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FE Magazine - Issue 3: The mathematics I do on a daily basis

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Created on 01 May 2009 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 26 May 2009 by ncetm_administrator

FE Magazine - for post-16 mathematics and numeracy educators
FE - work-based learning - adult numeracy - offender learning

The mathematics I do on a daily basis...a farmer's perspective

At first glance, farming and mathematics do not seem likely bed-fellows but as a modern farmer I find that as I go about my daily chores, my calculator gets far more use than my pitchfork ever does.

To give a detailed example, when a farmer sows his seeds, it is not simply a matter of “we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”, as the hymn might suggest, but rather it is a matter of calculating optimum plant density for the crop being grown. If too many seeds are sown, then money is wasted and crops do not thrive as they are too dense. On the other hand, if the rate is too low, then the crop will be too thin and the yield will not be as good come harvest. To make the calculation, first one counts how many seeds there are in a kilogram. Then one works out how many kilograms the drill (that is the machine that puts the seeds in the ground) dispenses over the known area of the field, by calculating the forward speed of the tractor, the width of the drill, and the rate per second the seeds fall. This then tells you how many seeds you are putting onto a hectare (100m by 100m). Then one needs to work out how many of these seeds will turn into viable plants by factoring in a coefficient based on an estimate as to what percentage of the seeds will germinate and grow.

Similarly, when a farmer applies weedkiller to his field, he is working on the basis of litres to a hectare, which is as exacting as telling someone to apply a carton of milk over a football pitch.  Again, complicated calculations and calibrations are necessary.

Similarly, livestock farming can involve important number crunching. For instance, we know the average gestation period for a pig is 115 days. The trick is to note the date when the boar visits the sow (or, less romantically, when the sow is visited by the man with the Artificial Insemination straws) and then to count down the days so that she is in the farrowing pen at the right time. The ‘farrowing pen’ is what pig farmers call the maternity ward.

So you see, farm work might appear mostly about brawn rather than brain, but actually behind most farming operations there are complicated calculations to be made. Maths for the farmer is an important function of his business. It enables him to produce affordable food in a highly efficient manner.

Is there someone you know who would be willing to be interviewed for this regular column? Email your suggestions to info@post16STEM.org.uk.

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