The future of agriculture is high tech

Farm Forum

There’s no question in the mind of agronomist Charles “Gregg” Carlson, of South Dakota State University, that precision agriculture is the future of South Dakota.

At the turn of the 20th century, Carlson said, workers were being taught how to run and service internal combustion motors and steam engines.

America and South Dakota need to do a better job training the farm technicians of the future, believes Carlson, who teaches precision farming agronomy at SDSU.

“Today, the future of America is CNC technology, or computerized numerical controls — running all kinds of different machinery with a computer.

“It’s what Caterpillar, John Deere and other companies do incredibly well because they have two things: outstanding management and geeks who understood the future.”

“People need to understand that we have jobs in South Dakota because the economy is doing well, and that’s because of high commodity prices and production agriculture.”

Technology has allowed South Dakotans to convert grain surpluses into ethanol, which has for the first time tied the price of grain to the price of fuel, said Carlson,

“This has been an incredible boon to the economy of South Dakota,” he said.

It has also driven farmers to seek even greater productivity, but that can’t be accomplished without more and better technology.

Darin Maltsberger, instructor in the farm power division at Mitchell Technical Institute, is in full agreement with Carlson, and he thinks MTI is doing what it can to prepare a workforce to fill the technology skills gap.

“There’s a need in the ag equipment industry for workers who can service the new technology,” Maltsberger said.

“The old hands are retiring. Ten years ago, we’d use a toolbox and take a tractor or combine apart. Today we plug in a laptop to fix things.”

Maltsberger, who described himself as an “old farmer,” said his division has 12 students and another 25 signed up for next year.

Evan Eidem, who teaches precision technology at MTI, said CNC technology is a little advanced for his students, who are being trained to install and service complex technology such as the global positioning satellite (GPS) guidance equipment that come standard with today’s farm machinery.

Carlson said precision ag has allowed South Dakota, which has 14 to 26 inches of annual rainfall a year, to be competitive with states like neighboring Iowa, which has an annual rainfall of 28 to 38 inches.

“Our cereal grain production will have to double in 10 years to allow us to feed the world’s people,” Maltsberger said, “and most of that extra production will come by making better use of what we have.”

At MTI, students learn how to program and service equipment such as variable-rate drives for seeders and fertilizers, he said.

“This equipment will vary seeding and fertilization rates based on soil quality and the site’s particular geography.”

Many students at MTI are comfortable with computers, Maltsberger said. They were brought up on computer games and do well programming seeding and fertilizer “prescriptions” for fertilizing and seeding equipment.

Maltsberger said that proprietary farm management software like Apex, which is sold by John Deere, can be used to map fields.

“It gives you a record of where you planted what,” he said. The planting and harvest information can be used to create detailed financial records.

“It shows students a new way of thinking and creating management tools for the future of production agriculture,” he said.