Linear Programming for Agriculture

The science of agriculture made significant advances during the 1930s and 40s. However, research and technology development was needed to effectively use those scientific advancements. Although computers had made important contributions during World War II, their post-war application in science and industry was limited.

Earl Swanson
Professor Earl Swanson, 1967

In the early 1950s, Professor Earl Swanson of the Department of Agricultural Economics undertook a series of path-breaking efforts to bring the power of computers to farming. At that time, a high-powered digital computer, ILLIAC, had been created on the university’s engineering campus. Combining linear programming methods, a then-novel optimization approach, with scientific findings regarding animal nutrition, Swanson employed ILLIAC’s capabilities to establish new procedures to determine most effective rations to feed livestock.

These procedures simultaneously resulted in more efficient use of resources and higher productivity on farms. This approach allowed farmers to change multiple variables and see which outcome would allow for the highest profits. This function would help determine what type of food and how much should be fed to livestock. Swanson’s approach had immediate effect in the industry. For decades it remained the dominant method to calculate animal rations in the United States and globally.

Mumford Hall. This is where the Agriculture and Consumer Economics department is housed.


For a more detailed explanation of linear programming in agriculture, read Swanson’s “Application of Programming Analysis to Corn Belt Farms” 


Earl Swanson Passport Photo (1967). Faculty, Staff and Student Portraits, 1933- . Found in Record Series 39/2/26 box 67. University of Illinois Archives.

Kashyap, S. (2017, Feb 28). Introductory guide on Linear Programming for (aspiring) data scientists. Retrieved from

Miller, Theresa B. (2007). A History of Agricultural Economics at Illinois: Scholarship & Service. Urbana:University of Illinois Press.

Contributors: Steven Sonka