Farm Technology Progresses From Horses to Hands-Free

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In the earlier 1900s, J.C. Karr planted corn with horses that pulled a two-row planter. So the retired farmer, now 94, just had to try the newfangled, hands-free steering in his son’s and grandson’s 550-horsepower tractor.

And he loved it, son Chris Karr says. His father engaged the satellite-driven auto guidance for the first time to till the soil with a disk, hands-free.

“A few years ago, my dad wanted to run the disk for a couple hours to learn how the auto-guidance system worked,” says Chris Karr, who grows corn and soybeans with his son in Champaign and Piatt counties. “After about an hour, he called me on the cellphone and said, ‘This is pretty neat.’ ”

The evolution of technology in farm equipment in the last century would drop the jaws of farmers from the early 1900s. Today’s farm technology plows under any notion in children’s picture books that farmers operate behind the times. In fact, the plow itself fell from mainstream use decades ago. Rather, farmers today operate sophisticated equipment to plant, tend and harvest the state’s top crops of corn and soybeans.

Mechanization Marvels

The National Academy of Engineering ranked agricultural mechanization seventh on its list of Top 20 Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century. Its impact on quality of life beat out computers, telephones and even air conditioning. (See more at greatachievements.org.)

This last century of progress on the farm includes the advent of the tractor and the debut of the self-propelled harvester we call a combine. Multitudes of achievements as seemingly simple as cabs on tractors led to efficient, safer methods to farm more acres in a day, Karr says. Four-wheel drive reduced compaction and boosted power.

farm technology

The 21st century started with the wide adoption of auto guidance, or hands-free, satellite-guided steering through the field. Expanding on that feature, farmers now can combine significant amounts of global positioning satellite-specific data on yield, fertilizer, soil types, soil pH and weather to precisely place seed and fertilizer in their fields, says Sean Arians, marketing manager of agronomic services at Climate Corp., a data science company.

“Now we have the technology that allows us to really make micro-decisions on the farm,” says Arians, who also farms in Woodford County. “Auto steer has paved the way for that because we have more time in the cab to analyze what is going on around us.”

In 1954,  the number of tractors on farms exceeded the number horses and mules for the first time.

As amazing as hands-free steering may seem, the wow factor only mushrooms from there. Sprayers use the same global positioning satellite signals to prevent overlap within a field. Combines contain computer screens and collect real-time, location-specific data as they harvest. Satellites guide variable-rate placement of seed, lime and fertilizer with up to sub-inch accuracy (better than navigation systems in cars). These closely monitored applications also result in less fertilizer going into the soil and other environmental benefits.

Modern-day planters epitomize precision. Planting corn and soybeans represents far more than dumping a bag – or bulk box – of seed in a planter.

“We have technology that allows us to collect a seed from the seed pool, meter it and send it down the tube, and 99 percent of the time those are evenly spaced,” Arians says. “That’s why as people drive down the road, they look at a cornfield and see what we would refer to as a ‘picket fence stand.’ Every seed is evenly spaced and given equal opportunity to grow.”

farm technology

Honoring Heritage

Moldboard plows and stationary corn shellers remind us of agriculture’s rich heritage and quickly provoke memories of yesteryear. Those iconic pieces relive farm history at the biennial Half Century of Progress Show, next slated for Aug. 24-27, 2017, in Penfield.

At the show, Karr takes several of his antique tractors that represent the type his father first brought to the farm in the 1940s and ’50s.

“We want to preserve the farming methods of the past,” says Karr, a member of the show’s committee. “It’s just something that we think is really important.”

Still, Karr, like Arians, wouldn’t give up auto-steer or variable-rate applications of fertilizers, lime and seed, and the heightened sustainability that accompanies those practices. They also look forward to the future of farming.

“The biggest change we are encroaching on is using data science to help make better decisions for the farm,” Arians says.

Arians expects farmers industrywide soon will fine-tune their nitrogen applications within a few feet. Karr predicts that farm machinery will increase in performance and likely transition to full automation. Planters also will plant with accuracy at higher speeds.

“The public probably doesn’t see us in the field as much as they used to,” Arians says. “We have bigger equipment that helps us get done faster, but we are constantly looking at ways to improve our operations, from planting the hybrid in the right place to nutrient management. Farmers are true environmentalists, and we don’t get enough credit for that.”

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