AUGUSTA, Maine — Farmers and producers at the 70th annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show this week said technology has changed how farming is done in Maine.
From computer microchips inside cows’ collars that alert the farmer if milk production slacks off to global positioning systems that enable potato farmers to use less pesticides, technology is making Maine farms more efficient and saving precious profits.
Dick Perkins milks 300 cows in Charleston and said technology has made a “huge difference in the day-to-day handling of the farm.”
From the kitchen of his home, Perkins can monitor each cow in his milking parlor through an automated, computerized system.
“I can tell who is in the parlor and how much milk she is giving,” Perkins said. “I can pull that cow’s name up on the computer and instantly see what veterinary work has been done and when breeding should take place.”
Using a GPS, Perkins also can determine exactly how much fertilizer each field should get, preventing over-fertilization and wasted money.
“We have to be more and more efficient,” Perkins said. “Our costs are out of this world.”
Perkins also carries a Palm Pilot. “I have the history of every cow on this farm right in my pocket,” he said.
It’s a different farm than it was 25 years ago when Perkins milked 35 cows. “We now have six family members working on the farm,” he said.
But some things will always stay the same, he added, and that is the hands-on time spent with the cows, assessing physical conditions. “I’m still up at 4 a.m. so I get plenty of time in with the cows,” he said.
“Technology can really help efficiency,” State Veterinarian Don Hoenig said. “Automatic identification in milking parlors can tell which cow is producing, how much she produced and if that production level has dropped. It’s a money saver and a time saver. But you still have to be a good cow man with hands-on handling.”
Many farmers also have found a marketing advantage through Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as having websites that allow consumers to get to know who is supplying their food, Hoenig said.
Technology is useful for large-scale as well as small-scale farmers.
Tracey Nelson of the University of Maine Extension Service said hundreds of informational pamphlets are available online at www.extension.umaine.edu.
“We get lots and lots of hits,” she said. “This has allowed us to reach far more people.”
Neil G. Piper, vice president of Farm Credit of Maine, said farmers are always looking at technology as a way to be more efficient.
From satellite technology to digesters that capture methane and turn manure into electricity, farmers look at the cost to their pocketbooks versus the cost to the environment.
In addition, Farm Credit of Maine finances a lot of fishermen involved in sustainable fishing. “Many are using technology to determine sea depths, find fish, mark a baseline on the coast,” Piper said. “Efficiency, cost control and environmental impact is what is driving the push to become more technological.”
Larger farms are also using the latest technology in packaging and marketing, he added.
Farmers are switching their record-keeping methods from a shoe box in the kitchen cupboard to online bookkeeping, projections and cost monitoring, said Carol Richards of Austin Associates, an Auburn firm that assists farmers.
Keeping accurate records and up-to-date expense tallies is often helpful when seeking financing, grants and other program benefits, she said.