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High-tech farming protecting the environment

High-tech farming protecting the environment
My husband and I were de-cluttering our house a few weekends ago after watching an episode of “Hoarders” (does anyone else have the urge to clean after watching that show?), and I found a box of photos from our wedding 10 years ago.

We got married during the transition from film to digital photography. Most of our wedding pictures, taken on 2-megapixel cameras, look blurry and grainy. It’s a shame, because that’s the only time I’ve seen my husband in a tux.

It’s amazing to think how far digital camera technology has come in 10 years. My iPod has a lens the size of a pencil eraser and takes gorgeous 5-megapixel photos, which I can share with my family instantly, wherever I am.

Ten years ago, I was also just starting out as a farm reporter for the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman. Yes, we still used film photography back then. And I remember writing stories about the newest GPS technology that farmers were using in their combines at harvest to monitor crop yields.

Back then, yield monitors had a tiny black-and-white digital display that only showed the GPS coordinates and the average crop yields in the field.

Now fast-fast forward to today. I recently visited with Jeremy Swanson, a Webster County corn and soybean grower and the new chair of Iowa Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Advisory Committee.

In addition to farming, Swanson works as the precision ag specialist for Mickelson Seed near Lehigh. Swanson offers installation and service of GPS units, yield monitors and auto-steer technology, which allows farmers to plant corn without touching the tractor’s steering wheel.

Swanson let me peek inside a tractor cab to see the yield monitors they sell. The latest monitors look like iPads, with full-color touch screens, and collect a huge assortment of data, including soil and seed type; crop yield; and amount of fertilizer applied.

With this technology, farmers can carefully manage their fields not just down to the acre, but almost down to the kernel, Swanson says. Farmers use soil testing to apply just the right amount of nutrients for the specific seed type, in a specific area, of the field.

Not only does the technology help boost crop yields, but it also benefits overall water quality. Farmers can now micro-manage their fields and avoid over-applying nutrients, thus preventing runoff into waterways.

It may take a few years before we see the full benefits downstream, as more farmers upgrade their technology and the new Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy really kicks in . But looking to the future, if digital cameras can change so much in just 10 years, how much do you think precision ag technology will improve over the next decade? It’s definitely an exciting time for Iowa farmers and the environment alike.

Written by Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.