No matter where you look, technology is changing the way farmers work. GPS has made big inroads in Jeff Frey’s Willow Street fields.
“It’s very helpful in tracking where we have planted and the yield data off of that,” he said.
Frey’s planter and sprayer automatically shut off as they pass over an area that’s already been covered. That saves a lot of money on seed and spray, he said.
While harvesting corn or soybeans, his GPS-equipped combine records each step of the process and creates a colorful map showing the crop’s yield at every point in the field. When Frey plants two varieties of corn in the field, it’s easy to see which one performed better.
Some farmers have self-steering machinery that plants or harvests within the boundaries plugged into the GPS. Frey does not yet have that feature, but he said his machinery does streamline record keeping and produces data he can access on his office computer.
Because of regulatory changes, Lancaster County farmers soon might be using drones to check for weeds and diseases. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration dropped its requirement that people using drones for commercial purposes must have pilot licenses. Operators must only pass knowledge tests.
Milking cows with a robot
Data and high-tech machines are changing livestock management, too. Lititz dairy farmer Jeff Balmer milks his cows with a robot. When the cow walks into the milking stall, an ID collar identifies the animal, and a laser-guided arm attaches to the teats.
“For us, it came down to flexibility and our daily schedule,” Balmer said in April while showing FFA students around the farm.
The robot frees Balmer from having to milk at set times throughout the day, so he and his wife, Jesslyn, can accompany their children to more activities.
The cows are enticed to the robot by a snack of grain. The robot’s computer tracks the cow’s milk production and health indicators, which then can be used to fine-tune its diet.
At Christian and Laura Landis’ Worth-the-Wait Farm in New Holland, sensors in water bowls detect when a cow is drinking and send in fresh water. That means, the Landises and their toddler daughter, Leslie, can make fewer trips to the barn, an important time-saver.
At Buckhill Farms in Warwick Township, farmer An-drew Buckwalter and his team enter each seed planted, then track everything from the number of days in the greenhouse to the plant’s estimated pick date and profit on FARMDATA. The program was developed by computer scientists for an organic farm at Dickinson College.
Because of more rigorous inspection standards, organic farmers are beholden to record-keeping. When Elisabeth Weaver had an inspector at Lancaster Farmacy in September, she pulled up the Farmacy’s AgSquared records and let him review them on-screen.
By Philip Gruber and Kim Marselas