It takes about nine months to raise a winter wheat crop and there isn’t much anyone can do to speed up Mother Nature. But, that doesn’t mean the unrelenting wave of technology sweeping every other conceivable industry on the planet has somehow missed agriculture.
Turns out, that’s far from the case.
Oklahoma’s annual wheat harvest season is now well under way – combines rumbling through golden fields will be a familiar scene across the state for the next few weeks. That provides a perfect opportunity to explore how producers these days are marrying the power of technology and age-old farming practices without losing their connection to land and nature.
“I think back to my great grandpa, my grandpa and my dad. My great grandpa had mules, my grandfather started with a team of mules. I started on a 4020 with no cab. Now we have tractors that steer themselves. In 100 or 115 years, look at the advancements, said Brandon Webb, a Blaine County producer whose family operation can be traced back to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1892.
“All the guys before me were taking the technology of the time and implementing it. I’ve got the baton and I’m trying to be as efficient and successful as I can be to maintain what we’ve done,” Webb said. “I think it’s just different technology here today. We have cell phones and tractors that steer themselves. That’s pretty awesome.”
To that point, Webb noted that in today’s technology-rich environment, equipment is larger and faster allowing producers to, for instance, plant 600 to 800 acres of wheat or fertilize 1,000 acres in a single day.
“The equipment has gotten way more productive, obviously bigger and faster, but everything’s geared toward that,” he said.
Maybe for folks outside of agriculture it’s a little disconcerting to envision a producer using an app on a smart phone or tablet to check rain levels in the field or access electronic records of what crops were planted in which fields in which years, but that’s exactly what’s happening across Oklahoma, the nation and internationally.
For producers thriving in these technology driven times, one of the most popular and can’t-live-without-it piece of technology is GPS.
More specifically, equipment such as combines, air seeders and other machinery now come with GPS.
That’s a technological development Mike Davison, a producer who has maintained a farming operation in Caddo County for about 40 years, believes would impress his father.
“My father was like a lot of farmers that when he planted cotton, he wanted the rows to be very straight. I think he would very impressed with this technology because the rows are straight,” Davison said. “The technology draws your straight line, and as a result, there’s very little lap over so you’re not wasting a lot of seed and fertilizer when you’re planting or disking or whatever you’re doing.”
In Webb’s case there is a data transfer package connected to the GPS on his machinery that collects information as its in operation and transmits it to his equipment dealer, who maintains those records.
“It’ll give us our yield, yield per acre and map it for us so we’ll know certain points of the field that are outperforming,” he said. “It helps us with our variable rate on our fertilizing and whatnot. We’re compiling all that data, hopefully, so in the future we can use that information to be more efficient.”
Beyond appreciating GPS- and auto-steer capable equipment such as the tractor, sprayer and air seeder, producer Brett McIntyre relies on apps while helping to oversee the family operation in Cotton County.
“If there’s a new app out there that tells you more information, I’m going to jump on it and see what it’s about,” he said. “If you don’t like it, you can always delete it. That’s the beauty of an app.”
McIntyre noted now there are apps that can help producers streamline critical processes during the growing season.
“Anytime you have a certain part of a field hit by hail or if you have to swath and bail, there are apps now that you can GPS it and know the exact acres and that’s helpful in lots of ways,” he said. “It’s made farming a little bit easier in some ways but a little more difficult, too, in some ways, to keep up with it all.”
Interestingly, McIntyre also has experimented with drones.
“We’re still in the learning process, but I think the drones are the next future for agriculture, what with being able to fly over fields, map them off and see where there might be bugs eating part of a crop or where you might need more fertilizer,’ he said. “That’s definitely going to be the future.”
Brian Arnall, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension soil nutrition specialist has studied the use of social media and apps in agriculture. He said YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, in that order, are the dominant social media platforms among producers.
While Twitter captures the 40 and under crowd, for the most part Facebook draws an older audience, though 20- and 30-somethings still use it.
“Everyone uses YouTube,” Arnall said. “More information is shared on Twitter than Facebook and producers are starting to see that and use it as a resource.”
As for apps, Arnall has more than 320 free apps for grain feed and fiber. Moreover, he’s produced more than 18 apps and has three or four presently in the works.
“What I’ve learned is there is no one or even 10 great apps, because every single producer is needing something a bit different,” he said.
Like others who use apps and social media platforms, much of the popularity and usefulness of these tools for producers lie in the ability to connect and share.
“If someone posts about using GreenSeeker or no till, inevitably someone will ask about the success, challenges or make suggestions. That’s why it’s crucial Extension is involved,” Arnall said. “The younger generation is tech savvy, have tractors with auto-steer and spend a lot of their time watching YouTube and cruising social media.”
Even as technological as farming has become, there’s clearly room for more cutting-edge advancements. Arnall believes establishing better internet service in rural areas and increased usage of satellite imagery and drones are a couple items on the on the short list of the “next big thing” for agriculture.
“Right now the focus is on download speeds, which is nice for watching YouTube, but when upload speeds increase, the data collected can be live streamed to the cloud and decisions can come back immediately,” Arnall said. “Technology wise, I see the rise in the availability and use of satellite imagery and maintaining growth in the use of drones.”
Meanwhile, social media platforms that allow users to quickly exchange information also will be favored in the near future.
“For those using social media as a tool, and not just for entertainment, the Twitter-type of operating system will be important with its rapid information transfer,” Arnall said.