High-Tech Farming (Grades 6-8)
6 - 8
Students discover technologies that are used on farms to increase efficiency and yields and decrease costs and environmental impact. Grades 6-8
- Milking at the 1850 Farm video
- Robotic Milkers 360 video
- Virtual Reality (VR) viewing devices (optional)
- 360 Degree 5-Minute Prep PowerPoint slides (optional)
Activity 1: Agricultural Technology Timeline
- Agricultural Technology Timeline cards, 1 set of cut apart cards per group
Activity 2: The Future of Farming
- The Future of Farming & Agriculture video
- Adobe Spark (free online and mobile graphic design app)
- Access to computers, tablets, or smartphones
Activity 3: Farming Challenges
autonomous vehicle: a vehicle that can guide itself without a human operator
drone: an unmanned aircraft guided by remote control or onboard computers
Global Positioning System (GPS): a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on or near the Earth
laser: a device that produces a narrow and powerful beam of light
precision agriculture: an information technology-based, site-specific farm management system that collects and responds to data ensuring that crops receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity
robot: a mechanical device that is capable of performing a variety of tasks on command or according to instructions programmed in advance
self-driving tractor: autonomous farm vehicle that uses GPS and other wireless technologies to farm land
sensor: a device that detects or measures a physical property and records, indicates, or otherwise responds to it
variable rate application: a method of applying varying rates of a material in appropriate zones throughout a field based on the precise location or qualities of the area
Did You Know?
- In 1850, 100 bushels of corn required 83 labor hours and 2.5 acres of land. Today, only two labor hours and .6 of an acre of land are needed.4
- A modern combine can harvest 350 acres of corn per day (4,500 bushels per hour) and it can unload 3.8 bushels per second.4
- If the world's farmers would have continued to grow crops at 1961 productivity levels, they would need almost 2.5 billion acres of new farmland to maintain today's food supply, which is more than the total land area of the United States.9
Background Agricultural Connections
In the 1940s, one farmer in the United States produced enough food to feed 19 people. Today, one US farmer produces enough to feed 172 people.1 The increase in U.S. food production is directly related to the advancement of agricultural technology.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) projects the world population to reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050.2 With 9.7 billion people on Earth, the world's farmers will need to grow about 60-70 percent more food than what is now being produced.3 As the global production increases, farmers will need to utilize innovative technologies to produce more food with fewer resources.
Precision agriculture is an information technology-based, site-specific farm management system that collects and responds to data ensuring that crops receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. Precision agriculture technologies help farmers identify and manage variability within fields and can optimize crop yields, maximize crop quality, and minimize the use of resources. Rather than apply water, fertilizer, and pesticides uniformly across entire fields, farmers can use data to target specific areas within the minimum quantities required. More efficient food production means lower costs to consumers, greater consumer choice, convenience, safer food, and greater food security.4
Precision farming began in the 1990s when Global Positioning System (GPS) technology became available to the public. GPS uses satellites and computers to determine positions on Earth. GPS-based applications in precision farming are being used for farm planning, field mapping, soil sampling, tractor guidance, crop scouting, variable rate applications, and yield mapping.5
Self-driving tractors are autonomous vehicles that use GPS and other wireless technologies to farm land. Self-guidance systems reduce the amount of overlap caused when tractors crisscross a field. Reducing overlap cuts down on seed, fertilizer, and pesticide waste. Driving hands-free enables the farmer to manage other aspects of their operation from the cab of their tractor. Farmers are also able to continue working their fields during low visibility conditions such as rain, dust, fog, and darkness. In 2015, it was estimated that self-guidance systems were being used on about 30 percent of the farmland in North America, 50 percent of the farmland in Europe and South America, and 90 percent of the farmland in Australia.6
Agricultural robots automate repetitive farming tasks. Robots are used for harvesting, weed control, mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying, sorting, and packing. Robots can be seen as a solution to food production labor shortages. There are jobs on the farm that do not create value at or above minimum wage. By automating sub-minimum wage jobs, more food can be produced at a lower cost.7
Drone applications in agriculture include mapping, surveying, monitoring, planting, crop dusting, and spraying. Precise soil analysis maps produced by drones help direct seed planting patterns, irrigation, and nitrogen-level management. Nutrients, moisture levels, and overall crop health is monitored in real-time by drones equipped with hyper-spectral, multispectral, and thermal sensors. Scanning crops with visible and infrared (IR) light, drones can identify plants infected by bacteria or fungus, helping to prevent disease from spreading to other crops. This technology enables detection of some diseases before they are visible to the human eye.8
Advanced laser technology is used on farms to deter birds, level fields, guide harvesting machines, sort agricultural products, and monitor field conditions. Birds are naturally drawn to food growing in fields and can transmit diseases and damage crops. Laser beams are used to repel birds in a safe, silent manner that the birds do not become used to. Laser leveling can enhance productivity on uneven fields by improving drainage and decreasing water usage. In the laser leveling process, a tower mounted laser level is used in combination with a sensor on a tractor-scraper. Machines used to pick vegetation from fields can be guided using laser rangefinders which instantaneously communicate the height of the vegetation relative to the ground. Lasers are also used to sort agricultural products by identifying items that do not meet optimal specifications. Used in combination with sprayers, lasers can monitor for specific field conditions to ensure that only the necessary amount of chemical is applied to each specific area of the field.
