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Dairy farms adopt digital tools, but barriers exist to expand tech use

John Shutske for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 November 2018

Almost 1,100 farmers in Wisconsin responded to a recent digital technology adoption survey we conducted at the University of Wisconsin. Dairy, livestock and crop producers were targeted in our research that included 387 dairy producer respondents.

The study provides a comprehensive look at adoption rates, satisfaction scores for internet access, information on specific “tools” being used, communication patterns with other ag professionals and barriers to further advancement and adoption.

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The overall response rate to delivered surveys was 46 percent – relatively quite high for a detailed written survey. Of the dairy producers, the median number of cows cited on these operations was 163 (compared to a statewide average of 134). Seven farms had 2,000 or more cows.

Tupe of internet access reported amoung dairy farmers

The ag sector continues to make gradual progress on on-farm internet adoption and use. A 2017 USDA study showed that, nationally, 71 percent of farms said they had internet access, with 73 percent having access in Wisconsin.

Our 2018 study showed 79.3 percent of all farmers who responded had internet access, and 82.4 percent of the dairy producers had access including mobile (smartphone) or some form of non-mobile access, typically through channels like DSL, satellite, cable or dialup. This is encouraging and not surprising given the heavy dependence of dairy operations on current information, data and rapid communication with veterinarians, consultants and others.

The research team found some surprises on “satisfaction” associated with internet access on both mobile devices and fixed (non-mobile) connections accessed through desktop or laptop computers. Generally, satisfaction was greater for mobile/smartphone internet access.

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While there is still tremendous room to improve local and regional access by service providers, “reliability” and data upload speeds had the highest levels of satisfaction for both mobile and non-mobile. Download speeds were generally rated as better for mobile devices.

With both mobile and non-mobile, dairy producers indicate greatest dissatisfaction with cost. Average monthly cost for a bundled mobile internet access plan as reported by dairy operators was $157.80. The average bundled non-mobile plan (often with other features) was $90.67.

We asked producers about the types of activities and tasks they use as they access the internet (Table 1) and with whom they communicate on a regular basis (Table 2).

Types of activities and tasks dairy farmers use the internet to do

Tpes of cantacts dairies electronically correspond with at least weekly

We were somewhat surprised to learn fewer than one in five of our dairy farmer respondents used the internet frequently for education and professional development, and that “online” communication rarely included cooperative extension staff.

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We also asked about adoption of high-tech devices beyond the internet, smartphones, etc. (Table 3.)

Adoption of high-tech devices byeond the internet on dairy farms

Just under one in five (19.3 percent) are using precision planting or harvest equipment. Another 16.5 percent are using sensors and other digital devices to monitor animals. While they are getting much media attention, UAVs (drones) are only being employed on 8.5 percent of farms, and 3.1 percent of operators were milking cows with robots.

We were perhaps most surprised to learn about the barriers that producers cite to technology adoption (Table 4).

Barriers producers cite to technology adoption

Data security and privacy were most often cited.

It is our hope this study will point to opportunities that help to expand technology use among dairy producers, hopefully by addressing barriers (privacy, security, value, cross-platform compatibility, etc.).  end mark

A more comprehensive report showing all data for Wisconsin dairy, crop, forage, specialty crop, and livestock operations can be found at: Digital technology use on Wisconsin dairy farms.

John Shutske is an extension specialist with the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Email John Shutske or call (608) 890-2949.

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