Computers & Networks in Agriculture
This article examines the growing use of computers and networks in farming and ranching operations. The emergence of precision farming technologies is reviewed, including the adaptation of database software, geographical information systems, and the Global Positioning System. Livestock management and tracking technologies using database software and radio frequency identification tags are also reviewed. The importance of the National Animal Identification System program of the United States Department of Agriculture for animal tracking and disease control is explained. Factors that influence the adoption of new technologies by farmers and ranch owners are examined including the size of operations and the business model of the owners.
Keywords Agricultural Technology; Geographical Information Systems; Global Positioning System; Herd Management Software; National Animal Identification System; Precision Farming; Radio Frequency Identification Technologies; Supply Chain Management Systems
The business structure of farms and ranches, in addition to the production processes that take place there, are being significantly transformed by the use of computers and computer networks. Large and small, farms and ranches of all sizes have found many applications for computers and networks. Manufacturers of farming equipment have added computers to several types of equipment and have integrated a wide range of software programs into farming applications (Hill, 2008). In addition, software producers now offer several types of applications to ease the process of farm operations. The adoption of these technologies has improved productivity and has allowed the farmer to shift spending on labor to spending on capital items (Michailidis, 2006; Van Schilfgaarde, 1996). The nature of the agricultural business is definitely changing.
Farmers and ranchers have also turned to the Internet, where numerous websites now exist to serve the agricultural community. In fact, nearly 70 percent of US farms had Internet access as of 2013, up from 43 percent in 2001; farms using computers for farm business increased to 40 percent in 2013 compared to 37 percent in 2011 (United States Department of Agriculture, 2013). There are three main Internet applications used by farmers: online purchasing, livestock auctions, and supply chain management systems. Online purchasing of supplies and specialty items works well for farmers and ranchers alike, as do websites that provide auction services for livestock (Wahl, 2001). Farm cooperatives and large regional suppliers have also moved to the web and to the use of supply chain management systems (SCMS) to manage the flow of goods from the producer, then to the distributor, and on to the farmer (Bacarin, Madeira & Medeiros, 2008; Hamblen, 2003; McMahon & Wehrspann, 2008).
These changes have also driven the evolution of agricultural education. Colleges and universities across the country now incorporate computer applications into their agricultural curriculums. Agricultural students not only study basic business computing applications but also learn about yield management applications, herd management software, computer-based animal husbandry systems, and the use of global positioning system devices in crop planning and management (Yates, 1998). Courses on precision farming systems that cover the use of farming machinery supported by global positioning systems (GPS) and geographical information systems (GIS) are among the contemporary course offerings at many universities (Ginsburg, 1996). As a result of the adaptation of computing technology to farming and ranching applications, agriculture careers are becoming more appealing to younger generations (Roberson, 2008).
Benefits of Computers
A farming operation can produce a greater output of crops if the precision of the cultivating, planting, fertilizing, pest control, and harvesting is improved. This may sound inherently logical but tackling the improvement process has been a complex challenge for farm equipment designers as well as computer application developers. It has also required the adaptation of several newer technologies such as computers, Internet networks, GPS, GIS, and programmable controls and sensors for a wide variety of farm equipment. Many farmers have also faced the necessity of learning an entirely new and complex set of skills (Lindores, 2007)(Robinson, 2007).
In the planting process, it is important to place the proper number of seeds per row foot. Precision framing equipment aids in planting seed by controlling the amount of seed dispensed based on the previous year's yield from a specific part of the field (Roberson, 2007). When the harvest is done, a yield monitor is used to record the harvest for every foot of the field and data are put back into the GIS database for analysis and to guide future seeding and fertilizing activities (McMahon, 2003; Yancy 2005).
Efficiency in Fertilizer
To determine the best application of pesticide and fertilizer products, agronomists have generally sampled soil at select locations in crop fields to develop an average fertilizer level for the field. New precision farming technologies enable farmers to go beyond an average application by developing a GPS-based grid pattern of the field and testing each grid before applying appropriate levels of fertilizer to improve crop yield at a more precise level. This reduces the consumption of fertilizer in some areas and increases it in other areas of the field (Joyce, 2003). Robotic technology is also finding its way into farm operations and many of the precision farming implements are already using some level of robotics (Wehrspann, 2007).
Precision farming technology also aides in maximizing the fuel efficiency of farm equipment by making sure that every operation is as efficient as possible (Roberson, 2007). This technology also helps to reduce of operator fatigue by reducing the time spent on planting and harvesting tasks and by performing some of the guidance functions for equipment (Murray, 2008; Robinson, 2004; Zenk, 2009).
