is growing.

With this wealth of data, producers will have the opportunity to manage their fields or herds with much more precision in the future. Individual animals or even plants could be effectively managed in the future through the use of big data sets.

Electrification of equipment

Historically, tractor power systems have been dominated by mechanical and hydraulic power. Electrical power has traditionally been used as a supplementary power system to run various electronic controls, lighting, etc. Engine-mounted alternators have been the main means of supplying power for these electrical systems.

Higher voltage power systems have not been considered in the past due to many limitations in the control and design of electric motor systems, but recent developments in both DC and AC electrical systems have paved the way for their use in agricultural equipment.

Standards such as ISO 16230-1 are being developed to address safety, common electrical connections and high-speed data transfer for future tractor and implement designs. DC voltages up to 1,500V and AC voltages up to 1,000V are under consideration. Onboard generators or diesel-hybrid power systems would be required to generate these types of voltages and currents.

Electrical power can be more efficient and cheaper for high-speed, lower load applications. Many agricultural equipment manufacturers are turning to electric motors on implements where hydraulic motors were once used. Electric motors are much lighter and require less expensive control systems than their hydraulic counterparts.

These control systems allow full control over motor torque and speed, along with independent control of each motor. Long hydraulic lines and the heat they produce during operation can be replaced by smaller electric cables. Once the industry settles on a standard, our hydraulic and PTO connections might not be the only connections we find on our tractors and equipment.

Internet of things

The internet of things (IOT) is another buzzword we hear about a lot in the news. The idea is that everyday things you encounter, from your morning coffee pot to your pickup truck, will be connected to the internet so you can interact with it, or it can interact with other things anywhere there is an internet connection. The concept sounds interesting, but how does that affect farming and ranching operators? The core of the IOT idea is connectivity.

Remote sensors and control systems can be deployed in an operation to aid in management decisions without having to physically be there all the time. Installing an IOT sensor that monitors the water level at one of the tanks in a remote pasture to alert you when the well pump breaks, or an IOT sensor to detect and estimate the amount of forage dry matter available in each of your pastures, are both good examples of how an IOT device could be useful in an operation.

The continual expansion of 4G data coverage, and rollout of a global 5G standard in the near future, will make IOT devices such as these possible in rural areas where wired high-speed internet infrastructure is lacking.

It is hard to imagine how the way we farm and ranch will look in another 100 years. The only thing we do know is that it won’t be exactly the same.  end mark

John Long is an assistant professor and extension ag engineer with Oklahoma State University. Email John Long

PHOTO 1: Developing new farming technics.

PHOTO 2: Good old sturdy tractor. Photos provided by New Holland.