New technology a boon to farmers but price can be barrier
County farms often slow to embrace latest advancements
Part 2 of 5
Growing into the future: The modern farm

By Josh Perttunen - Enterprise Staff

August 21, 2014

Greg Kummrow is like many of his fellow farmers in Waukesha County, asserting that it just isnít feasible for him to use too much technology on his smaller farm. Kummrow is basically a one-man operation, who can perform his work using the implements of previous generations.   
Ryan Billingham/Special to the Enterprise

OCONOMOWOC - From the simplest plows to the irrigation channels that first diverted rivers to farmers' fields to the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, the seeds of invention for many of mankind's most ingenious ideas were first planted on a farm.

This generation has yielded its own technological advances, from self-steering tractors to more efficient corn-drying systems to methane digesters that collect manure and convert it into gas or electricity.

It won't be long before drones are used to survey farm operations or perform other tasks, predicted Waukesha County Farm Bureau President and dairy farmer Lloyd Williams.
"You have to think outside of the box in this county. Instead of growing the herd or gaining acres, you take your product to the next level."

Yet, the newest technological advances are a luxury that isn't feasible for many farms in Waukesha County, Williams said, citing the price of such advancements, the limited room for farms to expand, the increased odors and traffic that would come with expansion and the reluctance of municipalities to have larger operations within their boundaries.

"We don't have the land base to grow," he said. "In neighboring counties, it is common to see hundreds of cows, or thousands of cows at one operation that is 1,000 acres or more."

But that doesn't happen often in Waukesha County, said Kristin Krokowski, commercial horticulture educator with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, since the price of land is more expensive and it is more difficult to amass contiguous properties.

And larger farms and larger equipment may not jibe with the urban nature of the county, Williams said.

"You would have big farm equipment taking up a lot of the road," he said. "Residents in our more urban community need that comfort zone they've established."

Growth in Waukesha County looks different, he said.

"You have to think outside of the box in this county. Instead of growing the herd or gaining acres, you take your product to the next level."

The Williams Homestead in the Town of Delafield has expanded - just as the Koepke Farm in the Town of Oconomowoc has - into cheese production.

"Every few years, you live a new chapter in your life," Williams said. "And you have to adapt."

Newer equipment aids efficiency

Miller Farms in the Town of Oconomowoc is one of few in the county who use self-steering tractors. The farm utilizes five such vehicles, and one self-steering combine.

They've made use of this technology since 2006, and Luke Miller says he can't imagine going back to manual steering.

"You don't realize how much you overlap seeding and fertilizer until you have autosteer," he said. "With the amount of money spent on fertilizer, we don't want to have overlap and leave something uncovered."

Not having to steer is nice, he added, since the driver has less fatigue at the end of the day.

Routes can be programmed into autosteer, so that less seeding is done in gravely, dry areas and more in the fertile part of the field. When it's time to harvest, real-time yield mapping can track how much crop the field is yielding, in what areas and the history of the yield. 

Lloyd Holterman of Rosey-Lane Farms in Watertown said his 14,000-acre farm is also capitalizing on technology, using GPS, computerization and genetics.

His farm is two years into utilizing the GPS system, but he predicts that it will ensure the optimal amount of seeds are dispersed everywhere, respective to the farm's terrain. Using GPS, farmers can identify crops and the moisture they are containing, and review an area's history to determine the troublesome spots.

Cows are monitored 24/7 by cameras and footage can show if an animal is sick or stressed. Machines also track milking speed, quantity and composition of the milk. Using a hair sample from a female calf, scientists can analyze DNA to determine how big the calf is likely to get, how much milk will be produced in a lifetime and how long that lifetime will be. 

"Farming is the same as any other business," Holterman noted. "Computers and technology are making everything more efficient and more productive." 

Holterman said his farm has been able to expand due to its embrace of technology.

"The record-keeping and human observation of cows was requiring three to four full-time employees; we were relying on people's innate cattle skills, but they couldn't be as accurate as a computer," he said. "Also, a computer can work 24 hours a day."

Tried and true

In this era of such technology, 56-year-old Greg Kummrow of Oconomowoc proves it is still possible to be a one-man operation using only the tools that the generations before him had at their disposal.

The newest tractor on his five-generation farm, he said, is a 1966 John Deere 4020. Kummrow has three main tractors that he uses to accomplish the majority of the work that needs to be done on a daily basis.

"I do it the way it has always been done. Some other farmers today use GPS systems to plant their crops more accurately; I prefer to plant on faith," he said. "I'm not one who likes change; I fight it."

His farm, which produces Battle Creek Beef & Bison, is largely Kummrow working alone, with occasional assistance from his sons. The tractors make his autonomy possible.

"Whether it's trucking, baling, plowing or hauling manure, anything that you can do with a new tractor can also be done with the older tractors," said Kummrow. "It is just slower."

His autonomy is on display when the machines are functioning correctly - and also when they're not.

"If you need to, you can break those old tractors down to bare metal and rebuild them," he said. "You can't do that with the modern machines. The ones with the computers can't really be touched by the farmer.

"These older machines are also durable," he added. "Back then, they were built to last. I don't know if the machines of today are."

Investment pays off

Williams said when Waukesha County farmers do make that investment in technology, it must be economical and efficient.

He purchased a state-of-the-art drying system for his corn, for example. Just the computer for the system cost $10,000 to $12,000, Williams said.

"What ultimately sold me was that the dryer would pay for itself in a year, based on what I saved on gas," he added. "It's also a quieter system. The old system was so loud that everyone in the neighborhood knew I was drying corn."