Farm Tech – Not Your Grandpa’s Technology!

The story Farmer Jim Lowe told us about the schoolchildren thinking that farmers don’t have any cool technology has had me thinking a lot about the subject of farming and technology.  The idea that farming is low-tech is completely false, but still pervasive in non-agricultural communities. Farmers are huge consumers of the most advanced technology, and are using the latest and greatest things to continually decrease their inputs, increase their efficiency, and improve their yields.

In 1960, a farmer could feed approximately 25 people. Today, that same farmer feeds 155 people! This huge increase is directly tied to technology in the form of improved seeds, fertilizers, equipment, farming techniques, and other tools available to allow the farmer to best utilize their time and resources.

Farming used to be hugely labor-intensive, requiring millions of animals and thousands of workers. Farmers used wooden or iron plows to prepare their fields, and sowed, cultivated, and harvested their crops by hand. In the 1800’s it would take a farmer between 250-300 hours of work to produce 100 bushels of wheat (about 5 acres). Today, a farmer could produce 100 bushels of wheat on about 1 acre of land in about three hours of total time. These drastic contrasts demonstrate just how far agricultural technology has come.\

Pick up a farming magazine, like Progressive Farmer, and you’ll see that it’s full of complex articles on fertilizers, equipment, seeds, planting techniques, and much, much more. Farming is a science, and the information and technology available to our farmers proves that it’s a whoooooole lot more than just throwing some seeds in the ground and praying for rain!

There are lists all over the internet with the most important agricultural inventions. Many of them list old technologies such as crop rotation or Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. I am truly amazed at how much technology is available for farmers today, and by the incredible things they are able to accomplish because of it. So I made my Top 10 list, encompassing 20th and 21st century innovations that have revolutionized farming. Enjoy!

Kiss My Tractor’s Top 10 Agricultural Innovations

1. Combine Harvesters: Ok, technically the combine was invented in the early 1830’s, but self-propelled combines didn’t hit the market until 1952. Combine harvesters are really one of the most economically important agricultural innovations, replacing animal and human labor and enabling a smaller workforce to farm a larger amount of ground.  A combine harvester performs three separate harvesting functions into one machine. Combines reap (cut), thresh (separates grain from husks), and winnow (separates grain from chaff) crops including wheat, corn, oats, barley and more .

Combine technology has continued to improve in the past decades, making life easier for farmers. Combines have removable heads to harvest different kinds of crops. Another important innovation is the addition of automatic leveling to combines, to enable farmers to farm on hilly ground. Leveling combines are used in the Palouse, where hills have slopes of up to 50%, and other hilly farming regions. The cab on a combine with a leveling package will stay perpendicular to the ground, while the header follows the slope.

Self-leveling combine. See how the cabs remain level?

Self-leveling combine. See how the cabs remain level?
Photo source

2. General Purpose Tractors: The first gasoline, internal combustion engine general purpose tractor was introduced by International Harvester (IH) in 1924. The Farmall tractor could pull heavy machinery to till, harvest, plant, and cultivate row crops. Farmers were quick to adopt this new time-saving technology, and by 1930, over 200 tractors were being made each day. Today there are hundreds of types of tractors to choose from, along with thousands of implements to perform whatever task needs to be performed. Tractors are the workhorse of any farming operation, and enable a farmer to cultivate a large amount of land efficiently.

3. GPS – Yep, farmers use GPS, and not just to get from one end of the field to the other! Most tractors and harvesters these days are outfitted with computers and GPS systems that guide the tractor and enable the farmer to be more precise and accurate in their use of seed, fertilizer and fuel. There are GPS applications for field mapping, soil sampling, yield calculations, and more. These applications allow farmers to know the soil composition, nutrient content, crop yield, and fertilizer needs for every square inch of their fields. Using this information, they can apply more or less fertilizer or other products in the specific spots where it is needed, rather than over the entire field. Their inputs are reduced, and yields are maximized through this important technology.

A pretty sweet GPS setup.  source

A pretty sweet GPS setup
Photo source

4. No-till farming: While we’re huge fans of no-till and just a teensy bit biased towards it, it does make my Top 10 list on its own merits. No-till farming, which you can read about here, reduces erosion and increases the amount of water and nutrients in the soil. No-till farming came about in the 1940’s, but became more popular in the 1970’s. Now, many farmers across the world implement no-till practices to protect and improve their soils and decrease the need for fertilizers.

