May 2010
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Ag Continues Steady March Along Technical Sophistication Path

A variety of displays and controls can be found in the cab of many of the new tractors and combines whose owners have opted for the latest technology.

 

Farmer in the Field Now Resembles
a Tech-Savvy Business Executive

The person behind the wheel of the huge vehicle checks his cell phone for the number of the company he wants to call to order the sale of some commodities. At the same time, he is writing on a notepad reminders of things he needs to do later that day.

In the middle of this activity, the vehicle slows down, shifts gears and makes a sharp left turn, all without the person in the cab lifting a finger.

The scenario may seem like a glimpse of a business executive traveling down a highway of the future in a science-fiction movie, but it’s a scene that can be witnessed in many farm fields today. And it’s why many of today’s farmers have become, or are quickly becoming, experts in programming and operating the kind of sophisticated equipment making agriculture more of a high-tech industry than it already is.

At the core of the hands-off ability to guide the operation of a large tractor or a combine is global positioning system (GPS) technology whose applications have mushroomed in recent years. In addition to the ability of GPS-based equipment to guide and control farm machinery across even irregularly-shaped fields, the technology also facilitates soil sampling, application of chemicals at variable rates and mapping of crop yields.

"The benefits of this technology are numerous," said Brad Nobbe (pronounced NO-bee), a fourth generation principal in the Wm. Nobbe & Co., Inc., John Deere dealership based in southwestern Illinois. "It reduces inputs of fertilizer and crop protection chemicals, which helps the environment and cuts farmers’ costs, while enabling producers to maximize yields. Eliminating overlap in chemical application and seed planting also means less operating time for farmers’ equipment, which saves on fuel, maintenance and labor expenses, as well as vehicle emissions.

"And let’s not forget the equipment operator, whether it be the farmer or an employee," Nobbe added. "He or she can make that important cell phone call knowing the equipment is being guided just as or more precisely than if the operator had both hands on the controls. Plus, our farmers tell us they don’t get nearly as tired after a long day operating this kind of equipment in the field."

Depending on the sophistication of the GPS equipment used, the route of a tractor or combine can be controlled to within a handful of inches (or less) of a desired path.

But GPS-based applications aren’t the only advances in technology now available to farms. Sensors on the end of chemical-application equipment ensure the spraying booms are kept at the desired, specified height above the ground on uneven terrain, thereby minimizing unwanted chemical drift.

Combined with GPS, individual spray nozzles or seed planting equipment automatically shut off when the tractor moves over an area of ground purposefully left unplanted, like a meandering low area in a field where excess water typically drains.

Still another technology advance makes it safer and easier to hook up chemical tanks to a tractor and start the application process. When dealing with anhydrous ammonia and other potentially dangerous chemicals, this comparatively low-tech equipment can be a valuable investment for peace of mind.

 

GPS technology enables farmers to plant precise rows with no gaps or overlap.

At harvest time, other technology comes into play. In addition to monitoring and plotting crop yields by location in a given field, other equipment automatically adjusts the combine’s speed according to the load being placed on it. Rear cameras provide an extra safety feature while another device minimizes grain loss from spillage on hillsides. On-the-go unloading saves time both for the combine operator and the person delivering the crop to market or back to the farm for storage.

Depending on the amount of technology incorporated, the area around an operator’s seat in today’s advanced tractor or combine might appear to a non-farmer to resemble the cockpit of a jumbo jet or modern fighter aircraft. On-board-computers, monitors and other equipment control, display and record what’s going on as the tractor or combine rolls across the field.

According to Nobbe, younger farmers tend to embrace and master the technological advances more readily, but that generalization definitely doesn’t apply across the board.

"We have older farmers who always are looking for new ways to get the job done better and more efficiently. Younger farmers may have grown up surrounded by more technology in our computer age, but older farmers have seen and lived through a lot of technological change over the years. That experience may make it easier for them to evaluate options and make decisions on what technologies will have the best payback on their particular farm operation.

"There is one thing we see a lot when we have a father-son or other multi-generation farm operation getting new technology," Nobbe observed. "Most of the time it will be the younger member who learns the details first and who then passes the information along to the older member."

Today’s technology doesn’t require top-of-the-line equipment, but the tractor or combine must be advanced enough to accommodate and operate properly with the desired devices.

New farm implements aren’t cheap, however. Depending on what options are added, a large tractor capable of pulling a 16-row planter can cost $277,000. A combine for harvesting corn, soybeans and wheat runs nearly $350,000, with a 12-row corn head adding at least some $119,000 and a 35-foot platform for wheat or soybeans costing around $43,000.

The more specialized rigs for harvesting cotton carry a price tag of approximately $672,000. Little wonder many farms are getting larger as farmers attempt to spread such investments over more acres.

Higher prices for new machines also have had a trickle-down impact, pushing up prices for used equipment.

Although the new technology may seem to be an economic fit only on large farms, smaller operations can benefit as well from less costly and easy-to-use applications. Farmers with virtually any size land can save money and boost yields with better and more efficient use of fertilizers and other soil amendments. In addition, remote sensing provides information for improving land and water use, and when and where to treat for pests and weeds.

While technology poses a number of challenges for farmers, implement dealers face their own set of issues, including:

· Attracting savvy sales personnel who know and understand the needs of complex farm operations and the capabilities of equipment to meet those needs.

· Hiring employees with the expertise to service complex machinery and electronic gear, as well as having the expensive tools for problem diagnosis and repair.

· Finding realistic ways to cover the cost of customer training and other support activities.

· Communicating effectively what’s involved in the pricing of software used in the growing number of computer-based equipment operations.

These and other business factors have led to a decline in the number of implement dealers, with the average size of surviving operations much larger and dealerships commonly including multiple locations.

"With everything that’s happening in agriculture today, I don’t see those trends changing," Nobbe said.