High-tech harvest: Farming in a wireless world

Burli Hopkins, of Lewes, uses his smartphone and wireless cameras to keep track of operations, which includes 575 cows who wear computer chips. (Photos by Maria DeForrest)

by Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times

There was a lot of guesswork and hard hand labor involved when Robert Thompson’s grandfather founded the family’s Hartly farm more than 100 years ago with 77 acres.

While there is still plenty of hand labor today, there is less guesswork on the now-1,200 acres. Among the tractors and combines and other tools of the farm, the Thompsons also use computer programs, tablets, smart phones and Wi-Fi.

Like most farmers in Delaware, the Thompsons are growing technology in addition to crops and livestock.

“If it’s a farm implement, it has some kind of controller on it,” said Aaron Thompson, who runs the field operations and chicken houses for the Thompson farms.

USDA studies show that 70 percent of the 2,500 farms in Delaware use technology to plant, reap, feed, review and just generally run the day-to-day farming operation. From cows with computer chips, to the automatic feeders and climate controls in poultry houses to tractors that steer themselves and computer programs that help choose the best seed for the weather and soil, farming in Delaware in 2016 is high tech.

Burli Hopkins is one of Delaware’s farmers who embraces technology. He runs the family dairy farm, Green Acres, in Lewes. Because, in part, of technology, he took his family on vacation in July, something no farmer of even 50 years ago would have done. It’s the busy season. He took the farm with him.

The entire Hopkins farm, which includes 1,400 acres, 575 cows, a creamery, fields and a bed and breakfast, is wired for the internet. Using his smart phone and wireless cameras, he could watch practically everything going on remotely.

Then there are the cows.

Hopkins-farm-#2
USDA studies show that 70 percent of the 2,500 farms in Delaware use technology to plant, reap, feed, review and just generally run the day-to-day farming operation.

All the cows on the Hopkins farm wear a computer chip around their necks. The chip helps the Hopkinses keep track of where the cows are, how long they’ve been waiting in the holding area to be milked, and that they are in the correct stall to be fed. Sounds like a lot, but it is important for an efficient, safe operation. Each cow is fed a special diet based on everything from age to how recently she’s had a calf. Making sure the cow is in the proper stall at feeding time makes sure the right cow gets the right food. The computer also analyzes how good a chef the farmer is in the mix of feed going to the cow and compiles reports to review, again for the safety and health of the herd.

The process doesn’t stop there, though. The vacuum system that milks the cows has an automatic flow meter that tells the machine to stop milking with about a cup of milk left in the udder to prevent bacterial infection. The temperature of the milk is closely monitored as well. It leaves the cow at 101 degrees and through a process is dropped to below 40-degrees. Sensors monitor the milk, if it goes over 40 degrees for too long, the whole batch has to be thrown out. Alarms tell Hopkins if there is a problem.

“It prevents potential income loss,” said Hopkins, who has cows being milked on rotation 24 hours a day at the farm. “You don’t want to come in the next morning and say, ‘Wow, the tank’s hot.’”

Protection of animals and income is helped incredibly by technology.

“It’s a necessary tool of production,” said Charlie Postles, of Milford, who has his three chicken houses computerized and tied into a computer in his house. The computer automatically controls the temperature of the house and turns of fans or heat as needed.

Postles can monitor the entire environment from the temperature and air quality to the amount of water and feed the chickens are taking in.

“I can set the whole growing cycle,” he said. When he started as a chicken farmer 40 years ago, there was no technology, he said. He spent a lot of time each day raising and lowering panels and turning on or off individual heaters in the houses to regulate the temperature. Now the temperature is steady whether he’s there or not.

When he started he had two houses and 41,000 chickens. Ten years ago, he tore down the old houses and built three new technology integrated houses. Now he raises 120,000 chickens with less labor than it took him for two houses. 

All of the 575 cows on Burli Hopkins' 1,400-acre farm in Lewes wear a computer chip. The chip monitors everything from the cows' location to how long they've been waiting to be milked.
All of the 575 cows on Burli Hopkins’ 1,400-acre farm in Lewes wear a computer chip. The chip monitors everything from the cows’ location to how long they’ve been waiting to be milked.

“There’s a lot of advantages to technology,” said Postles.

There’s also a cost. A new chicken house can cost up to $380,000. Wireless networks, monitoring software, new equipment, upgrades, all cost money. The USDA estimated in its last census in 2007 there was more than $396 million in farm equipment and machinery used on Delaware farms. That number has certainly risen in the last 10 years.

“All the equipment is very expensive,” said Thompson. “We buy a little every year.”

It is a wise investment for the farm and the environment, he explained. Production numbers prove it. Since 2007, corn production has increased from 99 bushels per acre to 192 in 2015. Not all of that is the result of new technologies, but certainly even having those accurate numbers, is.

On the Thompson farm, the tractors have computer systems that map out the entire field, test the soil from pH to hardness, keep track of where the seeds are put in the field and how deep they are planted. It even changes seeds automatically based on a prescription Thompson writes so that the best seeds for each type of soil are put in the ground.

The tractors even auto-steer to make sure the rows stay straight and uniform.

It’s the same when it comes to watering, weed control and fertilizer, said Thompson. Farmers take their job as stewards of the environment very seriously, he said. Too much of anything is not good. Technology helps them put exactly what the plant needs, where it needs it,  when it needs it. More of anything would be bad for the environment and the farm budget.

“It helps make us better stewards of the land,” said Thompson.

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