Like an old rusted horse trough, the stereotypical image of today’s farmers and agricultural producers doesn’t hold much water. These days, you’re as likely to see a farmer in the middle of his field with a smartphone as with a pickup truck. (And, no, he’s not looking for Pokemon.)
As mobile technology has gotten smaller, more powerful and more sophisticated, agriculture producers are turning to data – collected from their operations and perhaps from other operations also sharing their real-time data – to maximize their output by increasing production and efficiency.
And the numbers are telling. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates over 60 percent of U.S. farmers use some form of data analytics for greater precision in their fields. The payoff: Farmers also report an average 15 percent drop in input costs – for items such as seed, fertilizer, pest control and crop protection products – and a 13 percent increase in crop yields.
Farmers today, according to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, don’t have to be computer programmers, but they can’t afford to turn their backs on computerized tech innovations.
“Farmers have to be many things. They have to be mechanics, agronomists, veterinarians. And today, the successful farmer needs to be computer literate,” Quarles said. “There’s really no substitute for it. And the best farmers are the ones who are early to adopt new technologies by experimenting with it.”
Kentucky typically is a conservative, let-others-invent-the-wheel place, but state agribusiness has been not only an early adopter of farm technology but an innovator.
In the cattle industry, Blue Grass Stockyards, a collection of seven livestock marketing facilities in Central Kentucky, helped pioneer the leading software for auctions in North America.
“The software that we operate is the leading software package for auction markets in Canada and the U.S.,” said Jim Akers, the chief operating officer for Blue Grass Stockyards. “We were part of the development of that software back 15 years ago. We actually worked with the software developers to create a Windows-based software. Everything before that was either DOS- or Linux-based.”
Kentucky’s significant livestock-production sector was stunned last January when a fire destroyed Blue Grass Stockyards’ main facility in Lexington. However, the company quickly announced plans for new, even better central marketing operation, which is being built north of the city on Interstate 75 at Iron Works Pike very near the Kentucky Horse Park.
While the company had not reached a final agreement with Lexington-Fayette government officials regarding the project as of early August, the proposed new $12 million facility will be easier for cattle producers to access than the previous site. As Lexington grew, the stockyards had gone from being on the rural edge of town in the 1940s to deep inside the state’s second most populated urban area. It will be easier to visit digitally, too, which means Lexington should maintain its position as the nation’s third largest cattle sale site.
Computerized tractors and chicken coops
New technologies allowing for more sophisticated ways to collect and analyze data are rife in the agriculture sector. Quarles said this is best illustrated by looking at the makeup of vendors at the National Farm Machinery Show, one of the premiere farm shows in the world, which is held annually in Louisville.
Today’s machines, often costing $250,000 and up, are driving farmers’ adoption of Big Data analytics because they increase profits.
“More and more vendors are pushing software,” Quarles said.
Software that can do what? Well, basically, just about anything. If you want to do something, there’s an app for that, as the not-so-old saying goes.
Driverless tractors (yes, they are already doing that – take that, Google self-driving car) guided by GPS can negotiate a field within an inch of error, dropping specific seeds in their intended locations with pinpoint accuracy and efficiency. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones) can give farmers a detailed view of their land. Chicken coops and barns can be administered with iPhones. An operation’s irrigation system can be managed from laptop computers on wireless networks.
But the real magic is happening with data collection and then its analysis. Sensors on planting equipment record crucial information about soil composition, not by the square acre, but by the square meter. Software can then determine which hybrid variations of a plant will perform best in a given field and apply the most effective amount of fertilizer as it grows.
On the flip side, sensors on harvesting equipment can paint a meticulous portrait of what is coming out of the ground – numbers that formerly had to be laboriously recorded with paper and pencil.
The artificial intelligence farmhand?
The primary discussion Big Data is generating in the ag world right now is not what kind of data is available, but where is it going to go? A detailed analysis of a single acre of farmland can create gigabytes worth of data. Data shared on a “cloud” and compared and aggregated with other farm operations will lead to even richer farming best practices, but some ag producers worry how secure their data will be.
The next technological step in agriculture, Quarles thinks, will be software and equipment that can integrate and interpret all of the different points of data that come in and then make suggestions – like an artificial intelligence farmhand.
“I believe that the technology that’s on the forefront will be something that connects what have previously been independent systems. There used to be an independent system for one tractor set-up – let’s say for a corn planter – and another system that would monitor rainfall and irrigation applications. I think what we’ll see is the emergence of technology that can combine all these together and actually help suggest management techniques.”
Interestingly, Quarles says that the agribusiness sector will embrace a new technology before it has widespread commercial appeal. Such is the case with GPS. Farmers were using GPS in the mid-’90s, which was many years prior to its omnipresence in automobiles and smartphones. Further, Quarles says that agriculture in Kentucky has a history of developing and inventing technology that eventually gets adopted by the farming community as a whole.
“Planting techniques such as no-till corn was invented in Kentucky, and lots of conservation measures were invented in Kentucky,” he said.
Tech-savvy Blue Grass Stockyards handles a large amount of information on behalf of its customers – about 45,000 farmers. That number in itself poses challenges, but the software manages many other metrics: herd sizes, weights, sex, vaccinations, diets and more. “Organic,” “natural” and other premium meat programs are another layer of data that has to be analyzed to help farmers get the most out of their draft.
The software also ensures that each auction runs smoothly and quickly.
“It’s very computerized. Twenty years ago, if we had a run of 2,500 cattle in a given day – a normal day – you would be looking to start selling at 8:30 in the morning, and you’d be lucky to be done by midnight, or, many times, later,” Akers said. “In today’s environment, for 2,500 to 3,000 head, it’s rare for us to be here past 6 in the evening. And that’s all just because of the efficiencies built into the system.”
Blue Grass Stockyards upgrading
These efficiencies have led to greater profitability for Blue Grass Stockyards and the farmers they represent, and have helped bolster the Kentucky cattle industry. In terms of numbers, Kentucky has more cattle than any other state east of the Mississippi River, and it ranks eighth nationally. So many cattle come through the Lexington facility, Akers says, it has been the third largest market in the nation for many years.
There are just over 40 auction markets in Kentucky, and the seven facilities of Blue Grass Stockyards have about a 50 percent market share of cattle sold in auction in Kentucky, according to Akers. Combined, the seven facilities sell nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of cattle annually for their farmers; before fire ignited from a roofing worker’s torch destroyed it, the Lexington facility alone sold over $200 million worth of cattle last year.
While the new Lexington facility will be fitted with a number of new unique technologies, Akers says the organization is also taking this opportunity to completely overhaul their website, which will provide a suite of data points and work in real-time with the auction operations.
“We’re inventing things that will be available to customers that will all be tied into our website,” he said. “Even to the point where, say, if you’re a farmer sitting at the kitchen table in Bardstown and decide you’re going to take a load of cattle to the stockyard in Lexington, that farmer will be able to get on his smart phone, go to an app, and see how long the line is to unload.”
At the new Lexington facility, Akers says a thoughtful layout and new system of automated gates will streamline the sales process even more, and farmers will be able to track the location of their cattle within the facility from the moment they leave the truck to the time they enter the sales ring. A new education center for students to learn more about the cattle industry will be built on site, as well as an apparatus that can accommodate truckloads of cattle (and their drivers) overnight as they travel across the country.
“It’s a big leap for a company of our size, and a huge investment. We’re venturing out into a lot of unknowns, and we’re inventing a lot of the technology that’s going out there,” he said.
Robbie Clark is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].