Alabama Gulf Coast farm manager Ray Bertolla still recalls old family accounts of the ribbing his older relatives endured when they became the first producers in the region to buy a tractor with rubber tires.

Those rubber tires may have seemed foolish to some, but they played an integral part in a technological revolution, powered by internal combustion engines, which transformed U.S. farming.

In the late 19th century, it took 35 to 40 hours of planting and harvesting just to produce 100 bushels of corn, according to an online fact sheet posted by the National Academy of Engineering. A century later, producing the same amount of corn required less than three hours — much of it carried out by farmers or employees working in air-conditioned tractors.

Now, one expert believes a new type of horsepower — analytical horsepower — is primed to change farming once again.

But instead of internal combustion, this transformation will be powered by on-farm data, which farmers will soon routinely use to make considerably more accurate and refined farming and business decisions, according to John Fulton, leader of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s row crops team and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering.

Fulton contends that this transformation could not have come at a more opportune time — a sentiment shared by his colleague, Max Runge, an Extension economist.

As Runge sees it, farmers over the last decade have been trapped in a kind of catch-22.

“Farming has become so efficient and productive that it requires fewer farmers to produce the commodities to meet our needs,” Runge says. 

He contends that farmers, by creating an exceptionally efficient production system, have become their own worst enemies, because this enhanced efficiency has also contributed to reduced farm profits.

The steady march of globalization and technological advances has also contributed, he maintains.  Within this highly efficient, integrated farming system, one bad decision can produce serious effects throughout a farming operation.

Avoiding bad decisions

“It’s gotten to where every decision has to follow an intensive study and to be carefully considered before it’s implemented,” says Kim Wilkins an Alabama Extension regional agent who operates on the Gulf Coast.

“For example, one bad variety selection could mean a wipeout of the crop from a threat like soybean rust or Hessian flies before the farmers could even anticipate them,” she says.

In recent years, Runge has seen firsthand how some farmers have had to work furiously to capture lost ground following a bad farming decision.

“We’ve had some producers come to us and say, ‘I’m $300,000 in debt and I’ve got to hit a home run,” Runge says, adding that this is precisely the sort of situation that farmers should studiously work to avoid.

“The luckier ones manage to knock the ball out of the park —often by selecting the right commodity at just the right time and pricing it to hit the top of the market,” he says. “But it’s unlikely they’ll stay in business over the next three to five years following a game plan like this.”

Runge says the times are pushing producers to develop a new integrated farming mindset, one that is as much about investing in the future as it is about being frugal in the present.  And this will involve investing in management strategies and technologies that not only insulate them against crises— weather events, insect or weed threats, or economic downturns, for example — but that also better equips them to capitalize on future opportunities.

Fulton has a term for this too: input stewardship.

“We’re reached the point where input stewardship is not only critical to production but also to ensuring that we maintain the profits to stay in business,” he says. 

“Yes, you’ve got to look at ways to capture savings and improve efficiency, because every cent counts. But it’s also as much about farmers investing on a field-by-field basis and in ways that enable them to derive the optimal benefits from each field.”

While some of these decisions may not begin paying off until years down the road, they are no less important to the success of a farming operation, Fulton says.

But it’s the way in which input stewardship will be combined with analytical horsepower that will transform farming, he predicts.

For now, analytical horsepower, despite its immense promise, remains a sleeping giant with much of its potential still locked in the yield monitors and other precision farming technologies that farmers use routinely.

“Right now, the argument can be made that all the precision agriculture data has no value because it’s not yet being used,” Fulton says. “I think the farming community would be surprised by how much data is left on machines and never downloaded and archived — or, for that matter, acted upon.”

But this is changing rapidly as more companies perceive the vast potential of this data trove in helping farmers make better informed decisions. It’s the reason why Fulton remains optimistic about the future of farming, particularly U.S. farming, despite its current challenges.

Two giant retail companies, Wal-Mart and Kroger, already have demonstrated how data sets can be used to enhance the shopping experiences of their customers.  As he sees it, farming is not too far behind.

What emerges will likely be a farming sector that is more adaptive, more environmentally sustainable and, most important of all from the perspective of farmers, more profitable, Fulton contends.