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Group Title: Working paper Farming Systems Research Group, Michigan State University no. 9
Title: Farming systems research and agricultural engineering
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00095064/00001
 Material Information
Title: Farming systems research and agricultural engineering
Series Title: Working paper Farming Systems Research Group, Michigan State University no. 9
Physical Description: 15, 1 p. : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Wilkinson, Robert H.
Michigan State University -- Farming Systems Research Group
Donor: unknown ( endowment ) ( endowment )
Publisher: Michigan State University, Farming Systems Research Group
Place of Publication: East Lansing
Publication Date: 1981
Copyright Date: 1981
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Statement of Responsibility: by Robert H. Wilkinson.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00095064
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 317069936

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Full Text

Farming Systems

Research Group


The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University is drawn from
the departments of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Engineering, Animal
Science, Crop and Soil Science, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Sociology,
Veterinary Medicine, and supported by the International Agriculture Institute of
M.S.U. and the U.S. Agency for International Development through a matching
strengthening grant under the Title XII program.

Farming Systems Research Group
Michigan State University

The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University, supported
by Title XII Strengthening Grant Funds from the U.S. Agency for International
Development, and administered by the Institute of International Agriculture,
has included Dr. Jay Artis, Department of Sociology; Dr. Robert J. Deans,
Department of Animal Science; Dr. Merle Esmay (and Dr. Robert Wilkinson),
Department of Agricultural Engineering; Dr. Eric Crawford, Department of
Agricultural Economics; Dr. Russell Freed, Department of Crop and Soil
Sciences (also representing Horticulture) Dr. Al Pearson, Department of
Food Science and Human Nutrition; Dr. Tjaart Schillhorn van Veen, Department
of Veterinary Medicine; with Dr. George Axinn, International Studies and
Programs and Agricultural Economics, Chair; and Ms. Beverly Fleisher,
graduate research assistant.

Farming Systems Research and
Agricultural Engineering

by Robert H. Wilkinson

Working Paper No. 9

May 1981

Farming Systems Research Group WORKING PAPERS

The papers in this series were prepared during the 1980 1981
academic year by members of the Michigan State University Farming Systems
Research Group. Papers one through nine were prepared by individual
members of the group, after much discussion, and were reviewed by members
of the group prior to final revision by the authors. However, each of
the papers represents the author's personal perspectives on Farming
Systems Research. Each paper is different from the others. All papers
are an attempt to answer the following questions:

From the perspective of my discipline what is Farming Systems

What research has been done in my discipline which relates directly
to Farming Systems Research?

What opportunities are there for further research from the perspective
of my discipline?

What assistance would scholars from my discipline need from other
disciplines in order to carry out Farming Systems Research?

Each individual responded to these questions in his own way. Paper
number ten is an attempt to summarize the perspectives of the various
disciplines represented, identifying commonalities and differences. Paper
eleven sets forth the recommendations of the group for further work in
this field at Michigan State University.

George H. Axinn, Chair
Farming Systems Research Group
and Professor, Agricultural Economics
and Assistant Dean, International Studies
and Programs
June, 1981

May 1981

Farming Systems Research and Agricultural Engineering

by Robert H. Wilkinson*

As each of us operates from different experiences and biases, even common

words and expressions will convey a variety of meanings and concepts to differ-

ent individuals. In an attempt to have the reader better understand my per-

spective about Farming Systems Research, it seems beneficial to clarify my use

of the fundamental terms associated with the concept of Farming Systems Research,


The Overall Objective--or--the'Reason For F.S.R.

The situation that confronts the world today with regard to population,

resources and food availability is one of grave concern. Today there are mil-

lions of people around the world who are starving or who are not adequately

fed. As the population of the world continues to increase and compete for food

and resources, this situation will become more severe unless there is a marked

increase in the available world food supply.

Therefore, I argue that the fundamental and primary objective of F.S.R.

is (or should be) to increase (world) food availability and agricultural pro-

duction and to develop or use resources in a manner that will promote a "better"

standard of living, (as this concept is generally understood) for all mankind.

