New technologies continue to transform Wisconsin agriculture

Dan Hansen
Brian Luck

STEVENS POINT – During the 20th century the United States moved from the horse-and-buggy era to the “Space Age,” and farmers utilized the new advancements in machinery and other technologies to significantly improve their operations.

According to Dr. Brian Luck, the future promises even more advances in technology that will continue to make farming in the 21st century even more productive and efficient.

During a recent producer meeting, Luck, assistant professor and Extension specialist in biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reviewed some of the advancements in technology that have occurred over the years, and presented an overview of the future of technology in agriculture from a machinery standpoint.

He began by recalling that during the early decades of the 20th century most farmers tilled, planted and harvested with horse-drawn equipment.

“Many farmers of the day believed the tractor would never make it in agriculture because they said oats would be cheaper to produce than gasoline or diesel fuel,” Luck related.

“However, as farmers began to use tractors they became more efficient and more productive. Tractors gave them more power and greater output,” he said.

Technology today

Luck noted that in the 1990s yield monitors were placed in fields and spatial measurement of inputs was recorded. “Then we developed the auto-steer guidance system.”

He stated that the availability of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and their increased use on agricultural machinery has provided a wide variety of new tools in all aspects of agriculture. 

“Utilizing Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS provides sub-inch location accuracy, which allows farmers to very accurately position the machine within the field, utilizing automatic guidance of the machine. Planter technologies that take advantage of this accurate positioning are row unit controls, including shut-offs, variable rate seeding, and multi-hybrid planting technology,” he explained.

Farb Guidance Systems' first GPS-guided tractor, which is about half the size of the normal machine, can be remotely operated from anywhere in the world as long as there's an internet connection and GPS.

“Today we’re seeing multiple 700-horsepower machines in the field at a time. And now we’re also flying over our fields with unmanned robotic aircraft (UAVs),” he said.

He reported that GPS guidance systems are in relatively wide use today. 

“However the general trend in adopting these systems is leveling off to some extent. On farms of less than 600 acres adoption rates of this technology are pretty small. As farm size increases we’re seeing about 80 percent of farms using GPS soil mapping and utilizing guidance systems for planting and spraying,” Luck said.

Better data collection

Luck says it’s become an economic principle that as the acreage increases and the implements get bigger, adoption of new technology also increases.

“There will be more tools for us to use and more information going into our decisions for better management of our farms,” he predicted.

“Today’s smart phones are 2 million times faster than the computer on the spacecraft that took man to the moon.” he said. “The Information we receive from that computer in our pockets is going to be used more and more to help make decisions on our farms.”

Luck is working on developing a new phone app that will take a picture of the particle size of corn silage as it comes out of the chopper to help determine its feed quality.

He sees Improving cell phone coverage and increasing access to high-speed Internet in rural areas as the next key to improving the transfer of data to trusted advisers and others to help in the decision-making process.

“Once we have good Internet connectivity everywhere a lot of the data collection tools will become much more efficient.

“It’s a given that we’ll see more in-field sensors measuring moisture to help with correct irrigation application, and high-intensity weather stations to provide better site-specific weather information,” said Luck.

“UAVs equipped with cameras and sensors can provide more comprehensive information then you can get from ground-level observation of your crops. Thermal sensors can provide information on crop temperatures which relates to providing a better irrigation schedule,” he affirmed.

Bigger and smaller

Luck says there is a lot of research and development taking place today on new products that will be on the market sooner rather than later.

He sees larger UAVs being used to spot-apply chemicals in specific area’s of fields. But he also believes smaller autonomous machines will be at work in farm fields. 

“Several smaller machines will be communicating within the field and within the farm to accomplish the same field efficiency and capacity that we have with our larger machines,” he predicted.

Luck says along with the safety issues of a large machine malfunctioning and operating off course, a fleet of smaller machines means less downtime. 

“If you had 10 or 12 of them, and one of them goes down, you’re losing efficiency and capacity possibly, but you’re not dead in the water. 

“New technology will enable farmers to optimize their planting operation to hit the narrow windows of suitable weather and soil conditions to maintain the highest yield potential possible,” Luck said.