Farming is a high-tech profession. You might not know it based on how television portrays the farmer, with the overalls, dirty hat and slow drawl. In fact, I distinctly remember a commercial a couple of years ago that featured a man dressed in the farmer's uniform (overalls and dirty hat) driving over a field of green corn with a brush hog. I thought, "That guy must be a fool to ruin a field of corn like that." I don't remember what the commercial was trying to sell, so maybe that speaks to the effectiveness of the commercial.
Despite Madison Avenue's perception of today's farmer, he is without doubt on the cutting edge. Take, for instance, GPS technology in tractors. This technology isn't that new, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Many new tractors are outfitted with a GPS receiver that lets the farmer plant with pinpoint precision. It allows the most efficient planting rate, prevents over- or under-planting, keeps the rows even and most importantly, it makes the field look nice from the road. If a farmer tells you that uniform, straight rows of corn aren't important to him, he's lying.
GPS technology also allows fertilizers and herbicides to be applied with precision. Field treatments can be applied in the right amounts in the right areas based on recent soil samples. Under-fertilization robs the farmer of yield. Over-fertilization is not only bad for the watershed, it's expensive. Fertilizer costs are one of the highest input costs for growing crops.
Genetic technology is perhaps the pinnacle of high technology available to farmers. Genetically modified seed allows the farmer to improve yields while decreasing both fertilizer and pesticide use.
While genetically modified seed has been given a bad name by numerous anti-technology zealots, the positive yields of GMO crops can't be denied. Modifications can improve yield, impart disease or drought resistance or even improve the nutritional value for livestock. These modifications allow fewer pesticides, fertilizers and less land to be used to grow the same amount of crops. This is even more important today as we have all witnessed how grain shortages have affected the world's political landscape recently.
Genetically modified crops have enjoyed widespread adoption among most farmers. In fact, it is nearly impossible to buy soybean seed that is not genetically modified in some way.
Perhaps the most exciting technology that's now available for livestock farmers is genomic technology. "Genomics" allow farmers to predict how an individual animal will perform compared to its herd mates or even cattle from across the country.
This was made possible once the genome, or genetic makeup, of the cow was mapped. Genetic markers were identified for dairy traits such as milk production, milk fat production and the size of the animal. Beef breed genetic markers can predict for tenderness of meat, growth rate or even the diameter of the rib eye, arguably the tastiest part of the steer. These markers can predict with a good degree of accuracy what an animal will be capable of while it is still a calf. It's like skipping to the back of the book to read the ending before reading the whole book.
Genomic technology has the potential to allow beef farmers to select the most productive replacement animals from within their herd with better certainty than pedigrees alone can give. It also allows dairy farmers to be more selective in deciding which calves to raise and which ones to sell.
Most farmers love new technologies since they reduce toil, increase yield and, in turn, result in a better bottom line. It is a double-edged sword, though, since as the supply of the commodity increases, the price the farmer gets paid for the commodity goes down. Regardless, anyone who knows and lives among farmers knows that they are indeed high tech. If Madison Avenue only knew.