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Technological advances helping improve efficiency, trim costs

I couldn't help but think, as we were putting together our twice-yearly special section on agricultural technology and irrigation (included in this issue), just how far we've come.

It hasn't been that long ago, 15 years or so, that I'd go to meetings where specialists would talk about the potential in satellite-based global positioning systems, field mapping systems, prescription chemical/nutrient applications, and other Buck Rogers-type scenarios, and you could watch farmers in the audience shaking their heads or nodding off.

Same thing with computers: Only a decade ago, the percentage of on-farm computers was relatively small, and while a few farmers became immersed in computing to the extent they learned esoteric programming languages and wrote their own software, in many farm offices a computer was little more than an expensive paperweight.

Now, the processing power in the average desktop computer is greater than early era machines that occupied an entire room and required special cooling systems, while software has masked the complicated operating code and made them increasingly user-friendly.

For most farmers today, they're indispensable tools, and it's taken for granted all the things they do daily to facilitate a myriad of recordkeeping, communications, marketing, analytical chores that previously involved a lot of man hours and tedium.

Another component of the technology package that has helped revolutionize farming is the cell phone. Who'd have thought the clunky, unwieldy, unreliable phones of just 10 years ago would evolve into sleek devices that fit in a pocket and not only keep farmers in voice contact, but allow Internet/e-mail access and dozens of other functions, as well as storing thousands of tunes, photos, and even TV shows. Or tied in with an electronic monitoring system, they can perform such chores as automatically telephoning a farmer — anywhere — to let him know a remote irrigation pump is running low on fuel or has shut down and needs attention.

GPS technology has become one of the hottest sectors in agriculture, with a constant stream of new devices coming to market to serve a broad range of tasks. “Prescription” application of chemicals and fertilizer is now commonplace — saving farmers labor and money, improving efficiency, reducing the environmental footprint, and importantly, boosting productivity.

When linked to the steering of tractors, combines, and other equipment, GPS guidance systems allow virtually hands-off tracking across the field, with pinpoint precision, hour after hour, that no human can match — even at night or in other low visibility situations. Aerial applicators use GPS to make more precise applications, helping to eliminate off-target errors.

Equipment dealers are finding ways to use GPS to enhance services they provide to farmers. The devices can report to the dealer the number of hours a tractor or combine has operated and note when an oil change or other servicing is due. The dealer can even use the GPS coordinates to send a service truck to the machine's location in the field. And law enforcement agencies can track and locate stolen farm machinery that is GPS-equipped.

Given the rate that technology is advancing, who knows what another 10 years will bring?

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