Innovation in agriculture is often spurred on when farmers and ranchers are faced with low commodity prices. The solutions found can revolutionize the industry.
Ed Brokesh, an instructor in biological and agricultural engineering at Kansas State University, said precision agricultural technology is an example of improving efficiency. Auto steer/guidance, rate control yield mapping and all other aspects of that technology have caught his attention.
“We are still at the leading edge of what precision ag technology can do for agriculture as we have yet to fully capitalize on what the technology is capable of,” Brokesh said. “We have done some things, but more can be realized.”
Innovation has always led the way when helping farmers and ranchers. Professor Carl Bern, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, grew up on a farm in Wahoo, Nebraska. He was able to see innovation first hand starting in the 1940s, during what could be described as the modern era of agriculture. Bern has been at Iowa State for 51 years.
“A favorite of mine was the Ford 9N tractor,” he said.
The 9N was the first widely produced tractor with a three-point hitch on the back of the tractor, he said. It came about through the work of manufacturing legends Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson in the late 1930s. Ford also built the Fordson tractor that was designed to pull implements. Ford had a great appreciation for the work of farmers and looked for ways to reduce the drudgery of their work. He envisioned the tractor as a natural ally to accomplish those tasks.
Ferguson, a native of Ireland, thought to utilize a three-point hitch and came up with the concept of a hydraulic lift mechanism.
They forged an agreement and their relationship provided farmers a modern Ford tractor with a three-point hitch that allowed greater versatility. The 9N, with a just over 16 horsepower drawbar, took off in 1939, followed by the 2N in 1942 and the 8N in 1948.
Ford put a young engineer, Harold Brock, in charge of the production of the 9N. Bern said Brock, who started as a shop apprentice, recognized what the tractor meant to the farming industry. Brock later left the company for a new job in tractor development at John Deere. His foresight left an indelible mark on Deere and a fast-changing tractor market.
It all started with the Ford-Ferguson arrangement and Bern quipped, “I still have an 8N.”
Another major innovation was the introduction of the large round baler. The original patent was issued to Wesley Buchele, an agricultural engineering professor at Iowa State, who saw a major labor shortage occurring on the farm. Buchele, who grew up on a Kansas farm, also had a patent on the axial flow combine and was recognized by Iowa State as one of the most influential agricultural engineers in North America.
In the 1950s hay was assembled in 30- to 70-pound square bales that were tied together with wire or twine. The farmer, to be efficient, had to use young laborers to load the bales on a wagon and transport them to a barn.
“It was hard on your back,” Bern said. “I know, because I injured mine loading bale wagons.”
Buchele decided there must be a better way to put hay in a bigger package and take advantage of the mechanical advancements in tractors and attachments. Buchele and a graduate student went to work and their work produced a baler that allowed a farmer feed the hay or corn stalks into the machine and make a much heavier bale. The large round bales could be moved with an attachment to the tractor. Today’s modern balers can produce bales in excess of 2,000 pounds as opposed to the square bales that were less than 100 pounds.
“A single farmer could avoid the problem of not having enough labor to harvest the hay crop,” Bern said.
Stirring the grain
Another example of ingenuity for Bern was a grain stirrer, which came about in the 1960s as a way to better dry shelled corn. Before combines were used, corn ears were picked by hand and tossed into a wagon. The corn was placed in a crib made of wood or steel mesh.
“The ears of corn had such a low resistance to wind and the wind would dry the corn. You could store it in the fall and by the spring it would be dry. It was a good system but a terrible system because of the space required.”
Another problem was susceptibility to varmint infestation, Bern quipped, “As a boy growing up in Nebraska our corn crib always had rats around it. We would wait until night time and during the 10 o’clock news we’d eat a bowl of ice cream and then take our rifles, flashlights and the dog and go out to shoot rats.”
With the innovation of combines, the harvest process now meant cobs could be left in the field, but the dilemma of keeping shelled corn from spoiling remained.
“Farmers, by their very nature, are problem solvers,” Bern said. “Farmers came up with idea on how to deal with wet corn by placing it in bins with perforated floors and fans to blow air up through to corn to dry it.”
Propane was readily available as a heat source. While it was a breakthrough for farmers, they quickly learned propane would leave pockets of moldy corn as it could not dry out all the stored grain.
Eugene Sukup, a farmer from Sheffield, Iowa, started working with an auger system and, in 1962, used an open vertical auger at the top of the corn bin to stir the grain and facilitate even drying.
Grain stirring took off and Sukup Manufacturing is a major player in storage and handling of grain today.
“It all started with a grain stirrer to solve a problem for corn farmers,” Bern said and systems are available to dry other crops.
A look at today and the future
While those were exciting times for new ideas, Bern knows innovation has continued at a rapid pace.
“Precision agriculture is big everywhere,” he said, noting that, for him, the crop yield monitor has been the most fascinating. Al Myers, a graduate of the University of Illinois engineering school, had the idea of putting a monitor on a combine to allow the operator to see a crop yield in real time in each field and have the data stored.
Like many inventors, Myers started in his home. It took him a year to develop a monitor for corn farmers. He launched Ag Leader, Ames, Iowa, in 1992 and yield monitors are integral in farm operations today.
As Bern looks ahead, he believes precision agriculture will flourish. Innovation increases operating efficiency, and that is the key to staying profitable particularly in periods of low commodity prices.
Brokesh said planting technology, including planter size, accuracy, no-till features, related seed treatment and genetics, has been exciting to watch.
“Planter technologies have helped the development of newer varieties and newer varieties have driven planter technology and more development will come in this area.”
Global positioning concepts and satellite systems also interest Bern.
“Those technologies allow variable rate planting and can increase production efficiency for every acre covered. You can change the seed rate and fertilizer applied depending on the type of soil in the field.”
Bern has followed the evolution of autonomous machines, which are currently in the development phase.
Brokesh sees changes in the hay and forage industry, too.
“Most of the technology is subtle, but the developments will have great impact over time,” he said. “High density bales and some of the bale gathering technology is the most notable.”
Brokesh said farm shows are venues to see innovation at work from the major manufacturers and also on the edge of the shows where small companies undertake innovation and solve problems.
“You see so much innovation and entrepreneurship in this area,” Brokesh said. “These small companies are out there generating ideas and taking them to market quickly.”
Some of the ideas work and some do not, he said, and it shows ingenuity by bringing ideas to market. Ultimately, the small companies are moving the ag industry forward with what they are trying.
“Taken as a whole, large and small companies together, there is a lot of dynamic thought in agriculture,” Brokesh said.
The recent Farm Progress show gave farmers an opportunity to see the future in today’s terms, Bern said. In his eyes, all these innovations were seen in his lifetime: a tractor with a three-point hitch, a round baler and yield monitor—all of which are fixtures in agriculture today and tomorrow.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.