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Computers help run a complicated business In production, feeding, security, technology helps farms increase output

The printout shows a possible problem with cow No. 2980.

"She has been making 84 pounds a day, but starting with last night's milking, she's down 96 percent," Elba dairy farmer Curt Norton. Another statistic shows a significant increase in a key indicator for the most common infection for dairy cows, mastitis.

The information gathered by one of the four computers working on the Oak Orchard dairy farm tells Norton it's time to segregate 2980 from the 800- cow herd, give her more extensive tests, and if necessary, treat her with antibiotics.

"With so many cows, you just can't put a finger on one every day," he said. "The computer alerts us to who we need to look at."

Computers have become more and more valuable on Western New York's farms over the past decade, helping their owners do everything from monitor production and feed distribution to paying taxes and monitoring security in the barn.

The percent of New York farms with computer access has gone from 42 percent in 1997 to 63 percent in 2005, the most recent year surveyed, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Computer ownership on the farm during that time has risen from 33 percent to 59 percent, and the use of computers for farm business has risen from 19 percent to 34 percent.

"A lot of the farms I know in the area have some type of computer application they use on the farm," said Becky Ireland- Perry, community educator for the Wyoming County Cornell Cooperative Education.

"The bigger the farm, the more computer-oriented the farm would be, to keep track of that many cows, and all the data they have to maintain on a daily basis," she added.

Ireland-Perry said that, generally speaking, the younger the farmer, the more likely he or she is to utilize computers, not only to help manage the herd and business, but to access the Internet to obtain information that was previously difficult to get.

"People are finding out they can get a lot more information from a lot more sources going on the Internet and doing a search," she said.

Norton says he has four principal uses for computers: to settle taxes and finances, to keep track of herd production and health, to mix the feed for the cows and to keep track of surveillance cameras.

"It's more efficient," he said. "In a herd our size, the only way to give them individual attention is to have something that can watch them 2 4/7 ."

Vegetable and fruit farmers also use computers. Many area grape and apple growers use software that Juliet Carroll helped develop to monitor plant bloom and harvest dates and keep the detailed pesticide and fertilizer-application information required by many of their buyers.

"The main reason is so that you have a record of what you applied," said Carroll, a extension associate with New York State Integrated Pest Management program. "The other big thing for growers is that you can track the cost of that application in the software."

Carroll estimated that about one-sixth of the state's apple growers use the software, called TracApple, while many others use different software. Trac programs are also available for stone fruits, like peaches, and for berries.

Diary farmer Norton said he foresees more and more use of computers on the farm. Specifically, he believes computerized robots will become more of the norm on large farms.

"The robot does everything," he said, referring to models already in heavy use in Canada. The drawbacks are the expense - about $250,000 apiece - and the difficulty in employing them in barns not specifically built to accommodate them.


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