5. Biotechnology: This is a subject which many people don’t understand, (the media has spread much information about biotech which is NOT science based), but the fact remains that advances in biotechnology have made a huge impact worldwide. While biotechnology has been around since the beginning of agriculture itself, when wild crops with desirable traits began to be selectively cultivated, modern agricultural biotechnology is helping farmers to meet the demands of a booming worldwide population. Advances in crop genetics have increased pest and disease resistance, improved nutrient content, increased yields, and created varieties of plants that will grow in harsh conditions.

6. Robotics:  Surprised? Farmers are now using robots to help them in their work. Drones are flying robots and are becoming increasingly useful for farmers. Drones can fly over huge farm fields, taking video and pictures of every part of the field. They can be loaded with software to detect weeds, pests, disease, measure water and nutrient content in the soil, and even to protect vulnerable crops from birds and other animals. Drones that have the ability to plant and apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are also in the works. Any tool that can increase a farmer’s productivity and decrease their outputs, such as fertilizer, is being increasingly explored by modern agriculture.

Using a drone to survey a field. source

Using a drone to survey a field.
Photo source

7. Apps: There’s an app for that! There are a multitude of phone and computer applications that allow farmers to track and manipulate all the data they receive from their tractor’s GPS system, or from their drones, if they use them. There are apps for tracking yields, pests, water content, crop prices, soil samples, and to fully manage a farm. These applications give the farmer the ability to immediately organize and access a wealth of important data.  Their time efficiency is improved, as well as their ability to keep records and decipher trends in their operation.

8. Center pivot irrigation: Getting water to the field has always been a challenge for farmers. In 1948, irrigation was revolutionized when farmer Frank Zybach of Colorado introduced the center pivot irrigation system.  In this system, long, overhead aluminum pipes with suspended sprinklers rotate around a center pivot point, all being driven on big rubber tires. Pivot irrigation is considered to be highly efficient, and helps conserve water. Pivot irrigation is also less labor intensive, as movement of the sprinklers is controlled by an electric motor instead of being moved by hand. A computer in the electrical panel box controls the speed of the wheel rotation, it also controls the sprinklers, governing the amount of water coming out of each sprinkler head.  Pivot irrigation also is less disruptive to the soil, as there is no need to dig furrows to channel water through the field.

Another advantage of pivots is that they are able to cover gently rolling ground, which has actually led to more ground being farmed in some areas of the world that were previously unavailable for farming with standard gravity-driven irrigation.

Center Pivot Irrigation circles. source

Center Pivot Irrigation circles.
Photo source

9. Fertilizers: Modern fertilizers are much more sophisticated, effective and safe than they were decades ago. Advancements in technology in these areas, combined with improvements in application technology and farming technology, have enabled farmers to drastically reduce the amount of fertilizer they need to produce a good crop.

Fertilizers are particularly important in increasing crop yields, and are available to amend any soil combination, water level, and plant need. Fertilizers are highly engineered to provide the exact amount of nutrients the field needs to produce maximum yields, and modern technology.  With the use of computer and phone apps and GPS systems discussed above, fertilizer can be applied exactly where it is needed. Fertilizers are made of varying combinations of natural minerals, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, boron, iron, and others. It has been estimated that almost half the people on earth are fed through the use of synthetic fertilizers.

10. Education: Where do you think farmers learn all this cool stuff? That’s right! At college! Farming is not for the faint of heart, nor the uneducated. I know a lot about farming, but it would take a huge amount of learning for me to go out and be a successful farmer. For example, the University of Idaho offers 24 different degrees associated with agriculture, ranging from food science to plant biotechnology. Advancements in agriculture are made all the time through research conducted at universities across the nation. Farming is a scientific endeavor, and success starts by getting an education that reflects the challenges and opportunities of modern agriculture.

Engineering biodiesel at U of I. source

Engineering biodiesel at U of I.
Photo source

So there you have it. Our list of the Top 10 Modern Agricultural Advancements. It amazes me each day the amount of technology and science that goes into farming. It has enabled our farmers to make huge advancements, and feed over 150 people, more than double the amount they could feed only 50 years ago. So the next time someone says that farming is low-tech and boring, set them straight by telling them about all the amazing tools available to ensure that our farmers can keep up with the demand of feeding a growing population!

We're lucky our farmers don't have to farm this way anymore! source

We’re lucky our farmers don’t have to farm this way anymore!
Photo source

So, what do you think about our list? Do you have questions about anything listed that we could answer for you? Are we missing any really important 20th and 21st century technologies? Leave a comment!

Information for this article was taken from the following websites:

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2 Responses to Farm Tech – Not Your Grandpa’s Technology!

  1. Pingback: Our Year in Review | Kiss My Tractor

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