It is recognized that there will be unusual situations where increased

production may not be in the best short run interest of a Darticular farm group or

country. Likewise, certain individuals or farmers may not accept what is gener-

ally conceived as "best" and will chose an alternative. F.S.R. should have the

*Associate Professor of Agricultural Engineering, Michigan State University


flexibility and understanding to accommodate these exceptional situations with

their modified goals. But, still in the main, the basic thrust of F.S.R. should

remain as expressed above--to improve the life support conditions of the world.

When progress is made by F.S.R. towards this expressed goal, a number of

spin off results may be expected: 1. improved food availability at all levels,

local as well as commercial, will reduce tensions and strife in the struggle

for survival (reductions of hunger and malnutrition); 2. people will be more

content with their conditions for living; and 3. social and political unrest

will be less volatile.

If progress is made in any of these areas as a result of F.S.R., then the

concept of "improving basic life support conditions" can be considered correct

and F.S.R. is on the right track.

Farming--Systems--and Research.

Although the title is simple and the words familiar, for the non-initiated

reader, not all that familiar with the concepts and associated jargon, a straight-

forward explanation of some of the common terminology may help minimize some of

the problems of semantics.

The first image that the term "Farming" probably conveys to most persons

is one of crop production, i.e. something that is grown on the land. Although

this is not incorrect, it is not necessarily complete. A more accurate concept

of farming must also include livestock enterprises. As livestock farms become

large, the terms ranch and ranching usually are preferred to farming. One might

argue that the term "agricultural" systems would be a more flexible terminology,

including all types and sizes of farms. This suggestion is countered by the



1. The size of farm units that F.S.R. will be addressing are not usually

ranch size, but fall in the lower end of the size spectrum--thus "farm-

ing" is an accurate term.

2. The term "agricultural" systems may open a larger can of worms, and

suggest areas associated with agriculture such as: support, materials,

supply, processing. Although these areas are related to the production

system, (farming) they are not in the main target area of production

that concerns F.S.R.

3. Once terms are defined, understood and accepted by those people using

them to communicate, the terminology selected is rather unimportant.

However, the less ambiguous the terminology is that is selected for

use, the better will be the communication.

Systems--What Does This Mean.

Basically a "system" is a group of components (two or more) having regular

interaction or working together towards a common objective. The system may be

any size or degree of complexity from the extremely simple to the complex. A

pencil sharpener is an example of a simple mechanical system; the solar system

or the telephone system are examples of large complex systems.

In the context of farming, systems may also cover a wide range of size

and complexity. Simple systems may be subsets of a larger system. Examples

of simple farming systems are the method used to punch a hole and plant a seed

(the planting system) or the fork and cart used to move manure from the shed

to the field (the waste handling system). A complex production system is

illustrated by the development of hybred seed, distribution to the farmer,

tillage, fertilizer and pesticide application, planting, cultivation, harvest

cleaning and drying, storage, marketing and export. Obviously, these components


are subset systems of the larger system and interact together and have a direct

effect upon each other. A change in one will have reprecussions on another in

much the way that squeezing a filled balloon at one point will cause an outcrop-

ping someplace else.

Research--(Can it Really be Done on the Farm?)

Although the term research is commonplace in our everyday language, there

are wide variations in its meaning to different persons. The fundamental idea

described by the word "re-search" is to "search again" or, to study a situation

or phenomena with sufficient depth or intensity that a reliable conclusion can

be made.

The confusion or controversy associated with the term research stems pri-

marily from the level or sophistication of the investigation being undertaken.

On one side are those scientists and researchers who argue that to be classed

as research an investigation must be tightly controlled, addressed to the study

of facts and basic knowledge, and may be an end in itself. A contrasting posi-

tion is taken by those who hold that any carefully done study that leads to a

reliable conclusion can be called research.

In engineering these differences are recognized and described as:

1. Basic (or pure) research, typically a scientific or laboratory study

where knowledge is sought for its own sake.

