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Published July 21, 2010, 08:52 AM

Farming future: futuristic and old-fashioned

Wisconsin News
-- Agriculture of the future will be "Star Trek" meets "Green Acres."

By: Don Davis , Pierce County Herald

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."

Technology only goes so far, Thoma said. He pointed to his wife, Kelly, and said "she’s got to work off the farm for insurance."

"It ain’t great," he said of farm economics, "but it’s a way of life."

While the experts look to bigger, better and more modern equipment leading the way, that is not something Thoma can afford.

"We’re still farming with tractors dad had on the farm" in the 1960s and 1970s, he added.

But one of the top agriculture financial experts was optimistic about agriculture’s future during his Farm Technology Days visit.

President Paul DeBriyn of AgStar, which provides a variety of financial services in 44 states, said farming will continue to evolve, and much ag activity will return to the Midwest from California and other states.

The Midwest is more conducive to agriculture, he said.

Farmers will be more vertical than now, he said, meaning they will control everything from crops to value-added products. For instance, a farmer would use manure to help grow crops, feed the crops to livestock or dairy cows, use methane from manure to produce electricity and use some crop products to produce ethanol fuel.

The trend DeBriyn foresees is bucking one from the past few decades when farmers tended to specialize. For instance, some would produce hogs, buying grain to feed them and selling manure for others to use as fertilizer.

"Everything gets to be used on the farm," he said of the future.

However, he added, predicting the future is difficult.

"You never stay in the same spot two days in a row," DeBriyn said.

Ken McMahon of Associated Milk Producers Inc. said he can predict some changes in the dairy industry, but not others.

Unlike crop experts, who expect more production per acre, said McMahon, milk procurement coordinator of the New Ulm, Minn., based organization, it is impossible to say how much milk production can increase.

However, he added, the dairy industry is optimistic because there appears to be a growing demand in China, the world’s most populous country.

Dairy herd sizes will grow, McMahon said, and technology will help keep the need to employees down.

A Rochester, Minn., dairy McMahon recently visited is an example of the future. The 2,500-cow herd is milked 24 hours a day. Cows walk in one side of the parlor, get on a carousel, robots put milking equipment on the animal and the cow walks out of the other side of the parlor.

Such milking operations are growing, and McMahon said more farmers will use robots in the future.

"Optimism is there," he said. "We are on a world market."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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