Dairy Focus: Farming a highly technical business

Farm Forum

Automation and precision tools are everywhere in our society, from fishing to farming, especially the latter.

The advances in agriculture, including dairying, are amazing. Technologies available in the U.S. that are becoming commonplace include automated calf feeders, total mixed ration mixers that deliver feed in the barn, cow prep equipment, cow brushes, feed pushers, alley scrapers, climate-control options, and feed and forage analysis; robotic milking systems; a teat cup that automatically post-dips every cow before takeoff; and various individual cow monitors for activity, rumination, temperature and feeding behavior.

So if you are interested in agricultural technology or just want to learn more about it, I’d encourage you to attend the Precision Agriculture Action Summit on Jan. 20-21 at the North Dakota Farmers Union Conference Center in Jamestown. The Red River Valley Research Corridor is hosting this event, and the North Dakota State University Extension Service helped organize it. Part of the summit will focus on advances in technology in the livestock area, and I am leading that program.

We’ve come a long way since that stanchion barn and early bucket system with which my parents started. Dairy farms are highly technical businesses, and the extent to which that is true was apparent at the 2013 Precision Dairy Conference that took place in Rochester, Minn., last June. More than 500 people from around the world were in attendance.

That is just one example of the technology events being held routinely in animal agriculture. Auto-steer tractors aren’t the only technology making the headlines any more.

The stuff of science fiction has become science fact. Robots are going mainstream: They are in our factories, our hospitals, our battlefields. They are doing jobs once considered the private domain of humans. Like computers before them, they are changing our world. And we have seen only the beginning.

What is driving this demand for robots?

A robot works in the dark 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or 365 days a year; never takes lunch breaks, sick leave or vacations; doesn’t need health insurance; works for about 30 cents per hour; and does the work of 10 people without breaking a sweat. It is changing our world.

Robots and imaging technologies are doing things today that we only dreamed of while reading that Dick Tracy cartoon of yesteryear where he was talking on a TV watch. Oh, wait! I guess we can do that now on a phone watch.

Yes, we have technology for technology’s sake, and then we have precision technology. That is where agriculture is going. It is a cost-intensive business. When technology can add efficiencies, such as reducing waste, do a more precise job or cut the time needed to produce a product, those are key decision factors that can make precision technologies successful.

Technology helps dairy farmers measure more parameters, interpret more data into useful information and integrate multiple data sources to improve their performance and efficiency. The impact is not just cost but rather reducing costs by improving animal well-being. In the dairy world, technology also helps reduce health problems, such as mastitis, metabolic disorders or lameness.

Without a doubt, also key are nonmonetary factors, such as how quickly the technology may become antiquated (while the cost of technology is coming down, it is still expensive).

Another factor that enters into the decision to use technology is quality of life, which probably is more important than maximizing profit on farms where the family provides a large proportion of the labor.

For instance, a technology that is growing in our region is robotic milking. Based on my observations, producers who are adopting this technology wanted to improve their quality of life and have a more flexible work schedule. They wanted to be able to participate in family activities, they were interested in new technologies or they wanted to expand their herd size by a fraction without hiring much extra labor.

Come to hear about these technologies and more at the Precision Agriculture Action Summit on Jan. 20-21 in Jamestown.