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Technology and time grow new realities

For those of us who have reached a certain age, the technology we’d been hearing about for most of our lives appears to have arrived almost overnight. In some ways, it’s mind-boggling how agricultural technology expands in the space of a generation.

ErnieToday, satellites analyze crops from space. Multi-spectrum cameras mounted on drones track crop growth, helping us precisely manage fertility and pests. Autonomous trac­tors are no longer just on the hori­zon. They’re on proving grounds and being put through their paces by major equipment manufacturers. And now, artificial intelligence iden­tifies plants and applies herbicides on a weed-by-weed basis.

Some of these technologies are at a more applicable stage than others. Still, it doesn’t take an overly active imagination to see what was re­cently theoretical is now coming to fruition. If they aren’t already in use, the technologies I’ve mentioned are arriving in fields in the near term. It won’t be long until they deliver results that will bring efficiencies we have yet to consider.

MFA has been an active partici­pant in evaluating and employing new technology. If you look at the big picture, your cooperative has witnessed significant changes throughout our long history. MFA started when tractors were scarce and steam-powered. The Waterloo Boy tractor was new technology back then. And while I can’t claim personal memories of the Water­loo Boy tractor, I have been part of MFA long enough to speak for the focus on technology. For production agriculture, we have led the way from those early days through all the epochs of modern agriculture.

At MFA, innovation and technolo­gy are listed among our core values. Our approach to technology is un­derpinned by the idea that its adop­tion should provide direct benefit to customers or improve our opera­tions in ways that indirectly benefit customers through efficiencies. It’s not a wait-and-see approach. Our intent is to embrace new technolo­gy and focus on adoption when it delivers as promised and provides a return on investment.

We built a top-of-class precision agriculture program based on the early success of yield monitors and GPS. The work in that program was foundational in building a stable of expertise that has propelled MFA in finding ways to employ new technology. From remote sensing to advanced modeling for nitrogen use, the philosophy for technology has been find it, prove it, use it.

That philosophy was in action this spring as we evaluated John Deere’s See & Spray system. ( See related story here ). The technol­ogy now rolling off production lines uses artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning to target in-season weeds in corn, soy­beans and cotton. We had a chance to work with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners to be the first company testing this technology on Missouri farms. Equipped with a bank of cameras and specialized nozzles, the machine detects weeds on the move and spot-sprays herbicide on a per-weed basis. It’s an impressive sight with considerable ramifications for agriculture. In MFA’s evaluation, across 600 acres, herbicide use was reduced significantly. That’s a great achievement for efficiency and stewardship.

On our testing grounds near Columbia, Mo., MFA is evaluating drone-based fungicide applications this year. Our precision agronomists have been using drones for several years, mostly for in-season plant health and fertility analysis. As tech­nology advances to handle larger payloads and delivery systems, and crop protection products are tuned to low-volume formulations, drone-based aerial application is quickly evolving into reality. There are still many questions on how a drone applicator fleet could work into a retail business. This summer, we’ll be looking at the efficacy of appli­cations, the feasibility of equipment and how the technology performs in a commercial setting.

Along with the intriguing pos­sibilities these technologies bring to mind, there are also grounding realities. Employing complicated high-tech solutions at the retail scale brings logistics, labor and capital challenges. Those are just the oper­ational and balance sheet consider­ations. There are larger questions as well. Efficiency has been at the root of widespread cultural changes in the American farming community.

Putting those sets of challenges together, I’m reminded of a quote from business coach and author Paul Smith, who said, “People, even children, aren’t really afraid of change. They’re afraid of not being prepared for change.”

It’s hard to predict what advanc­es in agriculture will bring. Our approach to technology is to be prepared.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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