2. Applied research, the use or application of basic knowledge in situa-

tions that will directly benefit mankind.

The response to the question "can research really be done on the farm?"

obviously depends on semantics or what definition one accepts for research.

From an engineering perspective, research can and most certainly is done on

the farm. Although basic research is unlikely to be done there, it is not


impossible. On the other hand, applied research is done routinely, and is

one of the strengths of the agricultural college. A strong case may be made

that agricultural research done off-the-farm may be less valid than research

done on-the-farm in much the same way that something can be "precise" but not

necessarily "accurate". Off-farm (laboratory) research may be precise, but

the real world situation of on-farm research makes these results "accurate"

even though they may be less precise.

The Farming System--Definition.

A farming system consists of all the components, material resources and

personnel which interact and affect the decisions and activities of a given

operational unit that results in agricultural production (crops and livestock).

The harvesting, drying and processing of the product are also directly

related to the system that produces them. The farm system is composed of many

subset systems that interact and affect the unit. Although the farm unit (or

system) itself may be part of a larger system, it is the relationship within

that particular system itself that is of primary concern. Modifying one part

of a system directly affects the other parts of the system with which it inter-

acts. How the other parts of the system function after the modification and

the ability of the total system to operate and accomplish its purpose is a vital


The term "farming system" can be correctly applied to the full spectrum

of size and type of farms from the smallest and most simple family units

involved in producing some agricultural commodity to the most complex of

agricultural production organizations. Thus, it is important to know how the

term is being used and to what it refers.


Farming Systems Research--What is it?

F.S.R. is a systematic study of a farm system (agricultural production

unit) designed to reveal the interaction and effects upon the system components,

when modifications are made on part or parts of that system.

Modifications imply changes that are intended to "improve" the farm system.

Let the reader understand that improved may be any objective that the farmer

feels is in his best interest, i.e. higher production (or lower production),

less weather hazard, reduced labor, higher efficiency, etc.

As most farming systems are complex and involve a wide variety of inter-

acting components, expertise in a number of key areas or disciplines is needed

to predict, understand and evaluate cause and effect of changes that may occur

when the system is modified. If and when a system is so limited that only one

discipline is all that is involved in the "changes" in the system, counsel or

evaluation from other disciplines probably would not be necessary. An example

might be the replacing of one machine by a newer improved model that does basi-

cally the same job but functions with greater ease and safety.

In the general case of farming systems, a few or many distinct disciplines

may be involved and collaboration by all may be necessary to effectively evalu-

ate the system. An example of this complexity might be the introduction of a

new crop. Any number of effects may occur such as: changes in the product and

the total yield; different soil and fertilizer requirements; changes in mechani-

zation; variation in water needs and labor requirements; greater or lesser

insect or disease susceptibility; a difference in animal acceptance of the pro-

duct; market difference and sociological changes. Such a wide spectrum of

involved disciplines and the related changes, would require an interdisciplinary

team to effectively analyze the system and the changes in its ability to



How F.S.R. Relates to Problem Solving in Agricultural Engineering.

Probably agricultural engineering has been taken-to-task as much as any

discipline for the unwise and inappropriate introduction of mechanization and

technology into developing countries. Whether these ill conceived "mechaniza-

tion programs" were the work of agricultural engineers or someone else is not

really important. The important thing is that it is now rather clearly recog-

nized that simply transplanting a known technology from one culture to another

without due consideration as to how it will integrate into that different

culture, is risky--and usually leads to problems. The literature is full of

reports about well-intended mechanization programs that failed for a number

of reasons such as: advisors selected implements that were incompatible with

the soil type; parts and support systems for tractors and tools were not avail-

able; operators were not trained; people had cultural biases against the tech-

nology; credit and financing were not available; people were put out of work

by machines and became a social unemployment problem, etc.

