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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Five Farm Implements That Did Not Exist 25 Years Ago

October 21, 2014 |

Image Credit: Rowbot

Image Credit: Rowbot

Farming has gone high-tech. With the convergence of science and technology, as well as no-till methods and increasing concerns about soil composition and fertilizer use, growers can now access information and tools unheard of twenty-five years ago.

Robert Yoder, Purdue Extension Educator based in Marshall County, Indiana, believes that farm innovation is leading to better environmental stewardship as well. “Farmers themselves are better educated about environmental issues,” he says, “and new technology is enabling better soil management practices.” With over 30 years as an Extension agent working in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, Yoder has seen a great deal of change in his career span, and he notes at least five innovations in farming equipment that did not exist before 1990 in common use now.

1. No-till capability. Implements are not only bigger, but they are also equipped to conserve topsoil through no-till farming techniques. “We now have equipment that allows for more conservation cropping systems,” says Yoder. “This keeps residue on the soil surface to limit erosion. Additionally, we’ve got improved no-till planters that allow for proper placement of seed with limited residue above the seed to allow for germination. Twin-row planters also improve the way the plants are distributed throughout the field, which is becoming more important as the growing season shortens.” One model is capable of planting sixteen twin rows (a total of thirty-two rows) of crop with one pass.

2. GPS on board. Global positioning systems provide crucial information for farmers about soil, water, and nutrient use, which allow them to make the best use of those resources. For example, detailed yield maps now aid in targeted fertilizer applications. 

“What happened historically was the lower-yielding areas of the field were under-fertilized and high yielding areas were over-fertilized, leading to build up of nutrients in the soils,” Yoder explains. “Through precision agriculture, the investment in fertilizer is now going where the nutrients are needed to provide a return in crop production, while allowing the plants to harvest stored nutrients that built up in the lower yield areas of the field.” 

Additionally, GPS-guided planters make tighter, straighter rows with less overlap of fertilizer application, and information from soil mapping influences how chemicals are applied. “GPS allows for on-the-go variable application of nutrients,” says Yoder, “which is important when applying soil-active herbicides and fertilizers that match soil type and soil tests in different parts of the field.”

3. Water management software for improved tiling systems. Fertilizer run-off concerns farmers, Yoder says, who not only watch their bottom line, but see the consequences of excess nutrients, such as phosphorus, in places like the Gulf of Mexico. GPS systems and applications such as Google Earth help farmers conserve water by creating real-time digital maps of their fields’ drainage. They can then remotely adjust their irrigation systems according to the actual needs of their plants and the field conditions, incorporating other layers such as yield or soil type maps.

 “We now have systems to manage tile flow into the surface water,” says Yoder. “This reduces nutrient loss from the field. Today’s irrigation systems apply water and nutrients in a more prescriptive manner versus over-application.”

4. Mobile apps for farmers. Though farming is still perceived by some to be a low-tech industry, the reality is very different. Farmers now take advantage of iPhone or Android apps that provide information from weather tracking to warning operators of a possible vehicle collision or rollover. Some apps link to crop and soil information stored in the cloud for easy access even while in the field, says Yoder, making farmers more connected than ever. For an overview of the newest apps available, check out these reviews by Matt Hopkins on the CropLife website.  

5. Robotic planting and fertilizing. Fertilizer waste, labor costs and human error are big challenges to profitability. Can robot farmers be a part of the solution?  It’s happening.

“Our mission with Rowbot is to revolutionize how corn is managed,” Rowbot inventor Kent Cavender-Bares recently told Seedstock. “By delivering fertilizer to corn crops when demand peaks, when the plant starts developing seed heads, Rowbot will help increase yields, save farmers money, and reduce the amount of nitrogen released into the atmosphere.”

Extension Educator Robert Yoder sees innovation continuing to grow in the farming industry, though he believes the focus will now be to make existing tools even more effective. “Now implement manufacturers are tweaking the details,” he says, “making farming more environmentally friendly and more profitable than ever.”

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