Does Agriculture Have a Need for Speed?
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Farmers are under the gun. There are far fewer of them these days, but they’re expected to feed a lot more people. In fact, the most often cited reason for optimism about the future of farming is based on forecasts that farmers will need to feed a few billion more mouths in the next two or three decades. Based on worldwide population projections, to do so, farmers will need to more than double their productivity by 2050.
With ag machinery already being built to mammoth proportions, some say speeding up field operations will be the next major productivity leap for farmers. Others contend that simply going faster with big equipment to get through fields quicker isn’t the answer if it sacrifices overall efficiency. In this case, that means increasing crop yields while reducing inputs.
Considering that North American farmers have been and continue to be the most productive in the world, doubling up on an already strong performance will be a daunting challenge. Is “speed” the next challenge for farmers and farm equipment?
“I believe there are opportunities to speed up some farming operations,” says Charlie O’Brien, senior vice president of Ag Services at the Assn. of Equipment Manufacturers.
He cites planting, fertilizer applications and forage harvesting as holding the best prospects for speed in farming. At the same time, he sees some very practical constraints. “Sometimes it gets to the point when you’re going across a field at 15 or 20 mph and, unless you’ve got a smooth field, it’s more a matter of staying in the seat than how much you can get done.”
In other cases, like spraying, O’Brien says, manufacturers can and have met the farmers’ push to increase speed, but the equipment makers are concerned about other aspects of operations.
“I spoke to one of our sprayer manufacturers recently and he said that many of his farmer customers only want to talk about speed. They want to see the self-propelled sprayer go across the field and get in and get out as quickly as they can and they need to deal with whatever’s happening on the field as quickly as they can. But its not the limitations of the engine or the horsepower, it’s really the limitations of making sure the right applications are going on and they have the ability to get the spray started and stopped at the right time while applying the right amount.” That’s where the real challenge lies, he says.
In its recently released white paper, “The Economic Footprint of the Agricultural Equipment Industry,” the Assn. of Equipment Manufacturers says that over the past century, agricultural production in the U.S. increased by more than 500%. At the same time, the workforce share of agricultural employment fell from 30% to less than 2%. In the 1930s a farmer could harvest an average of 100 bushels of corn by hand in a 9-hour day. Combines produced today can harvest 900 bushels of corn per hour, or 100 bushels of corn in under 7 minutes.
According to the Agriculture Council of America, in the 1960s, one U.S. farmer supplied food for 25.8 people. Today, it estimates a single U.S. farmer supplies food for 144 people in the U.S. and abroad.
Farm equipment manufacturers have played a major role in increasing farmer productivity by pushing the envelope when it comes to equipment size and horsepower, and introducing advanced technology. But some believe ag machinery is nearing its practical limits when it comes to physical dimensions.
Is Speed the Answer?
Now, some industry visionaries see significantly increasing the pace of field operations as the next big step in efforts to increase farm productivity. Speed, they say, will add a whole new dimension to crop production. It will give producers an edge when it comes to operating within what are often very small windows of opportunity, especially when it comes to planting and harvesting crops.
Getting crops in the ground is clearly the next target for upping farmer productivity. At least three manufacturers are introducing planters that they say will allow farmers to sow their seeds at double the pace compared with normal seeding speeds of 5-5.5 mph.
Others aren’t convinced that ag machinery racing through farm fields is the best answer if the goal is to produce more on the same amount of acres.
They reason that with ideal field conditions, speed might help improve productivity somewhat and increase the quantity of work accomplished in the time available by covering more acres more quickly. But they doubt that efficiency or quality of the work can be sustained given the variables involved.
Even the proponents of the “need for speed” in ag operations acknowledge that speed alone will not improve overall farmer effectiveness. Nonetheless, it is seen as part of the bigger solution and, at the moment, it’s getting more than its share of attention.
More Than Speed
But when evaluating how farm machinery will evolve to meet growing demands for ag commodities, Auburn Univ. Biosystems Engineering Professor John Fulton says there won’t be a single innovation or enhancement that will improve efficiency. It will be a combination of precision, speed, autonomy, robotics and in some cases, even downsizing the equipment.
“I look at it from the standpoint of fuel capacity and what are the acres per day or even acres per hour that machines can cover,” he says. “Timing of either an application or field operation has become critical not only to profitability, but to maximizing yield.”
With planting especially, there is a finite window and if that window shrinks, like we’ve seen in the last couple of years with extremely wet springs, farmers have to have fuel capacity built in so when fields dry out and they are at the end of the window, they can get that crop in the ground, Fulton says.
General consensus seems to be that speed alone isn’t the answer, but it is undoubtedly part of the answer.