Technology can be a wonderful thing, and just like anything else, too much of a good thing can go badly! I was visiting with a trusted friend last week about topics in agriculture, and she made the observation that it seemed to her that all anyone wanted to talk about was technology. I understand.

Overbay andy
Extension Agent / Virginia Cooperative Extension
Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farmi...

Frankly, I am a fan of technology, but I have also seen people invest in what they thought were answers only to find more problems. So how does one go about telling the difference between a valuable tool and a poor purchase decision?

I have several farming friends who are gadget junkies. They are first adopters of the latest technology and, for the most part, they make the most of their investment. I have also witnessed farmers who live nearby these early adopters and try to follow in their neighbors’ footsteps, only to fail.

For example, many years ago, a close family friend and tremendous dairy and cow man decided he was going to invest in a new cow management system that used pedometers and milk conductivity to predict cow health matters almost before the cow knew herself. He had some health issues and his thinking was to invest in technology that would help his brother and son manage the herd as he would in case his condition took a bad turn.

He was so far ahead of his time that he actually outpaced our state’s land-grant university herd in upgrading their dairy herd management systems. Everyone in our close-knit community took notice.

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A fellow dairy producer in the next county was also making some changes. He and his son were expanding their herd and had built new facilities to house and care for their growing numbers. When it came time to decide on a new milking system, the father and son team followed the lead of the early adopter, but their experience wasn’t as successful.

From my personal observations, the difference between the two was their investment in time. The more successful technology user investigated his system investment thoroughly. He knew about the manufacturer (which was overseas). He knew about the other products they made besides milking equipment. He knew what the system he was investing in would do. He also knew what it wouldn’t do. He knew the system so well, he could explain it to someone completely unfamiliar with computers or cattle, and it made perfect sense.

And that is the key point. Over the years, I have found that a great test for your mastery of any subject is best revealed in your ability to explain the topic in your own words in a way most people can understand and see the logic in.

While I am not saying that the father and son who were less successful were lazy or lacking, I think that if they took more time to investigate the system, they would have realized that the problems they were having weren’t going to be fixed by that particular investment in technology.

It’s not unlike cable/satellite television. Many of us grew up in the three-channel days. We got our local station fairly clearly, tolerated some snowiness on one channel and fought tooth and nail with the antenna for that third channel. (Can I get an “Amen” from the readers who held one rabbit ear in one hand and extended the other in the direction of the fleeting broadcast?) Now my wife and I get hundreds of channels, watch mostly four or five and usually find there still isn’t anything on!

The other danger of technology is that sooner or later it becomes obsolete, unsupported or it flat breaks down. A simple example of this is a memory from my senior year in high school. My mom was a bookkeeper for many years and after a long search had found a calculator that printed tallies on tape like an old adding machine.

While doing our taxes that year, she was double-checking her figures and things weren’t matching up. I was using it to track a fundraiser we were doing at school and had the same issue. When we compared the tapes on duplicate calculations, the summations were not the same. A third attempt yielded even wilder results.

The problem wasn’t human error; Mom’s calculator was shot … junk … totally unreliable. That is why I cringe still when I hear how students are allowed to use a calculator in math class. If you aren’t aware of at least somewhere an answer should fall, your chances of letting your technology tools mislead you are increased exponentially.

This leads to a final consideration we have discussed before. Are you going to be hamstrung if your technology fails and you need to get things done? Is there a backup plan when something as simple as a power outage or a broken belt or chain happens or when a needed part is weeks from being in your hands? Can you park the technology and manually feed the cows or do that algebra with a pencil?

Don’t get me wrong. I like my gadgets too. However, the handiest tool in the world is useless in the hands of an uninformed user. A hammer is a useful tool if you are putting a roof on a cathedral, but in the wrong hands, it can ruin every window in the church.

When you invest in technology, first invest in yourself. Be the most-informed consumer you can be, and if you aren’t completely comfortable with your abilities, wait. Something better is likely only a few months away from being released.