Farming Technology: Next Steps

The days of the open-air tractor rolling slowly through the field have rapidly faded from farming iconography. Today’s farmers use a wide range of apps, software programs and automation to ease the physical burden of farm work, and make food production more efficient.

Here are some of the technological advancements that are transforming agriculture on the peninsula today.

Automatic feeders:  Farmers used to feed animals by tossing a scoop of feed into a trough. Today’s cows get a precision diet, usually under the guidance of a nutritionist consultant. “It makes a big impact on the quality of milk you get,” said Julaine Olson of Olson Family Farms in southern Door County. “With robotic calf-feeding, the calf can drink at the nipple anytime it wants to. You can make the calf grow better by feeding her better.”

GPS-guided tractors:  The tractors you see out in the field today waste little motion. Guided by GPS, they spread manure, seed and fertilizer more efficiently than ever. However, farms on the northern part of the peninsula find it less useful. “Auto-steer and GPS don’t work as well up here with all of our crooked fields,” said Holly LaPlant, who farms 1,700 acres with her father in Carlsville. Most of those acres come in chunks smaller than 40 acres. “We don’t have the huge fields like Kewaunee County.”

The robotic stall sweeper cleaning the aisle.

Driverless tractors:  You’ve heard of driverless cars, which are already on the road in testing stage. While driverless tractors aren’t yet in wide use, companies are racing to develop them and bring them to market, posing expensive questions for farmers in the near future. The costs to upgrade will be steep, but swarms of small driverless tractors could work round the clock, reduce soil compaction, and save labor costs.

Digital field-mapping: With concern over soil inputs greater than ever, farmers are now combining satellite technology with soil testing to maximize inputs. Soil samples can now be taken on five-acre grids and tethered to application practices, so farmers can prescribe specific fertilizer and seed applications to areas based on soil depth and quality. With field-scouting apps farmers can get real-time information about crop conditions on their phones. This can save farmers significant costs in fertilizer, seed and time.

Robots:  Farmers who have installed robot milkers call them a lifestyle game-changer, freeing them from the body-bruising, twice-a-day milking routine. Roomba-like stall cleaners save another dirty job, scraping manure from stalls and saving much of the labor of a job that might require a skid-steer or several hours of labor.

These robots are saving some of the most arduous activities of life on the farm. “Hopefully it keeps more in farming from a lifestyle and technology standpoint,” said Tony Brey of Brey Cycle Farms in Sturgeon Bay.

Rob Kiehnau said installing a robot milker will lengthen his career on the farm.

“From a physical standpoint, it helps us do what we like doing later in our lifetime,” he said. “I probably would have done this another 10 years, but with the robot it makes it a little more enjoyable to keep doing it a little longer.”

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