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How technology is changing the ag workforce

AvGusT174/Getty Images voluntary cow milking system
LABOR CHANGES: Technology — from autonomous tractors and robotic milkers to field-monitoring drones and artificial intelligence — has removed some of the repetitive and tactical tasks in production agriculture.
Robots, automation and data-analysis technology are creating a new, dynamic workforce.

My husband is a General Motors employee and has worked many jobs at two different plants over 37-plus years. The manufacturing industry was an early adopter of new technologies and an early benefiter.

Machines were tweaked and tooled to make automobile production more efficient, while improving worker safety. Robots replaced redundant and dangerous tasks, but with it came a reduction in employees and a shift in needed skills.

Similarly, adoption of technology in agriculture is creating a new dynamic workforce. Technology — from autonomous tractors and robotic milkers to field-monitoring drones and artificial intelligence — has removed some of the repetitive and tactical tasks, which elevates the role of people and their talents.

As labor continues to be one of the top challenges in the on-farm ag industry, implementing these new technologies will require additional expertise and skills.

It will become increasing important to find workers that meet specific needs of the farm, with less emphasis on physical abilities.

Precision farming will require a different (or at least enhanced) “mental model” of the farm manager and farm workforce, according to an article published in Farmdoc Daily, Center for Commercial Agriculture, Purdue University. 

“Choosing and using precision farming tools and technologies requires an enhanced appreciation and understanding of science and fact-based decision-making,” authors Michael Langemeier and Michael Boehlje wrote.

Langemeier noted the importance of using a suite of technologies to provide the most efficient use of inputs; employ consultants to assist with difficult or complex production problems; and identify, monitor and benchmark key production efficiency measures. 

He advises developing a strategic plan with a regular assessment of technology needs for the business and a financial plan that examines how the business is going to pay for new technologies, as well as the ability to implement and maintain.

It's advised to use a skill assessment for current and future employees, regardless of education or experience, to develop mechanisms to recruit, train and retain employees for those needs.

New technologies may replace certain skill sets, but there will always be a need for human skills, such as leadership, judgment, creativity, problem-solving, intuition and downright common sense.

While adopting precision farming and automation technologies can offer increased efficiencies, I don’t think it devalues the human worker. To the contrary, it puts more value in the skills they bring that cannot be replaced by technologies — at least for now.

However, this will require farm managers to carefully evaluate the farm’s needs and fill them with permanent, independent consultants, contractors, and temporary or contingent workers.

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