BARRE MILLS – After patiently waiting her turn, Firefly sidles up to the Lely Astronaut.
As the 1,587-pound cow stands on a scale, a robotic arm moves under her belly. Whirring brushes wash her udder before laser-guided suction cups latch on and begin milking.
Six minutes and 20 seconds later, Firefly is done, her 20.5 pounds of milk on its way to the holding tank, and the next cow is nosing into the milking stall.
Farmer Jeff Berg watches it all on video monitors from the comfort of his corner office. A robotic feed pusher keeps hay where the cows can reach it, while a manure scraper, like an industrial-sized Roomba, pushes the waste through a slotted floor.
Berg, 53, grew up on this farm and took it over shortly after graduating high school in 1980. But, to borrow a phrase, this is not his father’s farm.
Robotic milkers, GPS-guided tractors and combines, high-definition satellite imagery, computers and even remote-controlled drones: Technology is giving today’s farmers new ways to save time — and money.
Jason Miller is head of the growing precision farming department at St. Joseph Equipment and says today’s best computer-guided planters, combines and fertilizer applicators can be dialed in to sub-inch accuracy.
“It’s millimeters, pretty much,” said Miller, 26, who also runs a 300-acre farm with his brother.
That accuracy allows farmers to save on inputs — seeds, fertilizer, pesticides — by eliminating overlap. Combined with satellite imagery and soil maps, producers can use computers to write custom “prescriptions” to account for soil variations within a field — a little more fertilizer here, a fewer seeds there.
“Now you can do this perfectly accurately,” Miller said.
But Miller said farmers tend to notice the “fatigue factor.”
“That’s one of the first things customers say to me — I can plant all night,” Miller said.
That’s key when Mother Nature squeezes the planting and harvesting season, he said. “You’ve got certain times to go, go, go.”
Newer implements offer telemetry features that allow farmers to monitor them from home. If a machine breaks down, it sends an alert to the farmer or dealer, who can diagnose — and sometimes correct — the problem remotely. And if a mechanic is needed, it’s easier to send the right part along, all of which results in less down time.
The same goes for Berg: If a hose comes loose, or if a cow doesn’t get milked, he receives an alert. Such are the benefits of an automated farm.
For Berg, who has multiple sclerosis, the robot was a necessary labor saver. Even a relatively small herd of 60 cows would be too much for a family operation like his.
Down the line, there may be even more value in the information that fills his desktop computer screen.
“You can learn more than you ever want to know about a cow,” Berg said.
Likewise, computer-savvy farmers have begun to assemble gigabytes of data on crops and their fields, which may be the key to future advances.
Genetic engineering, precision planting and fertilizer application have increased crop yields over time, said Paul Mitchell, an associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But in the coming decades it will be “big data” that allows farmers to finally achieve the potential of these technologies.
Increasingly, farmers are looking to the sky.
Advanced satellite imagery now provides the ability to see aerial snapshots of fields every nine days, said Rob Shield, precision ag manager for Allied Co-op in Mauston, Wis. In some cases, those satellites can provide 5-meter resolution, which allows producers to spot problems — such as insects or disease — that wouldn’t be visible from the ground.
Most recently, Allied invested in a remote-controlled drone, a four-bladed helicopter equipped with a GoPro camera that captures photos and streams live video to the operator.
Known as the AIMQ, the drone is the product of DMZ Aerial, a Sauk County business founded by cousins Mitchell and Zach Fiene.
Mitchell Fiene, a 20-year-old college student, said he grew up scouting fields with his father, a field agronomist, and flying remote-controlled planes as a hobby.
As advancing technology and price drops made sophisticated drones more affordable, the Fienes saw an opportunity.
A camera-equipped drone can cover 250 acres in a matter of minutes, Fiene said, scoping for problem areas from 200 feet and zooming in to problem areas for close-ups.
That could allow a scout to cover 100 times as much ground, he said.
“It’s a great tool to give you that first layer of information,” Shields said. “It doesn’t replace the scouts. It makes them a little more efficient.”
Current FAA rules allow civilian drones to be used only for hobby purposes, so DMZ cannot sell its services, but Fiene said there’s been demand from large operators and co-ops which can use them to scout their members’ fields — though not for a fee.
Shields said the biggest hurdle now is the FAA, which is expected to issue new drone rules next year.
Of course this technology is not cheap. A drone can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $70,000, Shields said. Precision-guidance systems can cost $10,000 to $20,000 — not including the tractor. A robotic milker can cost $200,000 or more.
In hilly terrain like the Coulee Region, there aren’t many farms big enough to justify those costs, but Mitchell said large operators in Iowa and Illinois who invest in those new technologies eventually drive the prices down until they are affordable.
The only downside to that model is those large farms also drive down commodity prices.
While nothing yet appears to have the potential to change the game like the internal combustion engine did in the early 20th century, Mitchell says history could prove otherwise.