Having open and transparent conversations about food and farming with South Dakotans and the farmers who grow it is what we love. In fact, that’s what Hungry for Truth is all about. We had another wonderful opportunity of connecting, Tech CEO, Karla Santi with soybean farmer, Walt Bones of Parker, South Dakota to talk technology and farming. They spent a gorgeous summer afternoon together filled with all kinds of farming and technology education. Today, Karla is sharing her perspective of her recent South Dakota farm visit.
I grew up in the city and have always loved all things tech. It was an era where innovation was often simplifying our lives. A cordless phone, microwave ovens, and a computer at home? Whoa. It’s no wonder that I ended up working in “tech.” Although I grew up a child of the ’80s Rollerblading while listening to my Walkman, I was no stranger to agriculture. Both of my parents grew up on farms, and when they passed, that farmland passed down to my sister and me. While my connection to the farm is primarily on the business side of things, I have a deep appreciation for the farmers that rent our land and the pride they take in their crops.
I’ve always been fascinated by how technology has changed decision making and operations on the farm. Innovation and data usage in agriculture has helped to increase efficiency and manage costs. In my experience, any time I’ve been able to use data to inform decisions, the more confident and assured I am about the outcome. I feel that is true for any industry or circumstance, whether it be web development, parenting, or farming.
To get a better understanding of precision agriculture really entails and how it impacts the quantity and quality of food that reaches our table, I headed to the Bones Hereford Ranch in nearby Parker, SD. As an early adopter of technology, the Bones family has been an advocate for embracing new methods and innovation. If they can make a case for increasing efficiency and profitability, they are willing to invest in adding features to their equipment. As I toured properties including the Bones Ranch, Hexad Farms, Bones Feedyard, the Turner County Dairy, and the Bones Elevator Company, I learned how technology is implemented in nearly every aspect of their operations.
My tour guide for the day, Walter Bones, informed me that a typical day on the farm begins on a computer (mind blown). For example, data is used to determine how much feed the livestock should eat based on their needs. In addition to the volume of feed, rations are calculated to supply the amount and type of additional protein, vitamins, and minerals needed to provide precise nutrition. Wet grain distillers (by-products of the ethanol industry) are also included in the mix. A quick trip over to the feed mixing area revealed how ingredients are loaded into feed-mixer trucks with integrated scales that measure precisely how much of each ration has been added to the load. Since I typically mix ingredients by the teaspoon or tablespoon, combining quantities by the ton is a bit mind-boggling and yet fascinating to watch.
We traveled across the way to catch feeding time on the Bones Feedyard. The cattle are clean and comfortable, which helps ensure they will continue to have an appetite for their precisely blended meal. The feed mixture is designed to be easily digested with maximum absorption of the nutrients. Unlike humans, livestock is content eating the same thing each day, and their intestinal microbiome is accustomed to that. In our culture, food has taken on such a different significance beyond nutrition. We use food as entertainment because taste and smell and breaking bread with people are what creates memories and community. Watching these Hereford cattle consume their meal is an excellent reminder that food is meant foremost to fuel and nourish.
On our short trip over to the Turner County Dairy, I learned how having a dairy operation near Hexad Farms is a mutually beneficial partnership. As I look out at the fields surrounding us, I see several crews injecting nutrient-laden manure provided directly from the dairy into the soil. Several miles of pump lines move the organic slurry consisting of 96% water to the fields where it gets used as fertilizer for the land. Hired crews work 24/7 to complete this process of injecting over 20,000 gallons per acre to prepare the ground for planting. Thorough soil testing is critical, and they are careful to add only what the soil needs and prevent over application. This process is a far cry from the picture I had in my head of a manure spreader randomly sprinkling manure across the field. These nutrients, along with some purchased from a nearby hog farm, provide over half of the fertilizer needed — what a fantastic collaboration between these two partners and surrounding farms.
A trip through the dairy operations led to a conversation about Trans Ova Genetics and how they provide industry-leading reproductive technologies and expertise to breeding. The calves each have an RFID tag that holds its production information (a slight upgrade from the plastic numbered tag). The Holstein cows each have info in a database that includes DNA results that can predict how good of a producer it may be. This data helps them determine if a calf should be moved into the milking herd and noted for its superior genetics.
As we drive on the gravel roads that divide the acres of land, Walt tells me about the RTK (Real Time Kinematic) positioning that they use to inform their decisions and control their positioning on the field. Along with GPS (Global Positioning System, a military service of the Air Force built during the Cold War), the machinery also uses Russia’s GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System). It’s entirely possible that his farm machinery is more precise than any device relying solely on GPS. I asked Walt if his crew can sit back, relax, and catch a show on Netflix while working in the fields, but although GPS auto-steer guides their equipment, he says the economic impact of not paying attention and making a mistake is too high. Using RTK, they gain accuracy within an inch. The apps that I use that rely on GPS certainly do not meet that standard. I’m lucky if my running app reports me heading down the correct city block!
Throughout my visit, Walt provided me with stunning facts and figures at a pace at which I could hardly keep up. I learned that based on positioning, their sprayers know when to shut off individual nozzles to prevent overspray. Did you know there is a load-cell bar on each row of a planter that reports over 200 times per second to determine how much pressure is needed to push the disc opener down to plant seeds at the precise depth and they can plant over 300-400 seeds per second?! An infrared monitor performs a seed meter review and counts the seeds going through the tube. With 36 rows planted at a time, the economic impact of an error quickly adds up, and the investment in this technology pays for itself in short order.
With operations at this scale, the benefits of precision add up fast. With a bag of corn seed selling at over $300+, any overplanting that can be prevented is a significant savings. The adoption of technology has allowed the farm to double their yields, farm 40% more acres, feed 50% more cattle, and reduce their labor force by 75%. The positive benefits of innovation in agriculture are staggering.
We’re still in an era where innovation often simplifies our lives, and when it comes to farming, it’s needed. Considering our growing population in the United States, farmers will have to grow significantly more food than what we are producing today. We’ll need to embrace innovation in agriculture to meet those demands. I’m thankful that technology has had a positive effect on agriculture, and farmers like Walt Bones and his business partners understand the impact it has on their production.
As I return to my job sitting behind a computer, I’ll have a greater appreciation of the solutions and user experiences we create for our clients. It’s easy to forget what impact technology has on our everyday lives, but we work in “tech” for that reason — to simplify and help solve complex problems — in our homes, on the farm, or online.
About Karla Santi
Karla is CEO and founding partner at Blend Interactive, a web design and development firm that tackles complicated web and content problems. She is an active member of the business community and serves on the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and is the Chair of the Chamber’s Business Leadership Council. She also serves on the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship board of directors, where she aims to meet the changing needs of the startup community. Karla is an active mentor through the Embe Women’s Leadership Program and strives to encourage young women to explore STEM programs and pursue careers in technology.
When she’s not running a business, Karla is busy running a family. She’s a wife and mom, but still finds a sliver of time to take part in a weekly tennis league, daily fitness classes, and appreciates a glass of fine wine.