Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Robots in Farm Future

The blog this morning is coming to you from Atomic Coffee in Fargo, North Dakota.  As near as I can tell from the I-94, North Dakota is best thought of as a single continuous industrial farming operation, and so it was of interest to see this story in the local paper on a cafe table:
RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Agriculture of the future will be “Star Trek” meets “Green Acres.”

Experts predict that within 25 years, little robots will roam fields zapping weeds, testing soil and turning plant genes on and off to fit the conditions, a bit like mechanical helpers on the starship Enterprise.

At the same time, some Americans will continue to feel a need to work the land and smell the soil while bouncing up and down on a tractor seat, as Oliver Wendell Douglas did on the farm comedy.

Farmers in recent years have embraced global positioning systems to better grow crops. They use computers and satellites better than many of the country’s biggest corporations. Dairy farmers are beginning to use robotic milking machines.

There is little argument about the future: Technology will continue to drive changes.
What is to come excites Matt Hanson of the Dodge County, Wis., extension office, an expert in handling manure, a product farmers like to call “nutrients.”

“I get excited reading some of the research that is going on that is kind of unrelated to agriculture; it is related to robotics,” he said.

Hanson predicted that science soon will develop little robots that scan fields looking for weeds, for instance, “and spot-spray on individual weeds, kind of like those robot vacuums in homes or mowing yards.”

Those robots also will be able to analyze soils, Hanson added, “sending a message back to the producer via e-mail or cell phones or whatever technology we have in the future.”

Farm implement giant John Deere is working on the concept. “It is closer than we think,” Hanson said.

As for livestock, Hanson predicted that each lot of meat will be traceable back to an individual animal, so that an E. coli outbreak, for instance, need only lead to a small recall of bad product.

While there appears to be general agreement that technology will dominate agriculture, there is a difference of opinion.

“I think farms in general are going to get larger,” said Dick Wolkowski, senior soil scientist for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. “I don’t think there is any question that to keep up economically, the 30-cow herd and running cash crops on a few acres just doesn’t cut it anymore. Farms are going to have to get larger. I am not saying factory farms, or anything like that. It will be family farms.”

Hanson disagreed with Wolkowski about the size of future farms. He predicted farms will not need to grow in size, just grow more per acre with “this technology that really helps us fine-tune our production techniques.”

Technology is automating work and turning farmers into computer operators, Hanson said, but many still like to smell the soil: “I enjoy getting on a tractor and doing some mindless field work.”

Climbing off a shiny new New Holland tractor at Farm Technology Days near River Falls, Gary Thoma of Neilsville, Wis., had doubts about the little guy.

“I don’t think it will survive,” he said of the 440-acre farm he and his brother work. “You can’t compete.”

Wolkowski said that combining technology with reduced-till farming can help produce more crops.

“The chisel plow will be out,” he said, replaced in a large part by equipment that allows farmers to make a single pass to plant crops, giving up plowing, disking, harrowing and other ground work.

For farmers not ready to go all the way to no-till, strip-tillage tools will mean farmers can work up soil in an 8-inch-wide band, then plant in that area, guided by satellites to keep seeds within about an inch of where they were intended. That would leave crop residue to protect the soil from erosion.

Regardless of the specifics, Jim Harsdorf said he sees one factor overshadowing all others: technology.

“Part of the United States’ success in any area is we are willing to look at new technology to solve old problems,” said the former Wisconsin state senator and state agriculture secretary. “The day we quit doing that is the day I don’t think we will keep our No. 1 status economically.”
The whole "robotic milking machine" thing sounded pretty intriguing, so I had to check it out via Google images, which came up with this picture:

Apparently, "The cow walks into the machine, the teats of the cow are found by sensors in the machine and the milking begins automatically. There are at least two good reasons for using robots. First, it saves a lot of labor and second, it makes it much easier to go from milking twice a day to three or more times a day. When cows are milked three times a day their production is increased with 10 to 15 percent"

This stuff is going to break Sharon Astyk's heart, I fear...


MisterMoose said...

I'm waiting for the wave of illegal Mexican robots to come crawling and hopping across the border to take farm jobs away from American robots who no longer want to do such menial work...

Stuart Staniford said...



Hal said...

“The day we quit doing that is the day I don’t think we will keep our No. 1 status economically.”

Or maybe it's the other way around...