GPS is changing the future of tractors and tillage

It sounds like science fiction to think of a future when large farm machines would work the fields of earth without human drivers in them.

Well, that future has arrived, thanks to a wedding of computer technology with space technology. It’s variously called the Global Positioning System, the Global Positioning Satellite or the Global Positioning Satellite System, but most users here among the crop fields simply call it GPS.

The three farm equipment dealerships in Marion County-Ag Power in Hillsboro and Deer Trail Implement and Straub International in Marion-say they have the tractors that enable farmers to turn around only at the end of crop rows, and allow the machines to guide themselves precisely back down the rows thus saving time and materials.

They could even have tractors by now that guide themselves everywhere, if society would allow it.

“We’re probably just on the crest of the real fast-moving tech stuff,” said Gerald Funk, sales manager at Ag Power, “I have a tremendous time keeping up with all that.”

Randy Rice, customer support representative at Deer Trail Implement in Marion, said issues of legality and safety have to be resolved before a tractor without a driver operates on the farm: Who will be responsible if a tractor leaves its path to take off across the field?

Apparently the answer to that question is still in the future.

Relatively new development

If you feel like the development of this system passed by you while you had your head turned for only a moment, it’s no surprise. It’s relatively new. Rice said John Deere has been selling this “Auto Track” system on its equipment for perhaps five years, and a universal kit to add to any age machine for perhaps one year.

According to various federal sources, GPS uses a system of 24 satellites that were first put into space for military use by the U.S. Department of Defense. The number of satellites can vary slightly because old ones come down and new ones are put up. The system was released in the 1980s for civilian use.

The system uses variations such as time and topography to come up with precise data and guidance. Agricultural scientists say it can give them data on tillage practices, chemicals used on farm fields, weed, insect and disease infestations, rain, yields, cultivation, and irrigation.

Twenty-four hours a day, GPS is watching farm fields whether farmers use it or not.

Precision equals profits

Rice said use of GPS is “exciting” for farmers because of its precision practices that save enough money for the system associated with the farm machinery to pay for itself over two or three years, depending on acres farmed and individual situations.

“A lot of guys strip till,” he said. “They can use this system to put the fertilizer they need precisely at a 4- to 6-inch depth, and come back to plant seed at exactly the same depth and place to maximize the amount of fertilizer available. There’s no putting fertilizer between the rows where the weeds use it.”

Dennis Burkhardt, spokesman for Straub Farm Equipment at Marion and Great Bend, said GPS guidance works so well that a farmer can put a person with less experience-for instance, a high school student-in the tractor to make the turn-arounds because the precision and experience of a more skilled person isn’t needed.

“It’s amazing,” Rice said. “It’s all done with the tractor steering itself. The software is in the tractor. All you have to do after circling at the end of the row is hit the resume button.

“The operator can focus on the planter or the sprayer behind to make sure it’s operating correctly.”

Time and ground

Burkhardt said this attention to the towed implement results in improved use of time and ground. The operator can notice right away if a planter has become plugged with debris instead of being focused on the steering to leave a long portion of unplanted row behind, said Burkhardt. The same is true if a sprayer nozzle becomes plugged to disrupt coverage.

Funk, Rice and Burkhardt said farmers are more relaxed with less tension at the end of a day riding in such a tractor. There’s not such intense focus on the row to tighten the body-less characteristic stiff neck.

Rice said he even has customers these days who bring a book along to the field, sometimes reading several pages on a single pass. He imagines that benefit increases further west in Kansas, where rows are often longer than a half-mile.

Add in the tractor’s air conditioning and stereo and the farmer’s comfort level has been greatly increased.

Burkhardt said, “A farmer can get home from a typical 12-hour feeling good.”

Field memorization

On the management side, Rice said the farmer can use the system for much-improved field documentation, including information on field mapping, soil, terrain, weather and rainfall, fertilizer, seed, pesticides, application timings and yields.

The farmer can use software to print out reports from this data for other professionals he works with, such as in banking, crop insurance and government programs.

Burkhardt said the system “memorizes” fields. If the farmer has a tree in a field that will be left there, the system steers the tractor around it year after year. It “knows” the ups, downs and curves of terrain.

Rice said the duplications of running over ground more than once when turning or to ensure coverage are gone, creating great savings in time and costs.

Said Funk: “It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s daylight dusty or dark-not to mention the fatigue of watching that all the time. Turn a button on, turn a switch and away you go.”

The only indication a passerby is going to see outside of a tractor that it is equipped with GPS guidance is a relatively small dome-shaped receiver on its top.

Retrofit the technology

Dealers say they can install the receiver and guidance in tractors that didn’t originally come equipped with it-whether 10, 20 or 30 years old.

Asked whether the system could even put on an elderly John Deere “B,” Rice acknowledged, with a smile, that he would enjoy the challenge if anyone really wanted to ride a B with it.

Burkhardt said Straub was installing GPS in an older tractor that would go back home to Burns.

The dealers said they could put the system in any make of tractor, removing the steering to install it.

All three looked for wider applications in combines and other machinery.

Rice said GPS is finding other farm applications, including in irrigation, where center-pivot systems may be put together to cover more irregular wider sections of ground without duplication of coverage.

If a farmer wants to install a system, Rice said it’s difficult to give price quotes without the producer coming in to go over the situation on his own farm. He said the systems can be “custom-fitted,” and vary in expense by thousands of dollars according to needs.

Burkhardt said costs can vary according to precision desired. For instance, in one situation, a system allowed an 8- to 10-inch variance might cost $7,500, while if carried to a 1-inch variance, it might cost $20,000.

Funk said the most sophisticated system available, including the cost of subscription to signal service to feed it, could be as high as $30,000.

The dealers reiterated that given any scale of size, a system has a high likelihood of paying for itself in two years because of savings,

Burkhardt added, “But we’re not talking a big garden here. They have to do some serious size farming.”

Burkhardt said he foresees a future when there’s a tractor with no cab, or perhaps a collapsible cab in case someone wants to drive it. The farmer will program his laptop for what he wants the tractor to do, and it will go to the field, and do it.

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