Improved Equipment Tracking
The process of managing and controlling equipment over a large area has also been improved by new technologies. Location tracking for equipment can be done with a GPS sensor and wireless communication service that notifies managers or owners if equipment is moved as well as its precise location. In addition, remote sensors can monitor the overall condition of a piece of equipment, including key maintenance items such as proper fluid levels. If the monitored equipment needs maintenance or repair, operations personnel can be notified through the same wireless communications system that transmits GPS location information (Blake, 2007).
Technology for Livestock Management
Life Cycle Care
Several types of computer and networking technologies are now used to help manage livestock on farms and ranches. Database software and decision support systems help keep track of animals and make decisions about breeding and when to send an individual animal to market (Miller, 2006). Monitoring and control software helps to manage livestock facilities and can aid in feeding, watering, and temperature control. In addition, animal tagging systems that allow herd managers to tag, track, and monitor livestock have evolved into high-tech integrated systems (Padfield, 2007). This software can also help reduce veterinary bills by identifying which animals are in need of life cycle services; thus reducing onsite veterinary time and charges (Buss, 2004).
Dairy Herd Management
Dairy farmers now have a wide variety of high-tech systems to assist in milking as well as monitoring a dairy cow's output and health conditions. Dairy farmers are using computers and networks help improve animal health, breeding patterns, and overall milk production. Wireless networks assist in relaying information collected by these sensors to the computer monitors that retrieve data from dairy cows and record results into herd management software applications (Long & Buss, 2004; Mitchell, 2008).
Livestock tagging systems have taken various forms over time. Hot iron branding has been the traditional manner of tagging livestock but a brand only served as a tag. Bar-coding and assigning an individual number to each animal allowed the tagging system to be merged with database management software that allowed herd managers to track and record the animals’ health and growth patterns. More recently, radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies are being used around the world to tag and track animals (Songini, 2007; Talbot, 2004). In 2006, the off-the-shelf RFID tag for animals cost about two dollars each (Neutkens, 2005; Roberts, 2007). Since then, the price has declined to about fifty cents a tag, depending on the type of tag, its application, and the volume of the order.
RFID systems use a wireless chip that contains data that identifies the product to which it is attached or embedded and can communicate information via radio frequency waves. When RFID tags are attached to products, they can provide a means of tracking and monitoring movement through the life cycle. This includes providing country-of-origin labeling (COOL) of imported products. Some food distributors remain concerned that the tagging and tracking process may become expensive and time consuming (Gilbert, 2003; Petrak, 2008).
The National Animal Identification System
Livestock tagging has now taken on a new purpose. In 2004, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to help in national and international disease control efforts. The NAIS program is relying heavily on RFID tags as the preferred method of tagging livestock (Weintraub & Ginsburg, 2004). The primary purpose of the NAIS is to help animal health regulators, livestock producers, distributor, and retailers stop the distribution of tainted products. In order to do this, they must be able to respond quickly to a disease or contamination incident and to identify the source of the problem and assure that all tainted products are removed from the supply chain and the marketplace ("NAIS: At a glance," 2007).
Risk of Disease
There are several diseases that can infect livestock. One of the most famous from the last few decades is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which is a degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system of cattle. BSE is also known as mad cow disease, was discovered in Britain in 1986 and remains a worldwide concern to the present day. Other diseases include bovine tuberculosis (TB), which is most often not noticeable in cattle until it is quite advanced. Pigs, or swine, can be infected with the pseudorabies virus (PRV). Poultry can be infected with exotic newcastle disease (END), which is a very highly contagious and often fatal virus that can infect all species of birds. Further, equine viral arteritis (EVA) is a viral disease that affects horses and can often cause abortions ("Animal disease risk," 2009). There is also widespread concern about swine and avian influenza, which can spread to humans and has caused outbreaks in several countries in the 1990s and 2000s; early identification and intervention can seriously curtail the spread of the disease.
Participation in NAIS is not required. It is, however, rather easy for a livestock producer to participate and most of the steps can be accomplished online at the USDA website. The first step is to register a location where a livestock operation is located and to obtain a premise identification number (PIN). Next, animals must be identified by a group identification number (GIN) if they are moved through the supply chain as a group or with an animal identification number (AIN) if they are moved into the supply chain individually. Finally, producers need to select an animal tracking database (ATD) for tracing...
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