Lorne Christopherson, a mixed farmer from Weldon, Sask., considers three main points when it comes to new technology… Is this new technology going to improve my bottom line? Will it make my life easier? And…will this new technology benefit the environment, or at least not be a negative?
With the prospect that crop prices will be lower 10 years from now than they are today, Canadian farmers must continue to adopt new technology, says a University of Lethbridge agricultural economics professor. Agriculture commodity prices have been declining, in real terms, over the past 100 years, says Kurt Klein, and there is no evidence that trend won’t continue. “Prices will be lower 10 years from now than they are today,” he says.
While new technology often contributes to lower prices, it also provides the solution for farmers to achieve profitability, Klein says. “It is like being on a treadmill. In order to stay in the game, to be profitable, we need to adopt new technology. And as we adopt new technology, that increases yield and productivity, which puts downward pressure on prices.
“So with lower prices we need to use new strategies and new technology to become more efficient,” he says. “That may mean farming more acres so we spread the cost over a wider area, which reduces the average cost of production, and/or using new technology such as GPS and variable rate technology, which helps producers become more efficient.”
Producers who really lose out are those who don’t adopt new technology, he says. Prices will continue a downward trend, and if farmers don’t become more efficient they will really fall behind.
“If you look at the innovative farmers around, those who grow and prosper, you will see them hanging around research centres, going to field days, and reading all the latest news on new technology,” says Klein. “They are always looking. They may not adopt all new technology, because some of it can be a real dud. There have been many “great” new ideas that have eventually ended up in the trash bin. But the point is they are always looking — always open to the idea that something new may help them increase production or reduce costs.”
On average, producers who prosper are younger, aggressive, more educated and more open to risk taking, he says. The older, smaller, less educated producers who are extra cautious are the ones who tend to suffer most with declining grain prices.
WILL IT IMPROVE YOUR BOTTOM LINE?
New technology can include everything from improved crop varieties, to new herbicide chemistry, to the latest machinery, to GPS, autosteer, variable rate technology, and RTK guidance with pinpoint accuracy. Here are a few thoughts on adopting new technology from those in the industry.
Lorne Christopherson, a mixed farmer from Weldon, Sask., says he considers three main points when it comes to new technology. As a farmer and immediate past chairman of the board of Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI), he says he has to ask, is this new technology going to improve my bottom line? Will it make my life easier? And, to raise a point that isn’t always considered but is important, will this new technology benefit the environment, or at least not be a negative?
As far as implementing new technology, if it is just a matter of changing a production practice, Christopherson says it is worth trying on at least part of the farm, but if it requires a large capital outlay, then thorough investigation is needed to reduce the risk.
Remi Schmaltz, manager of corporate development for DynAgra in south-central Alberta, suggests as producers look at new technology they might first ask, who is this technology coming from? Is it a reliable source? “A lot of companies and products are reliable, but there are also a few snake oil salesman who will promise the world,” he says. Ask who is selling the product, what kind of service they offer and look for referrals. Talk to other customers to see if they were satisfied, ask to see reliable data
— preferably field data and not just lab results. If the new product involves fertilizer or chemical, for example, look at the agronomics. And, of course, as part of the whole process, pencil out the economics. Does it make sense?
If a producer is a satisfied the new technology has some promise, try it out on about one third of the farm, and leave side-by-side check strips, says Schmaltz. If improved yield is the goal, check it properly with a combine equipped with GPS and yield monitor to get proper results from both the treated and untreated areas.
Rob Woolf, agricultural technology and information manager for Western Tractor Inc., in southern Alberta, says the key is to demonstrate the technology really does have a value. “The first question on everyone’s mind is how does this new technology benefit my bottom line,” says Woolf, who specializes in precision farming. “A guy can say, ‘that all sounds good, but what is payoff for me?’ So with any technology you first have to sit down and pencil it out.
“And nobody can afford to spend $30,000 on a precision farming package just to experiment. If it makes sense, try it out. You don’t have to use it on your
full 10,000-acre farm. Try it out on a quarter section to verify it does what it is supposed to do.”
Woolf also recommends you make sure there is good service and support behind the product.
“GOOGLE THE HECK OUT OF IT”
Warren Bills, a specialist in precision farming technology with Agri-Trend Agrology, says his first stop when researching new technology is the Internet. “If you are looking at a new product or new equipment go online and Google the heck out of it,” says Bills. “See what there is on the Internet, whether it be information from the company, or articles that have been written. It all helps to give you some sense of what the product is about.”
You’ll also find farmer comments at online chat rooms. Be careful how much credibility you give these comments, but use them to help you ask the right questions.
Once you’ve checked the Internet, Bills recommends you talk to other producers — face to face — who have used the product or technology to see how it worked for them. If there are two equally competing products, pay close attention to service and product support. “It may cost a bit more for good support, initially, but if you are shut down for half a day or more, that can be expensive and frustrating,” he says.
Brian Dean, vice-president of Seed Hawk in Saskatchewan, says economics is the big factor in the decision to adopt new technology. How much does it cost is one aspect, but figuring out the rate of return is also important, he says.
A new feature like sectional control technology now available on Seed Hawk drills, for example, may be a $50,000 or $60,000 option, but when you’re farming 5,000 acres or more and with irregular shaped fields, the payback on the technology could be from one to three years. “So when producers look at whether the cost is feasible they also have to look at the return on their investment,” he says.
Another aspect of new technology, as farms get larger, is having the ability to seed more acres with the same manpower, says Dean. Farm labour isn’t always available and hiring help is expensive, too, he points out. “You have to look at the efficiency of new technology,” he says. You need to know whether new technology will do a better job, and also whether it will help you farm more acres with the same number of people.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]