As mentioned previously, agricultural engineering technology (primarily

mechanization) is usually introduced to reduce labor requirements and/or to

increase productivity. Very little can usually be done about the soil types,

climatic conditions, field elevation (location), etc. The things that can be

altered that will effect production are generally related to the management of

the crop, i.e. crop selection, fertilizer, mechanization, water control, harvest-

ing and storage losses, etc. When an effort to improve a system is contemplated,

a careful diagnostic study will reduce the chance for a blunder or unexpected

result that would jeopardize the total project. This diagnostic study should

involve an interdisciplinary team that can relate to all the major parts of

the system being considered. When the interactions of the crucial areas have

been considered and provision made to cope with potential difficult points,

a suitable research team may be designated. This research team may be con-

siderably smaller in size than the diagnostic team, containing only those

researchers whose expertise is needed as shown by the diagnostic study. This

is basically the strategy used in many diagnostic--corrective efforts that we

see used in everyday life.

As an illustration, consider the "hardware" example of a tractor that

needs repair and is brought into the repair shop by the farmer. The farmer

explains the problem to the repairman as the farmer perceives it. He may or

may not have diagnosed the problem correctly. (This is analogous to the far-

mers in a farming system giving a prediagnostic description of what they per-

ceive as the main problems) with their system). The repairman will then use

a wide variety of special diagnostic equipment to check the tractor and deter-

mine what part or parts actually need repair. The engine is checked with an

engine analyzer to show the condition of the carburation and ignition system,

a compression tester is used to reveal valve and ring conditions, a dynamometer

is used to reveal problems with the clutch and power train, etc. (This is

analogous to the diagnostic study made by the interdisciplinary team to actu-

ally determine the problem areas and needed corrective measures). Once the

problems) have been isolated by the diagnostic study, the specific skill and

tools necessary for the repair can be used effectively. Obviously if the

transmission needed repair but was not diagnosed correctly and the repair was

done on the engine, the result would not correct the problem. (In similar

fashion, once the diagnostic interdisciplinary team determines the problemss,

the specific discipline needed to work in that area can be arranged).

Basic Principles and Concepts in Agricultural Engineering Regarding F.S.R.

It has been suggested that in relationship to farming systems and develop-

ment, agricultural engineering is basically concerned with improving production


efficiency--(improving the "output--input" ratio). As true as this is, it

does not give the complete picture. One might ask, to what does the efficiency

refer? Is the reference made to the use of time, or the use of money, or labor,

or resources (machines or land and energy, etc.) or what? An accurate answer

would have to say that it depends upon the particular situation being considered.

The agricultural engineers'concern with efficiency (input-output) may deal with

any of these areas under different circumstances.

However, there is another dimension to which most agricultural engineers

would give high priority--and it is that bag of feathers labeled: "quality of life."

In agricultural engineering this concept is often referred to by such phrases

as "reduction in drudgery" or "labor saving" etc. Machines, technology or

methods that reduce the physical labor requirements by the farmer would gener-

ally fall in this category.

Strictly from the economic or efficiency point of view, it may not always

be possible to justify some labor-saving techniques or equipment that could be

introduced into a farming system. If there is no alternative use of the time

(or labor) saved by the labor-saving method, that shows up on a "dollar account"

or efficiency ledger, it may appear to be a questionable practice to promote.

However, even though the efficiency or the economics look poorer, the reduction

in drudgery, or time now available to invest in the family, etc. may make this

method highly desirable in a real life situation.

Some painful lessons have been learned from the attempts of some to over-

mechanize or introduce inappropriate technology into a developing county. Where

people were not trained to operate the equipment or the culture was not adapt-

able to the new technology, well intended efforts have been disastrous. There

are reports of balers being abandoned when they ran out of twine (stopped tying

bales) and there was no one to service them; expensive tractors and equipment


have been parked and left to deteriorate when they stopped because minor main-

tenance was not available; large numbers of people used for harvesting have

been put out of work by combines, etc. As a result of experience like these,

agricultural engineers have become quite sensitive about what, how much and

where technology should be transferred. Just because "we know how to do it"

does not mean it's the best way to proceed.

On the other extreme, because of same bad experiences, some people have

condemmed all mechanization as undesirable and are very reluctant to introduce

any new technology. The proper position is someplace between these two extremes.

