Sweat and back-breaking work are still part of Mississippi agriculture, but many of today's farmers do a portion of their work in front of computers in air-conditioned comfort. On Mississippi's high-tech, large farms, computers are as important a tool as tractors. Will McCarty, row crops specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said most of the state's largest farmers in any commodity run their businesses using computers. Common uses include record-keeping, information-gathering and operating equipment.
“Precision agriculture would be impossible without computers,” McCarty said. “Computers have made large quantities of information available quickly. Anytime farmers have more information at their disposal in a short period of time, the better off they are.”
McCarty said farmers use computers to generate yield maps and site specific recommendations as part of their Global Positioning System and precision-farming programs. They use computers to build yield maps, collect soil samples on a grid and control variable-rate application technology.
According to a July report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, computer usage on Mississippi farms is low. The report states that just 17 percent of the farms use computers in the business, and only 29 percent have Internet access.
Both McCarty and John Anderson, agricultural economist with MSU's Extension Service, said they think those numbers are actually higher. They said nearly all of the state's largest farmers, which produce the majority of the state's commodities, are technologically savvy and use computers and the Internet in everyday business operations.
“Computers are like any other tool on the farm. They have the potential to provide easier access to information and maybe a much broader range of information than available without the computer,” Anderson said. “Computer software packages are decision-making tools that allow farmers to use that information in the operation of their farms.”
Anderson said 24-hour weather and market information are some of the most valuable data readily available to farmers with Internet access.
“USDA releases market price and quantity data every day on the major commodities. Those are all available to the public online at any time,” Anderson said.
Internet access also puts a wealth of research and analysis at farmers' fingertips. The information of the MSU Extension Service is available online at http://www.msucares.com, and similar information is available from other states.
“Computers give us easy access to information that from a practical standpoint would be impossible to get otherwise,” Anderson said.
Computers also form the backbone of many farmers' bookkeeping efforts. In addition to commercially available financial programs, Anderson said there are many newly developed spreadsheet or database-oriented tools that allow users to make projections related to their production, prices and profitability of the farm enterprise.
MSU's Department of Agricultural Economics developed a budget generator which is updated every year and used by farmers nationally to evaluate farm enterprises under different scenarios. The software allows producers to see what would happen if yields decreased, pesticide spending increased or a number of other factors changed.
“The development of this budget generator software has been a very long-term project,” Anderson said. “The budget generator is for row crops, but we're in the process of integrating livestock operations into it.”
The catfish industry has a software package called Fishy which helps catfish producers manage production variables. MSU researchers have developed other smaller, more-focused programs for specific occasions.
“For the last farm bill, we developed a spreadsheet to help people evaluate base and yield updating decisions,” Anderson said. “The level of payments producers will get over the life of this farm bill will be tied to their bases and yields, and they had the opportunity possibly to increase the level of support they'll receive by making decisions on base and yield updating.”
Anderson said this decision would have been “exceedingly difficult to make without a computer because it was based on so much information.”
Despite these software programs and computer-controlled equipment, Anderson said, the most valuable use of a computer is in information access.
“It doesn't take a high level of computer literacy to learn what sources are useful for providing accurate information on current prices and futures market prices, and outlook information from a large number of sources,” Anderson said.
Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.