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Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 04:26 pm

Futuristic farmers

High-tech agriculture on display in Decatur

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Representatives of Case IH chat next to one of the company’s new field sprayer models. More than 500 companies from around the world showcased their agriculture-related products last week at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Farmin’ ain’t easy.

Though the concept of planting seeds and harvesting the bounty seems simple enough, there are numerous risks to contend with: weeds, bugs, drought, flood, cold, disease and even human error. However, the 2013 Farm Progress Show in Decatur last week showcased a variety of technologies that take the guesswork out of agriculture.

At 60 years old, the Farm Progress Show has grown into the largest outdoor farm event in the nation. It brings thousands of people from across the globe and more than 500 exhibitors to alternating sites in Decatur, and Boone, Iowa, each year. The show feels like a cross between a county fair and a bazaar, with food booths, games, freebies and showmen proudly hawking their wares. Some of those wares, like the 98,000-bushel grain bin that holds about 100 semi truckloads of corn or beans, are larger than a typical house and cost even more, but the smaller products seem to hold the most potential for farmers of the future.

Ross Kotewa, an account manager with Canadian company Norac Systems, Inc., showed off the firm’s system to automatically control sprayer height. Spray herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers too low, Ross explained, and the spray doesn’t spread enough. Spray too high, and the wind can carry it away, he said. Their solution is a series of ultrasonic sensors that adjust sprayer arms down to the centimeter over moving ground. He demonstrated on a working model by sticking his foot beneath a sensor, causing the sprayer arm to rise instantly. Kotewa says that technology is actually 20 years old, but has recently become more accurate and adjustable.

While planting seeds is the core of growing crops, research shows tiny human errors can drastically decrease yield. Precision Planting of Tremont, south of Peoria, showed off its automated planting systems at the show last week. The company makes a planting wheel with vacuum holes that pick up and deposit a single seed, ensuring even spacing between plants. Nearby, the company showed off its sensor system that identifies problems like skipped seeds, plotting the problems on an iPad-accessible map to show farmers where their planters are failing.

Agriculture researchers are also finding new uses for what used to be considered waste. One example is treating corn “stover” – the stalk and leaves left over after harvest – for use as cattle feed or fuel. Stover is typically very dry and difficult for cattle to digest, but some companies have begun adding moisture back into the stover and treating it with calcium oxide to break down the tough fibers. While grain feed for cattle usually costs around $200 per ton, treated stover is closer to $80 per ton, lowering costs for livestock farmers. The process is currently under study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Philippe Ballet, a St. Louis-based account manager for agribusiness giant Monsanto, showed off a new variety of soybean that yields a cooking oil with 60 percent less saturated fat than normal soybean oil. The same oil can be used as a non-toxic lubricant in motors, he said. The company is currently working through regulatory processes for the new soybean variety in several countries.

Ross Kotewa, the presenter with Norac Systems, said agriculture has long been a “driving force” for technology, pointing to the use of global positioning systems in farm tractors.

“Once government restrictions on GPS frequencies went away, their use exploded in agriculture,” he said. “There are a lot of other uses now, like turn-by-turn directions, but it was ag that truly led the charge. People ask what’s agriculture going to do in 20 years, but I ask what it’s going to do next year.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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