Technology should be chosen and machines introduced with care and consideration

for the complete system. Where timeliness is a factor or where the job cannot

be done except by engine power, mechanization has a vital place and will increase

the agricultural production and increase jobs for human labor. For example,

tractors can plow and prepare the fields for planting where human tillage could

never get it done in time to plant for best yield (or possibly not at all).

Having a greater area planted will provide cultivation and harvesting work for

laborers and increase total yield for their consumption. Irrigation by engine

driven pumps will improve yield far beyond those of no irrigation or hand

irrigation methods.

The basic concept or realization that appears to be emerging in agricul-

tural engineering with regard to F.S.R. is that the introduction of mechaniza-

tion or engineering technology into a cultural system must be done with careful

consideration for the effects on and the interactions with that system.

Where human labor is available it must be recognized as a resource that

cannot be ignored and arbitrarly replaced with machines. When selected mecha-

nization is introduced, support systems for parts, service, repairs, fuel must

be available. Consideration must be given to the financial capability of the


farmers to purchase the technology as well as its effect upon their social

structure. When careful consideration is given to the interaction of all the

parts of the system, and where the technology introduced has a minimum con-

flict with local ecology, it will have the best chance of acceptance and


Agricultural Engineering in F.S.R.

Although "Farming Systems Research" is a rather recent expression and thus

does not appear with great frequency in agricultural engineering literature,

the concept has been of interest and the subject of articles for some time.

Thierstein and Kampen (1978) engineers with ICRISAT-(India) have presented

work on "New Farming Systems for Agriculture in Semi-Arid Tropics" in which

they have demonstrated systems for improved yield and decreased risk.

Ray Wijewardene (1978, 1980) with the IITA in Sri Lanka (formerly with the

Nigeria program) has produced many works that center on the theme of farming

systems that maximize output while minimizing the resource input.

Giles (1975) has presented work that shows the relationship between the power

per hectare available and the productivity in different countries (farming

systems) around the world. He suggests that 0.5 horsepower per ha is a minimum

power requirement for developing countries. The U.K. and Japan have the highest

HP per hectare (approximately 1.6 to 2.0) and the highest productivity (Kg/ha).

This reference as well as others are cited in the book Agricultural Mechan-

ization in Developing Countries, Shin-Norinsha Company Ltd., edited by Carl

Hall and Merle Esmay (1973).

Possibly one of the most interesting areas where agricultural engineering

is being applied is in the area of Appropriate Technology as it relates to

developing countries. There is a great opportunity for agricultural engineering


technology to be carefully selected (and usually modified) and applied to

agricultural situations in underdeveloped countries. A conference on agri-

cultural technology for developing nations (1-10 ha farms) was held at the

University of Illinois (1978) that dealt with this topic. This technology

will do many of the things that have been eluded to in this paper, i.e. reduce

labor, save time, do something easier or safer, cost less, improve the product,

etc. Where technology can be offered to a society as a system that is simple,

affordable, compatible with their social customs and local ecology, it has an

excellent chance of being accepted. Numerous groups are addressing themselves

to this area of "appropriate technology". The Intermediate Technology Group

(England), VITA (USA), World Neighbors (USA), Canadian Hunger Foundation

(Canada) are just a few of these groups.

What Agricultural Engineering Needs From Other Disciplines in Order to be


The overall or basic objectives) of F.S.R. as I perceive them, (presented

earlier in this paper), are to improve the satisfaction and quality of life and

in general to strive for the betterment of all mankind. This involves the

increase in food production and availability on a world-wide basis, and a

lessening of harsh or severe living conditions. I assume or infer that as

these objectives that are generally considered desirable, are achieved, world-

wide tensions and unrest, social and political instability will be reduced and

a better world will result.

Within this framework, agricultural engineering is a means to an end, not

an end in itself. I hold this same perspective in regard to the other disci-

plines. In order to maximize the effectiveness of agricultural engineering

(mechanization),input and interaction from other related disciplies is vital.


