Moving Toward Higher Levels of Ag Tech: What can YOU do Today? (Until the Robots Arrive?)
John Shutske, Willie Vogt, Sarah Cornelisse, Brian Luck
Start by becoming an awesome employer today. Recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining people takes purposeful effort and skills that we all can learn. We make the mistake of thinking “eventually, technology will take care of all of this.” That’s simply not true. People who struggle with “how to be an employer of choice” today will struggle in ten years. Moving toward technology will take talent. Developing your employee management skills and systems today will always pay dividends.
Don’t discount employees, particularly older employees, who may, at first, be resistant to the implementation of technology on the farm. There is the potential for employees to feel threatened or concerned that you don’t trust in their capabilities or that you are looking for opportunities to replace them. However, if you take the time to educate employees on how the technology will enhance their work and the ability to achieve farm goals and improve farm profitability you may find that these same employees become the biggest advocates for technology adoption.
Push hard for quality, accessible, and affordable broadband. There are still significant pockets of highly productive farmland and other property where Internet coverage is not available. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to fully leverage new and future digital technologies without access. A few have suggested, “there are always solutions!” (like one of the well-publicized multi-satellite-based systems). Unfortunately, some of the newer, highly-touted solutions are only good for a stationary access set-up and may not work well with mobile. Even as mobile capability of these systems evolves, speed will likely not be in the “broadband” category. Internet access and coverage of individual land parcels will impact farmland values in the future (if they have not already). This includes broadband access both for all locations on your farm as well as for nearby communities. It will be impossible to locate ag service facilities, healthcare, and other community businesses in places that do not have robust, reliable, and affordable broadband.
Learn how to use and find the value in the technology you now have access to. This includes smartphone apps, financial software on your computer, or precision ag equipment you might already have (like a yield monitor). Farm management experts talk about how the value of farm technology “stacks” and has synergistic impacts. Yield monitor data collected over a few years are probably interesting. But are you using that data to its full advantage? Is the data being used to develop maps? Are you examining the economics of each field to determine what’s going on within a field including the economics associated with the variation that the map communicates? Do you fully understand why you see the variability you’re able to measure from spot to spot. If you are collecting data on individual animals, how are you thinking about performance differences and metrics between each individual animal? Are you leveraging by sharing data with ag service providers to do things like variable rate application? Learning to use yield monitor data might seem unconnected to future applications like an autonomous tractor that might be doing all of the field work in ten years – but just like technologies stack, so do experience, knowledge, and skill.
Don’t be lured into buying more technology than you will use or need. Once you make the decision to adopt and implement technology, it may be tempting to go “all in.” However, you want to resist this urge and focus on investments that will allow you to achieve immediate goals. You don’t need to buy all top-of-the-line, or the model with all the shiny bells and whistles. Set goals thinking about today’s labor situation and what you anticipate in the coming few years and the conditions or metrics you hope to monitor and improve. From those goals, identify the technology options that meet that need.
Don’t fall for the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We see a statistically-based drop-off in digital tech adoption with people above age 55 or 60. But, don’t use that as an excuse. There are dozens of options to become a lifelong learner. Several magazines feature content on ag technology. Some are free. Others require subscriptions. Some are a bit more exclusive (like weekly or bi-weekly paid newsletters). Seek out information. Older farmers often say, “Yeah, but it comes easier for younger generations.” It comes easy to them because they’ve been exposed to it and they’ve taken the time and made efforts to learn it. We all can.
Take the time to attend educational events, field days, and trade shows. Ask lots of questions. Seek to understand the nuts and bolts of how these new technologies work and what their limitations are. We know that a preferred “channel” for learning is to learn from the experiences and ups and downs of other farmers. Seek out others who have tried or experimented with new technologies. It might even be worth your time to seek out travel opportunities. In some cases, trips to other parts of the country (or world) are available through ag commodity or association leadership groups. There’s so much to learn from others.
As you use technology to do data-driven work, keep your data organized. Today, the yield data collected back in October probably makes perfect sense. But will it make full sense in five or ten years as systems and data storage methods change? A box of unlabeled jump drives is not a data management plan. Develop a file system, organizing and storing data carefully in ways that make sense and are well documented. Use consistent and meaningful file names. Store data in a way that it will be secure and easily backed up. Make certain that data files are matched carefully and accurately with correct field names and numbers.
Always insist on financial analysis related to any technology. In the coming years, you will likely be exposed to a massive amount of technology-related marketing and sales information. Do not trust the results of one “case study” to communicate the benefits of a new technology. Financial analysis data should be made available over a range of operation sizes, types, locations, etc. As you look at a financial analysis for a particular new piece of ag tech, make sure you understand all assumptions that were made including costs, economic benefits/returns, annual costs (service, maintenance, subscription costs, etc.), fuel savings, electrical rates, life-span, and depreciation assumptions.
Demand superior service. How comfortable are you with the vendor? It is highly likely that at some point you will have questions about the technology (software and hardware) that you have purchased, or that a repair may be required. Does the technology vendor provide timely support? Is there an adequate infrastructure of support personnel? You should feel comfortable contacting them with any need and be confident of timely and accurate response and resolution.
Think about the technology-based “system” even if you are considering the addition of a single individual component. As an example, some of the new robotic animal feeding units may show the ability to save considerable labor, equipment maintenance, and fuel expense. But will you need specialized equipment to load the robot? If the feeding robot is electrically powered, will your facility support the increased electrical load? Will you need to also purchase charging/docking stations? Do you have space to house the new equipment? If the new equipment will use up existing space, what are the opportunity costs for using that space?
Don’t get overwhelmed. If you know you want to begin to think about what “technology investments” might look like on your farm, start small. Visit with other farms/businesses and learn what’s working for them and which ideas might translate well into your operation. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that “ag tech” is only for big operators. There are many small applications, robotic machines, and other devices now beginning to grow in popularity with small producers, including those growing specialty crops. Technologies like “co-robots” or other small-scale devices have the potential to save labor and reduce the wear and tear on the bodies of all farmers, but they also show potential for older operators as well as those affected by health or disability-based limitations.
*Authors: John Shutske, Biological Systems Engineering Department, UW—Madison; Willie Vogt, Farm Progress; Sarah Cornelisse, Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education Penn State University; Brian Luck, Biological Systems Engineering Department, UW—Madison. Special thanks to others who added thoughts and ideas to this document including Mitchell Schroepfer. February 13 – 2023