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Computerized farms; Efficiency: Maryland farmers are using modern technology to help profitability and ease their lives.


Clad in coveralls, herdsman Rhonda Campbell works her way down the aisle in the milking parlor at Big Spring Farm in Carroll County, sanitizing udders with one hand and punching keystrokes into a computer with the other.

When grain farmer Melvin Baile Jr. comes in from a day of harvest, he reaches for a mouse and clicks twice to check on the rainfall in Argentina and the price of grain at the Chicago Board of Trade. The two have a lot to do with one another, and with his business.

Computers and electronics have become as necessary to some farms as they are to any modern enterprise.

"The trend is to realize that this is something they really do need to consider," said Michael Bell, an educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Carroll County.

Maryland farmers, in particular, are technologically ahead of most of their counterparts nationwide, according to a survey by the National Agricultural Statistical Service. Farmers here rank third in Internet access (25 percent of them have it), fourth in computer use for the farm (33 percent of them use one), and sixth in owning or leasing a computer (43 percent have one, even if they don't use it for the farm).

Bell recruited Baile and Dennis Bowman, Campbell's boss and a partner at Big Spring Farm, to speak recently at a regional conference in Lancaster, Pa., on computers and electronics in agriculture.

Bowman told fellow dairy farmers how he relies on a vast computerized database to manage his 300 cattle just outside Union Bridge in Carroll County.

Baile explained how cell phones and pagers let him do business from the field, and how E-mail and faxes can get him an answer right away from an expert and even save money.

"With 8- and 10-cent long distance, even if you have to reply to someone in California, [a fax is] cheaper than a 32-cent stamp, and it's quick -- major quick," said Baile, whose farm is in New Windsor. "Here we are counting pennies, but it is a big time saver.

"Cell phones, when you're busy in the field during harvest, you have the ability to do management things during business hours," Baile said. "It can cost a lot, but it does keep me in contact."

And with children at home and a wife who has a job off the farm, Baile likes the security of knowing he can reach his children to check on them, and that they can call him if they need him.

Even a simple device such as a pager can save him time, he said. If he's expecting a salesman or other visitor, he asks the person to page him shortly before arrival with the time the visitor will be there. That saves Baile from leaving the field earlier than necessary.

"I'm more efficient with my time," he said.

Baile uses a continuous satellite hookup with Data Transmission Network to check commodity prices and weather -- even in Argentina, which is a major competitor in the production of grain. If rainfall is low in Argentina, Baile knows to hold on to his grain for a better price. If the rainfall is good, he'll sell sooner to stay ahead of the glut.

Bell said farmers start out using a computer for finances, with programs such as Quicken, and then move on to other uses such as keeping track of data on crops and animals. "It's an easy, accurate way to call up information they need," Bell said.

At Big Spring, the Bowmans milk 300 dairy cows -- the second-largest dairy farm in Carroll County and one of the larger ones in the state. They also farm 1,000 acres, most of it in grain to feed the cattle.

In addition to personal computers in the dairy office, the farm has mini-computers at each of the 24 milking stations. As Campbell hooks up each cow to the milkers and the pumping starts, a monitor measures and records how much is coming out.

With a few keystrokes, Campbell can check on whether the cow is pregnant, how much milk she produced at the last feeding, and how many pounds above or below average that was for that time of day. Cows are milked twice a day, about 12 hours apart.

"It saves a lot of time," Campbell said. "You don't have to look up the cow on a piece of paper. It's right there in front of you. It's so much simpler."

When the cow's udders are emptied, a sensor in the milkers automatically pulls them off the teats. As the cows leave the barn, another sensor at the gates reads a tag on each cow's ear and opens the appropriate gate to separate them according to pregnancy, feeding and other factors.

Steve Bowman, whose wife, Beth, is also a partner in the dairy farm, remembers in 1977 when he was 24, just joining his older brother and father in the farm. He bought a TRS-80, one of the first personal computers available.

"I wasn't sure what it could do," Bowman said. "I bought it for recreation, hoping I could use it for the farm. There were no programs available for the farm then. The first program we used for the farm was one I programmed myself."

The introduction of a computer in 1977 and the addition of Steve Bowman as a partner allowed the farm to grow to 200 cows. When the current barn and parlor were built in 1992, with the computerized milking stations, the herd grew to 300.

Bowman can't imagine running a farm this size without computers. He would have to hire an outside firm, cooperative or at least one more full-time employee to do the monitoring and recordkeeping, and it still wouldn't be as complete or easy to call up as it is now.

"I think it's essential for herds this size to be able to do this in-house," Dennis Bowman said.

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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