ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED | AUTUMN 1965 | JUNIOR FARMER AND 4-H AQUARTERLY
The “electronic computer” has been hailed as having possibly more beneficial potential for the human race than any other invention in history. It has already changed or affected whole areas of society by opening up vast new possibilities by its extraordinary feats of memory calculation. It has given new horizons to the fields of science and medicine, changed the techniques of education and improved the efficiency of Government.
What is a computer? Basically a digital computer is an electric machine that can do arithmetic and retrieve information with incredible, superhuman speed. The inside of a computer is a network of thin wires, transistors, and hundreds of thousands of tiny magnetized rings, all strung together into a “memory and arithmetic” processing unit. The location of each fact stored in the computer is very small. The computer never forgets these locations. It is this memory process which make people think of the computer as a mechanical brain. The layman may think the computer will some day replace him both physically and mentally. This is not the case. Man is still boss and must do the original thinking.
The computer receives its information, called input, from magnetic disks, magnetic tapes, punched cards or typewriter-like keyboards that feed the memory unit. Each piece of information is first changed into machine language, normally binary, a system which uses two as a base instead of ten as in the decimal system. The facts are relayed to the memory unit via electronic impulses that store the numerically defined fact in several metal rings.
To solve a problem one must first define the problem in computer language. This procedure is called programming which is a way of telling the machine what is to be done with the data stored in the machine to give the desired result.
Business is what makes a nation run and computers increasingly are what makes business run. Computers are not running agriculture today, but they are having an ever-increasing vital role to play. The application of computers to agriculture is just in its infancy but the growth rate to maturity will have to be phenomenal if we are to keep pace with other industries.
Computers in agriculture have three distinct applications, each of equal importance.
- The statistical analysis of research data.
- Decision making with recommendations.
- Routine summarization of facts and the preparation of reports, costs, etc.
The proper and complete statistical analysis of data collected from research projects regardless of the field of study is a vital part of every research program. Unfortunately many dollars are often spent on the conducting of experiments and on the collection of data without final accurate results being abstracted due to the lack of computers, or their improper usage.
Today with computers, multiple regression analyses for example, can be run routinely yielding information on the influence of the final products, be it pounds of milk or yield of wheat by many different independent or correlated variables. To attempt to do this by hand would be almost impossible. Computers free the research worker from this boredom and allow him time to think and formulate ways of putting the newly found information into practice to the benefit of the agricultural industry.
Role in Making Decisions
In the area of decision making computers are having an ever increasing role. The results from research, plus other well established facts, are used to develop computer programs, which in turn develop recommendations which are used in decision making by agriculturalists in their various operations. Examples of this application at the University of Guelph include Soil Test Recommendation, Least Cost Feed Formulation, Cow and Sire Pedigree Indexing.
In the soil testing program the basic chemical analysis of each sample are first punched on cards with proper farm identification and other pertinent information such as the kinds of crops to be grown and the organic matter content of the soil. The computer is programmed in such a manner that it takes this new information, analyses it, draws from storage data pertaining to fertilizer recommendations, make decisions within the limits of the written program and then types out on printed form the general fertilizer recommendations. These recommendations are then taken by soil specialists and modified if necessary for particular soil and crop condition. The computer thus helps in the original decision, making it at a speed and accuracy far greater than would be possible by man.
In the development of least cost feed formulas computers are playing a large role not only from a research point of view but also from the straight production line approach. The idea in this area of work is to develop feed formulas for livestock and poultry that meet the nutrient requirements of the animal utilizing available feeds in such a manner that the cost of the final product is a minimum. This approach is currently being used by a number of companies in the feed manufacturing industry. They want to put on the market a uniform product meeting all the nutrient requirements and at the least possible cost. This should also be the objective of individual livestock feeders who prepare their own feeds. This approach through the use of computers is in its infancy, but there will be considerable growth in the future.
In the area of livestock breeding the computer is playing an important role. Computer programs are now being developed to handle the multitude of facts which are available on the productivity of the progeny and on the ancestors of the animal. Today with artificial breeding holding an important role in the cattle industry it is essential that the accuracy of selecting sires be improved. In the past a genetically poor sire could not seriously harm a breed of livestock but to-day through artificial breeding , one sire breeding 1,000 cows a month could create havoc. The genetically superior animals must be selected for this extensive kind of service.
Computers now take the multitude of facts that are available on the productivity of the progeny and the ancestors of an individual, and through the use of the most up-to-date genetic knowledge, indexes of estimated genetic worth are prepared. Programs of this nature will accelerate the improvement of a breed.
The routine summarization of facts by a computer greatly facilitates farm management and farm accounting. Computers have been adapted to turn out statements and summaries of operations, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. This type of information brings together in an accurate and clear manner the financial pictures of any type of farm enterprise. From such statements the farm operator independently, or in conjunction with farm management consultants, can determine the strong and weak spots in a business and make decisions as to the changes that should be made to improve the financial picture.
Computer Makes Recommendations
In the area of livestock the adaption of dairy record keeping to electronic data processing is probably the prize example. Milk production records along with feed records are recorded monthly by supervisors visiting the dairy farm or by dairy farmers themselves. These records are forwarded to a computer centre, processed, and a monthly statement is returned to the dairy farmers in three or four days. The statement shows the production per cow and makes recommendations for feeding. In some of the more sophisticated computer programs in the United States, the computer even calculates the income per cow. In this fast moving society with rising costs and the scarcity of labour, a dairy farmer must have records of this nature to assist him in running his business. The inefficient cow must go if his bank book is to stay out of the red.
Similar programs are used today for beef cattle producers, showing the rate of gain of his entire herd. From records of this nature, he can select the superior breeding stock to carry on the next generation.
The most impressive fact about the age of computers is how young it still is and how little society has yet felt the full impact of the computers potential. The computer will eventually become as close to every day life as the telephone - a sort of public utility of information.
The computer provides man with a staggering new capacity to discover, build, solve and think. The computer is already upsetting old patterns of life, challenging accepted concepts, raising new spectres to be conquered. Years from now man will look back on these days as the beginning of a dramatic extension of his power over his environment, an age in which technology began to recast human society in the long run the computer is not so much a challenge to man as a challenge for him.
Let us in agriculture put the computer to use for the benefit of all.