Staring at the HerdMonitor dashboard on his computer, Darren Taber points out a sick cow.
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The sooner he can catch the problem, the easier it is to treat.

“This is what her normal activity level looks like, and then you can see, boom, we have no activity,” Taber says. “This is what her normal rumination time looks like, boom, no rumination.”

With a herd of 800 cows, finding the sick ones can be difficult. That’s where technology comes in.

Taber, who operates Donley Farms in Shoshone, recently installed the HerdMonitor collar system from GENEX. All of his cows wear a collar, that tracks their activity, chewing time, and eating time.

“We are finding, that we can treat these cows quicker. Even if we find mastitis out there, a day makes a difference,” he said.

The collars are just a small part of the technology that helps keep his dairy operational. In addition to a collar, each cow has an RFID chip that helps to track milk production. As the cows walk into the milking parlor, the system scans the chip and can record how many gallons of milk the cow produces each day.

Around the Magic Valley farmers are testing out new technology and finding more efficient ways to produce higher quantities of food. Technology has come a long way since the days of horse-drawn plows.

Machines of the future

Tim Cornie is the co-owner of Thousand Springs Mill in Buhl. His business produces organic, non genetically modified products including different bean varieties and popcorn.

Robotic technology and organic farming are two trends he thinks will increase in popularity.

Autonomous cultivators in particular could offer huge advantages for farmers. In 2019, the University of California, Davis, tested one of the first versions from a French startup called Naïo Technologies.

The company developed three different versions: one meant for gardens and small farms, one for large-scale vegetable crops and a final for vineyards.

The machine can autonomously drive down a row, uprooting the weeds as it goes and then turn around at a predetermined location.

“It will be like a Roomba running around your yard,” Cornie said.

The French machines come with a hefty $220,000 price tag.

Another option called the Smart Cultivator, developed by Stout Industrial Technology, uses artificial intelligence to tell the difference between crops and weeds. Cornie thinks this technology is about five years away from being perfected.

“It’s going to able to say ‘I’m going to take a nightshade out, I’m going to take a lambs quarter and a redroot and a thistle but I’m going to be able to leave a cover crop like a micro clover or a pea in a cornfield,’” he said.

Concerns over chemical herbicides are also leading to increased interest in electrocuting weeds. He knows a local farmer who uses a machine that zaps any undesirable vegetation growing above multiple rows of beans at once.

Electrocution would also provide a solution to weeds that have developed a resistance to herbicides.

Farming apps

Cellphones are also proving to be a valuable farming tool. With the rise of mobile applications in the late 2000s, farmers have access to more information at their fingertips than ever.

Apps can help track weather and soil conditions as well as providing access to buyers and financial assistance.

FieldNET is a popular platform for Zimmatic pivot systems. Farmers can use the app to schedule, monitor and control irrigation systems from a cell phone. The app can be paired with center pivots, pumps, flow meters and more, according to the company website.

Most popular pivot brands now have a phone application, Cornie said.

“Efficiency with water technology is big and that’s where phones come in,” he said. “The technology is getting better to where you can put water meters in the field that can give you data about if you are too dry or too wet.”

Solar power

Solar power is another recent trend in the dairy industry.

Don Taber uses a solar thermal array on the roof of his parlor to heat water for sanitation. Unlike a solar photovoltaic cell array that produces electricity, this system is designed to just produce heat. His milk cooling and sanitation water systems are connected.

The milk that comes out of a cow is around 100 degrees, the same as the animal’s internal body temperature. That milk needs to be quickly cooled to 35 degrees for safety. Taber uses well water for cooling, which is around 52 degrees. The hot milk is cooled using the well water and then the hot well water is heated with by the solar array. Water for sanitation needs to be 165 degrees minimum.

“We are passing those two systems past each other,” he said. “The efficiency that I gain there is just enormous.”

In the summertime, the solar thermal array can cover all of his hot water needs.

Drones

The next big trend in agricultural technology might not come from the ground, but from the sky.

Jae Ryu is an associate professor at the University of Idaho. His research focuses on drought forecasting and monitoring. After relying on satellite data for years, he became immersed in the world of drone technology in 2015.

“Drone technology grows so fast, rapidly,” Ryu said.

With no background in drones, he reached out to the U.S. Air Force who had him submit a proposal to their research office. After being selected, he has used drones for the past six years, flying the aerial vehicles over every type of crop produced in the Magic Valley.

“Satellite technology has physical constrains like cloud cover,” he said.

Drones can also provide the same information with a quicker turnaround. It can take up to 15 days to get data from a satellite, Ryu said.

Precision Agriculture

In addition to drones, University of Idaho students are also being exposed to precision agriculture. The science of improving yields using new technologies, precision agriculture focuses on using data to make management decisions.

Associate professor, Erin Brooks is the advisor for the new certificate in precision agriculture offered by the university. He also teaches a class on the topic.

Students learn about GPS, yield monitors, and remote sensing. Collecting data can be complicated but companies are creating ways to make it more automated.

“Over the last, 5 to 6 years, that’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve seen,” he said. “A growing number of decision support and online tools.”

Support tools help farmers keep track of data from year to year so they can use it to test the efficiency of certain practices.

“I think more and more people are seeing this technology is paying off and we are seeing more adoption,” he said.

Drawbacks of technology

For some farmers, new technology is still hard to adopt.

Carl Montgomery is a third-generation Idaho farmer. He has been farming the same land in Eden for the past 55-years. His operation is 200 acres, and he grows alfalfa, wheat, barley and sugar beets.

In 2010, farms greater than 2,900 acres had double the adoption rate of precision agricultural technologies than smaller farms, according to a 2016 USDA Economic Research Service Study.

Being a smaller operation, Montgomery said it can be hard to try new technology because of cost and his age.

“I don’t work as well with the new technology compared to someone who has grown up with it all their lives,” he said. “It’s more of a challenge for me to become familiar with it and use it comfortably.”

Phone apps are one of the directions he sees farming moving in the future. He understands the importance, however, being close to retirement he is less likely to adopt new practices.

Farming has changed tremendously over the past five decades. Gravity irrigation has changed to pivot systems.

Soil preparation has also changed, he said. Today, there is also a greater focus on preventing runoff and erosion to help maintain organic matter in the soil.

“Almost nothing has stayed the same,” he said.

Montgomery’s favorite piece of newer technology is GPS, a component of precision agriculture. Previously, farmers would have to overlap pesticide or fertilizer applications to ensure each row was covered.

Thanks to automated guidance systems, farmers can now use less product and spend less time in the field. GPS and auto-guidance are also beneficial in dry climates why dust can make driving in a straight line difficult. Although GPS is incredibly popular today, adoption was slow for smaller farms.

When new technology arrives, it is important to consider how long it will take to pay for it, Montgomery said. As a young farmer, he would grab onto new technology as soon as possible. Now he waits a few years to watch how adoption goes for others.

Many farmers feel that technology can never replace humans.

“You need to marry both,” Cornie said. “You need to have the technology but you better have boots on the ground also.”

Aurora Dairies, one of the largest milk producers in the country, has added Gray Wigg Gault’s Clydebank Aggregation in Victoria’s Gippsland region to its expanding portfolio for around $20 million.

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