By focusing on the last 40 years of on-farm computing for farmers and ranchers, my goal is to stimulate ranchers to move from a traditional production orientation to a business orientation focused on the bottom line. In today's economic climate, the business-oriented rancher seems to have the healthiest bottom line.

The ag economics discipline

Agricultural economics was a later discipline to be added to the traditional colleges of agriculture in the land-grant system. “Production Economics,” a sub-discipline of Farm Economics, soon evolved into the science of applying dollars and cents to research-proven biological relationships to maximize business profits.

By the 1950s, Earl Heady of Iowa State University (ISU) was the nation's leading production economist. His book, “Economics of Agricultural Production and Resource Use,” became the production economist's bible.

Heady's application of this science to farm and ranch optimal resource allocation questions in the 1950s and 1960s became a foundation for the current ag economics profession.

Linear programming

Heady spent a substantial part of his early career proving that linear programming (LP) — an applied mathematical technique — was a powerful management tool. His profit-maximizing LP models took a farmer's set of available resources, his list of production possibilities and a set of planning prices, and determined the farm organization that maximized profits.

In those early days, Heady and his graduate students solved these LP problems by hand. Even so, Heady proved that LP was an extremely useful farm management tool. Heady later moved his LP work to the ISU mainframe computer.

The 1960s

By the early 1960s, production economists around the world were using LP to solve farm-level resource allocation problems. In 1964, I completed my master's degree thesis utilizing LP to generate the results. By then, we were solving LP models on university mainframe computers.

In the late 1960s, Michigan State University (MSU) agricultural economists began using technology to “time-share” the MSU mainframe computer. Computerized decision aids were being programmed to solve farm/ranch management problems at the farm kitchen table.

Farm-management data was transferred back and forth by telephone between the farms and the mainframe. This agricultural computer system was named “TELEPLAN.”

The 1970s

In the early 1970s, MSU invited other states to join in a multi-state computer consortium delivering TELPLAN services to farmers and ranchers in their respective states. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and New York jumped at the chance to time-share MSU's computer and software library.

Faculty in these states were assigned to add new computerized decision aids to the TELPLAN library. The total library was then shared with those states' farmers and ranchers. I was Wisconsin's TELPLAN coordinator, teaching farmers how to use this technology.

Computer technology advanced rapidly, and the concept of on-farm computing was soon being duplicated. USDA funded a National Agricultural Library of Computerized Decision Aids that was time-shared from Virginia Polytechnic Institute's (VPI) mainframe. This computer was accessed via a portable printing terminal connected by a telephone line.

The VPI system also pioneered the concept of storing timely market outlook analyses from leading specialists in USDA and land-grant institutions. Since top farmers and ranchers were purchasing on-farm terminals, they had direct access to these outlook analyses.

In about 1975, the University of Nebraska released its AGNET time-share ag library of computerized decision aids. By 1977, AGNET expanded into a six-state consortium, including Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Washington. Via printing terminals, these states time-shared Nebraska's state computer.

All six AGNET states shared in the development efforts and associated software maintenance costs. I was Wyoming's AGNET coordinator from 1978-1985.

History has shown that such sharing of programmer talent, interdisciplinary research and software maintenance was the strength of these computer consortiums. But time-sharing mainframe computers required large phone budgets. Then, a new technology debuted to revolutionize on-farm computing.

The 1980s

When microcomputers were developed in the early 1980s, they significantly cut the costs of time-sharing. As a result, university administrators decided not to fund the regional computer consortiums. Instead, states began developing individual state-operated microcomputer software libraries. By the late 1980s, the consortium software libraries were no longer available to farmers and ranchers.

In the last half of the 1980s, college students were routinely trained on the design and use of spreadsheets for farm/ranch management. As these students graduated and returned to their farms and ranches, they either demanded management-oriented software or designed their own spreadsheets.

The 1990s

During the 1990s, North Dakota State University farm management specialists designed specialized LP model software. They helped farmers and ranchers maximize profits, given the government programs and their livestock enterprises. These models were distributed to farmers and ranchers and workshops were held on how to run them.

The computerized decision aids technology — developed and proven at universities — was transferred to the private sector, which focused heavily on financial accounting and beef cattle herd performance software. It also adopted least-cost ration balance formulators.

But, due to high costs of development, it's been difficult to launch many interdisciplinary computerized decision aids.

Today, in 2004

For 37 years, Purdue University has been offering its annual Top Farmer Program. Workshop participants put their own farm through Purdue's LP model. The next one is scheduled for July 17-20, 2005. Find out more at: www.agecon.purdue.edu/topfarmer/events.asp.

The land-grant system is continuing to make software available to farmers and ranchers. Washington State University's software is available at: http://farm.mngt.wsu.edu/software.html. And, the University of Minnesota lists software at www.cffm.umn.edu. You'll find the Oklahoma computer library at: www.ansi.okstate.edu/library/dairy/software.html, a site that lists agricultural software libraries from several land-grant universities.

Just how far have on-farm computers progressed? This year, a Beef Improvement Federation's tour stop was the Martin Jorgenson Ranch in Ideal, SD. The operation has a chute-side computer networked into an office server .

Weights and other factors measured chute-side are electronically moved into the ranch database. The chute-side computer can also access the ranch database by animal ID. The Jorgensens also have a full-time data technician who handles day-to-day data manipulations, including cost accounting by enterprise.

Summary

Today, the resource sets and production possibilities are different, and so are the planning prices. The questions, however, are basically the same as 40 years ago.

Today's on-farm computerized decision aids are more sophisticated, easier to operate and cheaper to run. But, I will argue that there are less interdisciplinary decision aids available today than 25 years ago.

As demonstrated by the Jorgensens, today's business-orieted ranchers are utilizing on-farm computers on a daily basis to impact their bottom lines. We've come a long way.