Farms have changed a lot in the last 50 years. Farms are bigger, livestock are usually raised inside, yields are higher, less manual labor is needed, and it’s not common to see dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, and poultry on the same farm. Why is this? The answer is simple. Technology.
Think about how much technology has improved medicine & healthcare, communications, and transportation in the last 50 years. The field of agriculture has changed just as much.
Let’s take a look at the few of the ways technology has changed farming.
1. Livestock genetics & breeding. Improving livestock breeds is not a new practice. Humans began domesticating animals more than 10,000 years ago. Early farmers selected livestock for their adaption to specific climates and bred them to improve productivity, temperament, and meat, leather, and wool quality. While the practice is not new, the technology used to improve livestock genetics and breed animals has changed dramatically in recent years.
Animal geneticists work to identify elements within genes that can enhance animal growth, health, and ability to utilize nutrients. These genetic advances can increase production while reducing environmental impacts.
It is common for beef cattle and pig farmers to purchase straws of semen from male animals with superior genetics and use artificial insemination to breed females. Embryo transfer is also gaining popularity in the dairy and beef cattle industries.
2. Crop genetics & pest management. Like livestock breeding, the idea of improving plant genetics is not new. Farmers and scientists have used plant selection and breeding techniques to improve crop yield for years. Plant breeders have worked to improve germplasm to develop seeds with the best mix of characteristics to deliver the best yield for specific soil and weather conditions.
Today, plant breeders use a mix of both traditional and modern methods to improve plants. Modern breeding methods include marker assisted breeding, which helps speed up the time it takes to to get the desired improvement, and genetic engineering (GE). GE technology can improve a plant’s insect resistance, drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and disease resistance. This technology gives farmers an additional tool to help increase crop yields.
3. Labor and mechanization. Improved farm equipment has probably had the most significant impact on how farmers raise crops and care for livestock. Tractors, planters, and combines are much larger and efficient. Livestock barns have automated feeders. Robotic milking machines milk cows. These technologies and others have enabled farmers to produce more with less labor.
4. Livestock facilities. Aside from beef cattle, livestock are usually raised inside climate-controlled barns. Farmers do this to protect them from predators, extreme weather conditions, and diseases spread by animals and people. Raising livestock inside also enables farmers to utilize technology. Many livestock barns have Wi-Fi and automated feed and climate control systems. Farmers can monitor a cow in labor or adjust the temperature in a barn from their smart phones. If the power goes out, back-up generators start and the farmer is alerted with a text. This technology enables farmers to be more efficient and better care for their animals.
5.Specialization. When my grandparents were my age, farms looked like those in children’s books. They raised a little of everything on their farm. They made a good living and fed their family off 160 acres of corn and hay, a few cows, laying hens, some pigs and my grandmother’s large garden. Over the years, their farm changed. As they invested in tractors and better livestock facilities, they concentrated their efforts to make the most of those investments. They sold much of the livestock and focused on raising pigs, corn and soybeans.
Farms today are even more specialized. If farmers raise livestock, they usually raise one type and even focus on one growth-stage. Most pig farms specialize in farrowing or finishing. Beef cattle farmers generally have cow-calf herds and focus on breeding, calving and weaning, or finishing operations where they raise weaned caves to market weight. Specializing enables farmers to acquire the facilities, technology, knowledge and skills needed to produce the chosen crop or animal, and produce it well.
Farming has changed a lot. What do you think it will look like in the future? How will advances in technology continue to allow farmers to be more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable?