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Beef producers: MORE tech coming

While the headline on this story is true, don’t be scared by the thought of more technology to keep up with. Some of the technology coming in agriculture is actually low-tech; as in, using farm dogs.

Before giving you the rest of the dog story, let me tell you that the source is Lowell Catlett, economics professor at New Mexico State University. Catlett has built a reputation over the last 30 years as agriculture’s leading futurist, wowing farm crowds with his predictions of where we are going, and how we will get there. Speaking this week before the farmers and ranchers at the National Cattle Convention, Catlett didn’t disappoint.

Every story and prediction from Catlett is based on some application of science. For instance:

Cell phones and pictures. “Did you know that only about 15% of your cell phone use is for actually talking with someone, voice-to-voice?” asks Catlett. The rest is something else – texts, games, cameras, navigation. History was changed a few years ago when somebody put a camera lens on the cell phone. “The average person now takes 10 times more pictures than they did 10 years ago. People snap pictures all day long. We didn’t do that before.” Meanwhile, Kodak, the people who invented photography, including the digital camera, went bankrupt. What’s the take-home for farmers? “The demand for beef has no known bounds,” says Catlett. “If you don’t figure out how to deliver it to people around the world who want it, Apple will.”

Women and productivity. This is a story learned by the Gates Foundation from agrarian villages in Africa. Half of the farmers there are women, and when those women are given access to credit and all resources available to men, the women farmers are 30% more productive. That’s a take-home that has been observed in the U.S., too: women often make more rational and less emotional farm business decisions. “Would it help your farm to add 30% productivity?” Catlett asks rhetorically.

Women and the workplace. Relatedly, Catlett says women are increasingly dominating professional fields in the U.S. While there have been more women than men in agricultural schools for several years, just in the last couple of years have women passed men in the nation’s law and medical schools. That is certainly going to change the way law and medicine are practiced in the future.  The shortage of workers in the future is likely to be people who can make things with their hands, he says. For instance, a company in Minnesota recently had to abandon a contract project because they couldn’t find enough specialized welders to do the work.

Cell phones and health. The specialized lenses that are now on smart phones are being used to do human health diagnostics. Take a drop of blood, scan it with your phone, and send it off to your doctor. “That’s going to change veterinary medicine out in the remote places where we raise cows,” says Catlett.

3D manufacturing. This is a relatively new process whereby a regular computer printer is turned into a molding machine that receives instructions and, rather than print on paper, makes a product. Catlett tells about one application he saw recently where a person used a 3D manufacturing machine to take instructions and build an adjustable wrench – in a hotel room! “Can we use that to make a cattle ration?” Catlett asks. “A steak?”

And what about the dog story? “We now know that the average dog has 10,000 times the smelling capacity of humans,” says Catlett. “A dog can be trained to smell your breath, and know if you have colon cancer. Some dogs, they’ve found, are 100% accurate on that,” he says incredulously, better than our best diagnostic machines and technicians. He challenges farmers to think about how they could use that in a feedyard when they’re trying to find the sick animals as early as possible in their sickness. You could have a dog that does nothing but roam around your cattle pens sniffing all day.

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