FORT WORTH, Texas – The days when farmers and ranchers worried only about water are long gone. Last year’s drought, the worst in the state’s history, drove many out of business and affected nearly all of them.
While supermarket prices have increased, the lion's share of the jump never made it back to the people who produce that food. Now to survive, they're turning to science – in more ways than one.
Imagine, for a moment, 400 to 500 horsepower tractors perfectly plowing day and night through fields without a driver on board.
We’re not quite there yet, but West Texas farmer Frankie Bezner says we do have human operated tractors connected to GPS satellites, flawlessly cutting through fields at all times of the day.
“It actually steers the tractor for you through the field,” Bezner says. “We're able to plant more acres in a day and not be as fatigued at the end of the day… we’re able to plant at night time.”
Even smart phones are getting a work out on the farm.
“If you have a sprinkler that goes down then that sprinkler can call you up and tell you hey, I've stopped, come fix me,” Bezner said.
All of that is important because small farms and ranches are disappearing. In the next 20 years, Texas food producers must double what they produce just to keep up with the population.
Only technology is making that possible and not just via new machines but also new seeds needing fewer chemicals and less water.
Faculty members at TCU’s Ranch Management program like Jeff Geider say even soil is getting another look.
“It's a bottom up approach,” he said. “We start with the soil, we do soil analysis to understand what the soil is capable of producing."
On cattle ranches, new technology may be a bit harder for city dwellers to see. However, it's already there in herds like the Black Angus at the Bradley 3 ranch. They were actively involved in the development of techniques to use ultrasound in cattle ranching.
Now, after years of careful breeding, they've developed 50,000 DNA markers on every calf. Bradley 3 Operations Manager James Henderson says it will affect the breeding and birth of every calf associated with this ranch for the next five years.
“That calf that I'm making a decision for now will be born in the fall of 2013, that will be in our bull cell of 2015. If you take him home and breed him to one of your cow that calf would be born in 2016… and it couldn't possibly be on anybody's plate until the year.
Ranch management students from TCU travel to West Texas and places like the Bradley 3 to see that technology applied.
They carry notebooks, not textbooks. TCU Professors like Kerry Cornelius say that’s for a reason.
“When you think about a textbook format, for somebody to sit down and write that text, get it edited and get it approved then get it to print; how old is that information?,” he said.
Changes are simply happening too fast for most textbooks to be of real use to the students.
But one part of Texas agriculture will remain untouched by technology: Trust is central to every farm and ranch relationship. At the T Bar Ranch in West Texas, Frank McLelland told the students that is one lesson they cannot forget.
“If I get to know you, you trust me, I trust you, we're going to have a relationship that says what you're doing is right what you're doing is healthy and sustainable,” he said.
The men and women who produce the food we eat, students hear again and again, serve the same products to their own children and their neighbors. So while technology will transform production, reputation will remain fundamental to their survival.
TCU student Trey Milhoan of Colorado says that lesson is drilled in at every one of the 68 stops they make a farm and ranches.
“Your reputation in this business is everything,” he said. “If you have a good one you can always start over, if you have a bad one you really can’t.”