- Show the students the Milking at the 1850 Farm video to view a reenactment of how cows were milked in 1850.
- Ask the students, "What tools did the pioneer girl in the video use to milk the cow?" (She used a stool and a bucket.)
- Show the students the 360 video Robot Milkers to view how Automatic Milking Systems in modern dairies use robots to milk cows. This video is best viewed using a virtual reality (VR) viewing device, but can also be viewed on a computer, smart phone, or tablet without VR goggles. For more information about using 360 video in the classroom, see Discovery Farmland's 360 Degree Video 5-minute Prep PowerPoint.
- Ask the students, "What tools were used in the modern dairy to milk the cows?" (Robotic milking system, digital responders, lasers, and computers.)
- Lead a discussion comparing and contrasting the ways cows were milked in 1850 and how cows can be milked today. Integrate the following points into the discussion:
- Cows are milked two to three times a day.
- On average, cows produce about seven gallons of milk each day.
- It takes about fifteen minutes to milk a cow by hand and about five minutes to milk a cow using a robotic milking system.
- Ask the students, "How does technology impact farms?"
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Agricultural Technology Timeline
- Lead a discussion about the development of agricultural technology. Integrate the following points into the discussion:
- Agriculture began around 10,000 BC when humans started domesticating plants and animals to ensure a more reliable food source when compared to hunting and gathering. At that time, most work was accomplished by hand with few tools available.
- The introduction of powered machinery replaced work previously performed by people and animals (horses, mules, and oxen).
- Throughout history, scientific and technological advancements have impacted the agricultural industry by increasing food production and farm efficiency.
- Organize the students into small groups. Provide each group with a set of Agricultural Technology Timeline Cards.
- Have each group create a timeline of agricultural technology by ordering the cards and placing the year card in the space provided on the corresponding technology card.
- After the groups have completed their timelines, check to make sure the order is correct.
- 1701: Jethro Tull introduced the seed drill, a device that cuts trenches and drops in seeds.
- 1793: Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that separates seeds from fiber.
- 1834: Cyrus McCormick patented the McCormick reaper, a grain harvesting machine.
- 1837: John Deere invented the steel plow, which was stronger, sharper, and more efficient.
- 1842: Joseph Dart invented and built the first grain elevator, a wooden structure with buckets used to load and unload ships.
- 1873: Silos, structures that store grain, came into use.
- 1874: Glidden barbed wire, an inexpensive fencing used for livestock on rangeland, was patented.
- 1884: The horse-drawn combine, used to harvest wheat, came into use on West Coast farms.
- 1892: The first gasoline tractor was built by John Froelich.
- 1959: The mechanical tomato harvester, used to harvest, sort, and load tomatoes, was developed.
- 1980: Farmers began using computers to manage farm operations and monitor weather conditions.
- 1992: The first automatic milking system was installed on dairy farms in the Netherlands.
- 1994: Farmers began using satellite technology to track and plan their farming practices.
- 1999: The modern concept of vertical farming was proposed by Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier.