A few examples will serve to illustrate: to effectively mechanize a particular

grain crop, help from the agronomist and plant breeder may be needed in order

to have all the grain heads mature together and at a fairly uniform height; a

sociologist may be able to point out problems associated with labor as a result

of changing part of a mechanized system; the economist is involved where mechani-

zation involves available capital and credit and determining the payback ability;

input from the animal scientist is needed as different feeds or feeding systems

are developed. In almost every situation encountered, interaction is necessary.

As all the parts of disciplines of the system interact and are modified so

that the "overall goal" of the farming system is achieved, then Farming Systems

Research is functioning as it was intended.

A Potential Model for Getting Farming Systems Research Started.

One of the main obstacles to making use of the concept of Farming Systems

Research seems to be some uncertainness about how to use it or make it work

even after we understand what it is.

Probably there are numerous techniques for doing research that could be

put under the farming systems umbrella. But in the context of using a multi-

discipline team approach to analyze and propose a research project, I will

suggest one method more or less as a trial balloon. This may get shot down

or modified or whatever. But hopefully, this will stimulate other ideas that

will eventually result in a useful technique to diagnose farming systems and

determine the most beneficial research project that could be developed.

The Farming Systems Multidisciplinary Team.

The number of disciplines that might be represented on the team is not

fixed, but 4 to 7 should be adequate to represent key areas. If the F.S.R.

Task Force at Michigan State University serves as a model, disciplines represented


would be: Crops and Soils; Animal Science; Sociology: Agricultural Economics;

Agricultural Engineering; and Food, Nutrition and Health.

The Diagnostic Tool.

To develop a diagnostic tool, each of the persons with expertise in these

disciplines would develop a list of topics or concerns that they feel is perti-

nent and crucial to their area. For example, in Agricultural Engineering and

Mechanics, the list might include:

Labor available

Cost of labor

Work level demands throughout the year, peaks and lows

Capital available to the farmer

Skill levels


Land, altitude, slope, size


Mechanization level, etc.

For Crops and Soils, some topics might be:

Type of crops grown

Use of crops

Soil type


Insect and weed pests

Type of farm

Irrigation or rainfall, etc.

Other areas would each develop a list of criteria that represent the vital con-

cerns of that discipline. The list of fundamental criteria developed by each


team member would then be used as a guide to compare and to evaluate those parti-

cular items in the target farming system (or country). The team expert would

then make a subjective judgment on a basis of 1 to 10 (poor to excellent) for

each of the appropriate items. The topics or items that show the greatest need

or potential for development, would then be singled out and reviewed by the total


The Potential Project.

As the areas from the various disciplines that need attention are brought

to light, they would be collectively evaluated by the total F.S.R. team and

the importance and priorities established for a potential project. The poten-

tial project would be reevaluated by each team member to access the effects of

the expected development upon the system from the perspective of each particular

discipline. If the impact of the potential project is reasonable and contains

no major surprises or disastrous effects, it can be polished and proposed as a

research development project in the domain of farming systems.


1978 Agricultural Technology for Developing Nations Farm Mechani-
zation Alternatives for 1-10 Hectare Farms. Special International
Conference, University of Illinois.

Esmay, M.L. and C.W. Hall

1973 Agricultural Mechanization in Developing Countries. Shin-Norinsha
Co. Ltd. 7.2 Chrome, Kanda Nishikicho Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo 102 Japan.

Giles, G.W.

1975 The Reorientation of Agricultural Mechanization for the Developing
Countires. Agricultural Mechanization in Asia, Vol. VI, No. 2.

Thierstein, G.E. and J. Kampen

1978 New Farming Systems for Agriculture in the Semi-Arid Tropics.
American Society of Agricultural Engineers, Technical Paper
No. 78-5014, A.S.A.E., St. Joseph, MI 49085

Wijewardene, R.

1978 Appropriate Technology in Tropical Farming Systems. World Crops.

1980 Energy Conserving Farming Systems for the Humid Tropics. Agri-
cultural Mechanization in Asia.

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