Farmers: Technology key to drive future improvements in ag

Brian Corkill, owner of B.A. Farms, discusses innovations on his farm during the AgTech Innovation Summit at the University of Illinois Research Park. Panelists, left to right from Corkill, are Michael Ganschow, Mike Haag, Jake Nims, Leslie Cooperband and Jason Lakey. (Photo by Daniel Grant)

Michael Ganschow, a sixth-generation farmer from Walnut (Bureau County), has been on both sides of the fence when it comes to technology adoption on farms.

He worked in the precision farming department at Ag View FS after graduating from the University of Illinois in 2007 and then returned to the farm full time once the opportunity presented itself.

In both roles, he quickly saw the value of precision agriculture.

“Technology plays a key role in the decisions we make,” Ganschow said during a farm panel discussion at the AgTech Innovation Summit at the U of I. “We embrace those tools that help us make decisions in real time.”

He believes precision tools not only help farmers improve efficiency and output, but also become better stewards of the land. The Ganschows, early adopters of no-till, currently use a strip-till/no-till/cover crop combination.

“One of the biggest assets we have in Illinois is the land. We can manage it to mitigate risks of climate shift (by sequestering carbon),” he said. “Ag is geared up to deal with these problems with technology we have today.”

Brian Corkill, owner of B.A. Farms in Henry County, started collecting yield data back in the mid-1990s.

“As we got into the 2000s, we started aggregating the data and making in-field decisions for seeding and fertilizer rates,” he said.

Jason Lakey, a Champaign County farmer, also stays on the forefront of technology adoption. He and his father, Robert, incorporate new practices, genetics and innovations and won the Illinois Soybean Association’s 100-Bushel Yield Challenge multiple years in a row.

“It’s about learning what to do with all the data,” he said. “We can take yield maps and see if we have drainage issues, or if we need to back off on fertilizer in a certain section of the field. We’re starting to dive into prescription farming with seed and fertilizer.”

Ag technology also helps the livestock industry improve animal care and output.

“If you think back at how we raised hogs when I graduated the University of Illinois (in 1991), it’s amazing how far we’ve come with technology,” said Mike Haag, a Livingston County pig farmer.

Sensors and monitors allow Haag to monitor feed and water supplies and manage the climate in a hog barn. The industry also improved genetics and diet formulations.

“One of the things we’ve done better is listening to the animals and their needs,” he said.

Leslie Cooperband, president and co-owner of Prairie Fruit Farms in Champaign County, uses dairy herd management for her goats. It provides a monthly evaluation of the value and components of the milk.

“We use the data to diagnose potential health problems, make breeding plans and improve the overall genetics of the herd,” she said. “We’re in growth mode as demand for our cheese is growing.”

A key to such technological advances revolves around ensuring farmers have access to broadband, according to Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer for Land O’ Lakes, who serves as chairman of the Federal Communication Commission’s Precision Ag Task Force.

He noted at least 19 million rural Americans are still without broadband access. That slows the adoption of technologies such as voice recognition, which Bekele believes will revolutionize the industry.

“When you start talking emerging technology, that’s when it gets exciting – when it applies to real-world problems in farming,” Bekele said.