We often hear politicians and researchers paint a picture of what future farming might look like.
So, we decided to ask young farmers what they think.
Nowell Moore, of Woodford County, Illinois, has an off-farm job on top of his work with cattle, like many young farmers.
He and his wife raise cattle and trade labor with her family’s grain farm in central Illinois.
The ag engineering graduate of the University of Illinois also works on innovative agricultural technology. He is the product manager of 360 Rain, an autonomous irrigation system developed by 360 Yield Center. In research, the system has increased yields by 50 to 60 bu./acre by distributing water and nutrients to crops, he said.
He is excited about how his job can help other crop and livestock farmers like himself.
“We find ourselves in an autonomous machinery revolution,” he said.
For the farmer, that means making wise choices. Farmers must look at the ROI and determine where the opportunities are on their farms, he said.
The 33-year-old is also active with the Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leaders, talking about issues that impact farmers now and in the future. Nationally, at Discussion Meet competitions, he has learned a lot about what is important to farmers in other states as well.
The next big innovation he is trying on his own farm is fall-seeding cover crops by drone.
Traditionally, they drilled cover crops post-harvest, but sometimes that made planting too late to get a good stand. He has also tried aerial application by planes, but is looking forward to seeing how the drone applicators do this season. Planting of the rye and turnips is expected to start later this month.
“We’ll give that a shot,” Moore said.
As for the future of dairy farms, Aaron Mitchell thinks the number of small dairy farms will continue to decrease as they have been in recent years.
“Small farmers went out of business because prices were low. Now a lot of small farmers are going out when prices are good,” he said.
Successful small dairy farmers often have a niche today, whether that’s direct-to-consumer or making a particular product, he said.
His family took the route of growing.
Mitchell was raised on a dairy farm in Winnebago County, Illinois, which has been in the family since the mid-1880s. When he was a boy, the family milked 100 Holstein cows. They added new free stall barns in 2015 and have been milking 400 cows ever since.
While farms will likely be bigger in the future, Mitchell thinks they will remain “family farms”.
“Families merge together. Future employees may be those who grew up on a smaller farm and still want to be involved — want to be a key person on the farm. They aren’t our family, but they are family,” he said of the shared passion for dairy cows.
At age 30, in his ninth full year farming full-time, Mitchell has seen more automation every year.
“It will never be fully automated,” he said.
However, dairy farming is labor intensive and finding labor can be a challenge. Today they have 15 to 17 employees in an operation that milks three times a day.
In 2015, they added tracking collars to the cows to monitor their eating habits and to pinpoint timing of when the cow is in heat for breeding.
Recently they added equipment to track mixed rations to help determine the ingredients available. It more precisely monitors corn silage, haylage, protein and other ingredients to control inventory and supply timing.
With low milk prices in recent times, a lot of upgrading projects had been put on hold, waiting for higher prices, he said. When milk prices rise, “You try to catch up,” he said.
One of those projects at the top of the list now is to upgrade the milking parlor which had its last big updating in 2004. Some farm equipment will be upgraded as well. But it may still be about 10 years before they get milking robots on this farm.
Environmental concerns will likely lead to other changes. He expects those may include methane digesters at some point.
People sometimes point to dairy as a contributor to climate problems. But, dairy farmers also have a role in smart agriculture. They are part of providing, sustainable, nutritious food, he said.
The need for speed is one of the issues young farmers like Tyler Main will be grappling with in the future.
The pig and crop farmer grows 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad and uncle in western Illinois. They bought a new planter to help get the job done quickly in what is often a short planting season.
Now, they have speed technology to plant up to 10 mph.
“If you can stay in the seat,” Main joked.
In reality, Main says he drives closer to 6 to 7 mph when planting corn, and up to 9 mph on soybeans depending on conditions.
“It’s a double edge. With high speed you get a lot done in a day. It’s great if it’s the right day to plant,” said the 28-year-old. You can plant a lot on the wrong day too.
Weather patterns change, so Main is constantly evaluating which are the best hybrids and chemicals to use. Resistant weeds are something on his management list now and in the future.
This year, Main is going to have fungicide applied by FS with a drone for the first time. It may be helpful in small, hard-to-get-to fields, he said.
On the livestock side, as part of their independent swine operation which markets 15,000 hogs a year, they built a new hog barn in 2019 with a modern control panel that gives them access by phone to take care of things without being in the barn at the time.
“I expect this will continue to evolve as time goes on,” he said of technology that allows more flexibility. “I’m not sure if it really saves time. We still need to be in our building twice a day to make sure everything is correct.”
Maybe someday a drone will be used to check all the other little things in the barn too.
“But you can’t really take the human element out,” Main said.