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Meet the new hired hand: The computer
By Gary Truitt

In 1900, it took 40 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. By 1950, it took only 14 hours of labor to produce 100 bushes of corn.

By the year 2000, it required only two hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. A mechanical and technological revolution dramatically increased the productivity of a farm. Yet it still required a farmer’s knowledge, experience, and judgment to run a farm successfully and profitably. Now, however, technology is even threatening to replace the farmer.

Computers are not new to the farm. In the 1980s, they started keeping our records. Then they became communication devices connected to the World Wide Web. In the 1990s, they took over the Chicago Board of Trade and started trading grain and controlling the market. At the beginning of this decade, they started driving tractors and combines, and now they are making production and management decisions.

A group of land grant universities including Purdue, Ohio State, the Universities of Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin, along with Michigan State, Kansas State, and Penn State, have collaborated to produce WeedSOFT.

According to Bill Johnson, Purdue Extension weed specialist, this computer program can identify your weeds, and tell you the fastest, most effective, and cheapest way to kill them. According to Johnson, the newest upgrade will even estimate yield losses and tell you whether you are better off to let the darn things grow or buy the high-priced herbicide. The program will even interface with GPS field maps and FSA aerial imagery to track weed movement.

This is just the first of several programs that have taken the guesswork out of farming. Another program will evaluate corn and soybean varieties and make a recommendation on which is best suited for your particular soil type, planting date, and tillage method.

Another computerized weather database program will review the weather patterns for your farm for the past 50 years and recommend the best day to plant, spray, spread manure, and harvest. A new web-based program developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will manage your nitrogen costs, and even your fuel expenses. Unsure about switching to no-till? This website will make the decision for you.

Speaking of protecting the environment, the aforementioned WeedSOFT program will track your use of herbicides and alert you if groundwater sources are threatened.

Many aspects of farm life have been given over to the computer: milking cows, mixing and measuring feed, and the list goes on and on. In fact you could say that box of circuits, memory chips and a processor is the new hired hand. The computer can drive your combine, monitor your yields, map your fields, market your crop and sign you up for the government program. Yet all this wonderful technology and innovation does have a downside.

First of all it is hurting farm efficiency. Remember those labor totals at the beginning. They are heading back up. Farmers today are spending more time producing the same amount of product. This is because each of these computer programs comes with a book of instructions thousands of pages long. It takes more time to figure out how to get the computer to do the job than it did to do the job yourself.

Then there are the medical problems. While skin cancer rates are down as producers are spending less time in the sun, cases of eyestrain are up from staring at monitors all day. In addition, reports of carpel tunnel syndrome are on the rise from repeated clicking with a mouse.

By far the worst effect this cyber farming revolution has had is that it makes farming look so easy the wife will want to try it. There have even been reports of some VoAg classes running a farm as a class project. Imagine a room full of blue and gold FFA jackets all sitting at computers running a 1,200-acre grain farm while Instant Messaging 500 of their closest friends.

As professor Harold Hill sang in Music Man, “We have trouble my friends, right here in River City.” Yes, that’s trouble with a capitol T that rhymes with C that stands for computer. Left unchecked, this trend will empty our university ag schools. The next generation of farmers will soon discover that the most important skill on the farm will be computer repair.

This farm news was published in the March 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.