- 2003: Farm equipment manufacturers install GPS systems in tractors.
- 2012: The first self-driving, autonomous tractor was unveiled at the Big Iron Farm Show in North Dakota.
- 2015: Software, mobile devices, and data revolutionize farming potential.
- 2016: Widespread use of drone technology by farmers.
- 2021: Harvesting equipment becomes even more specialized.
- Today: Progress in agricultural technology continues.
Activity 2: The Future of Farming
- View the video The Future of Farming & Agriculture.
- Ask the students to identify the different types of technology showcased in the video.
- Have each student choose one of the following agricultural technologies from the video:
- Autonomous pickers
- Robotic weed/pest eliminator
- Weed-eliminating lasers
- Agriculture sensors
- Robotic soil-sampler
- Drone-assisted crop monitoring
- Aerial crop imaging
- CubeSat whole farm imaging
- Agriculture data analytics
- Agriculture data-sharing collectives
- High density vertical farming
- Livestock activity monitors
- Livestock breath analysis
- Livestock automated thermal imaging analysis
- Livestock 3-D camera measuring
- Livestock health monitoring
- Automated behavior analysis
- Inland saltwater fish farms
- Zero waste fish farming
- Bacteria-based fish food
- Insect flour and protein powder
- Cultured meats
- Provide time for the students to research their technology and create an Adobe Spark (free online and mobile graphic design app) presentation that includes the following information:
- Name of the technology
- Photograph(s) or video(s) of the technology
- Description of the technology
- Explanation of the agricultural uses of the technology
- Allow time for the students to share and discuss their presentations with the class.
Activity 3: Farm Scenarios
- Watch the Agricultural Engineers video to discover what agricultural engineers do and what types of problems they are trying to solve.
- Arrange students into groups of 4-5. Give each group one of the Farming Challenges cards so that at least two different groups have the same scenario. Ask the groups to work as agricultural engineers to propose a solution for their challenge.
- Provide each group with poster paper. Have the groups draw a picture/diagram of their technology or invention on the poster paper.
- Invite each group to share their challenge and propose their solution with the class.
- Discuss the proposals, pointing out that there can be more than one solution to a problem, and that, typically, an idea must be tested and revised several times before it is successful. Even when ideas are not successful, much can be learned from the process. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:
- How were the different solution proposals for the same challenge similar or different?
- What are the pros and cons of the proposed solutions
- What type of technology (robots, drones, lasers, etc.) were utilized in the proposed solutions?
How will technology change farming in the future? See one version of how farmers might control their operations in the future by viewing the video Farm Forward. Have the students create a picture that illustrates their version of how farmers will operate in the future.
View the 15 Modern Agricultural Machines That are at Another Level video. From huge harvesters to entirely new processes, explore some of the latest developments in agrciultural machines.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- As the world population increases, farmers need to produce more food.
- The increase in U.S. food production is directly related to the advancement of technology.
- Farmers, scientists, and engineers work to find solutions to agricultural challenges.
Horn Fly Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher
Bird Eating Blueberry Photo Credit: James Abbott
Flooded Farm Photo Credit: Tony Webster
City Photo Credit: Gavin Llewellyn
Weed Inspection Photo Credit: United Soybean Board
Recommended Companion Resources
- 360 Agriculture Virtual Reality
- Agricultural Drones
- Agricultural Engineering Video
- Agricultural Inventions: At the Top of the Field
- Agriculture Technology Advancements Video Playlist
- Drones and the Future of Farming Video
- Esri GIS for Agriculture
- Field Robots of the Future
- Fighting Weeds: Can we reduce, or even eliminate herbicides by utilizing robotics and AI?
- How Drones are Helping to Plant Trees - A Cleaner Future
- John Deere's Powerful Idea: The Perfect Plow
- Precision Agriculture Technologies and Factors Affecting Their Adoption
- Programming Sun and Rain
- Robotic Farming of the Future
- Science in Your Shopping Cart
- SupraSensor Could be Super Tool for Precision Agriculture
- The Farming Robots of Tomorrow are Here Today
- The Future of Farming & Agriculture video
- Tractor Timeline- A History of Tractors
- VR Viewer
- What Happens When Farming Goes High-Tech?
National Center for Agricultural Literacy
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