Technology Grows on Farmers, Producers

Everything from drones to GPS tracking are making a huge impact on the ag industry


Jeff Sandborn has embraced a new way of growing soybeans, corn and wheat on his Portland, Michigan, farm.

Across the nation and beyond, Sandborn and his fellow farmers and producers who feed America are undergoing a technological boom – and from the sound of things, this is just the beginning.

Sandborn has been interested in farming technology since the 1990s, and today his cropland is a testing ground for the use of drones and the incorporation of technology in his machinery.

Students from Michigan State University often can be found in his fields flying drones and collecting data under the supervision of MSU professor Bruno Basso, who specializes in crop modeling and land use sustainability.

“MSU is using drone technology and remote imaging to better understand the dynamics of a field,” said Sandborn, who also is District 4 director for the Michigan Farm Bureau and a member of the National Corn Growers Association. “MSU picks one corn field each year, and students are out there counting individual plants and getting data.”

Drones provide imaging and mapping of the farmland to determine if crops need more fertilizer, pesticides or water, or why corn stalks aren’t growing in one spot but flourish in others, eventually producing a picture of the crop’s potential at harvest.

The crop modeling software used by these drones contains over 40 years of year-to-year local weather data. It takes into consideration the weather, the rainfall, the temperature, when the crop was planted and even the genetics of the particular crop.

“It runs scenarios from now forward, because we don’t know what the future will be,” Sandborn said. “It runs 40 different scenarios and, if it remains cool and dry for example, it will predict what your yield potential is.”

Basso said technology’s impact on the agriculture industry can result in a rosier bottom line.

“The technology is mostly time-saving – it allows farmers to complete tasks faster and with a much higher level of precision, such as not double-spraying or missing areas throughout the field,” Basso explained. “In the end, it translates to saving money on various farm operations.”

Another key development in farm management has been the use of GPS for a variety of chores, among them soil sampling, weed location, accurate planting, determining planting ratios and harvesting, to name a few.

Sandborn utilizes GPS technology on his farm, mostly in his tractor to ensure straight lines when planting and mapping his crops.

Basso said there is not a single piece of technology that is most beneficial to farmers, explaining farm tech has to be part of an integrated system employing a variety of techniques. But GPS broke the ground for technology in the field.

“I think that without the use of GPS mounted on tractors, harvesters, drones or robots, none of the site-specific applications would be possible,” Basso said.

GPS technology guides the machinery through a field, allowing the tractor and its implement to eliminate overlapping and achieve straight rows, thus saving money on seed and fertilizer, increasing productivity, using fewer resources and reducing operator fatigue.

Another piece of the farm tech revolution comes from Ann Arbor, where Jesse Vollmar developed software he believed would help guide farmers from planting to harvest to market.

Vollmar, CEO and co-founder of FarmLogs, grew up on a fifth-generation, 1,200-acre farm. He saw firsthand how clumsy existing farm software was.
“Part of the motivation (to create FarmLogs) was seeing the ineffectiveness of existing tools on our family farm,” Vollmar explained. “As a technologist, I couldn’t bear to watch my dad, uncle and younger brother struggle with inadequate and unfriendly software.”

Vollmar learned computer programming at an early age and earned a computer information systems degree from the University of Michigan. He took the lessons learned on the family farm and those in the classroom and combined them to create FarmLogs in 2011.

“Being on the intersections of these two different domains is what made the opportunity to create FarmLogs obvious to me,” he said. “Running a modern-day farm is really complex and requires many different skill sets to be successful. FarmLogs simplifies and automates some of the more mundane or difficult tasks, making it easier to be good at running a modern farming business.

“Imagine a farm as a factory. Farmers are running factories (land) that need to take in raw goods (seed, fertilizer, chemicals), run processes (field work), warehouse and distribute the output (storage and transport) and sell the product (marketing),” Vollmar explained. “In most large-scale manufacturing businesses, you would have specialized departments for each one of these functions. On a farm, you’re lucky if you have some good hired help to get some of the work done.”

Farmers have been quick to adopt the new software. There are more than 50,000 farms on the FarmLogs platform, Vollmar said, and farmers have access to more data and technology than ever before.

Because this spring and early summer were so wet and cool, Vollmar said FarmLogs helped Michigan farmers adapt to the unusual weather.

“Many producers needed to reevaluate their plans this year when weather forced a planting delay,” he said. “Having FarmLogs makes it much easier to quantify how a change might impact your financial outcome, which I believe came in very handy this year.”

What’s next in farm technology? Sandborn said he sees a day when autonomous tractors the size of riding lawn mowers can be used to plant an entire crop in the spring, without the worry farmers have today of heavy tractors bogging down in wet fields.

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