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Is a handheld GPS on your wish list?

Jeff Caldwell 11/21/2011 @ 1:06pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Even though most of today's new machinery comes equipped with in-cab monitors, handheld GPS units can be a big help with jobs other than mapping fields, making it easier to justify the cost of having GPS in your shirt pocket, whether you're in the field or not.

Agriculture.com Machinery Talk senior contributor Nebrfarmr has had a handheld GPS device for a couple of years. Before he started using his Garmin eTrex Legend, he says he wouldn't have believed such a device's accuracy would warrant owning one. But now, he says it's accurate enough to pinpoint specific places in a field he wants to remember and come back to, for whatever reason.

"If you want it to 'remember' any point in the field, you press and hold the 'waypoint' button for about 1 second. You can do this while driving, if you want, and when you get to the end of the field, you can label the point 'hole' or 'cockleburr' or whatever you want to," Nebrfarmr says. "This takes maybe 15 seconds to a minute."

While units like Garmin's can allow you to "know enough to be dangerous," there are a few things you should do to make sure the signal is accurate and will yield the best results, whether you're plotting a trouble spot in the field or simply remembering where you parked at a farm show. Even though a good handheld GPS unit today is immensely more accurate than older models, it's important to allow the unit to establish a solid satellite connection.

"Before marking waypoints or laying tracks, give your receiver time (usually just a minute or two) to 'settle down' and make full contact with the available satellites," says Virginia Tech University Extension geospatial specialist John McGee.

Once your GPS handheld is fired up and locked on, how else can you use it on the farm? Nebrfarmr says, in addition to helping locate and remember trouble spots in his crop fields, he uses his to help more accurately spray from his ATV.

"My sprayer covers 15 feet each side of center, and once I figure out exactly where to set the zoom and how far from my last line to go, it is accurate enough to use as a spraying monitor for weed patches in the pasture," he says. "I can even go home, shut the unit off, refill and eat lunch, drive back to the pasture, turn the unit on and literally start where I left off."

It comes in handy, too, when he's not the one doing the work, too, especially when it's tough to verbalize exactly where a certain field is located to a hired hand.

"You can save any trip you take, and bring your route up on the map, again zoomable in and out, and accurate to within 6 feet," Nebrfarmr says. "Gives a hired man or a chemical applicator a foolproof way to find that field of yours that you can't quite give good enough directions to."

One thing to keep in mind when using a handheld GPS unit in the field is durability. Units like Nebrfarmr's Garmin are fairly durable, but they are still filled with sensitive computer hardware. So, though they work well on a farm, it's important to take a few steps to ensure your GPS handheld holds up.

"Legend GPS receivers are fairly rugged. However, these receivers are small computers, and they should, therefore, be treated with care. For example, never store the GPS receiver in direct sunlight or in hot areas (such as car trunks). When you are not using your GPS receiver for long periods of time (over 2 months), you should remove the batteries," McGee says. "The Legend GPS is fully waterproof and dust proof, however, it does not float! You should clean the outside of your GPS receiver by simply running cool water over it, or by wiping it off with a moist rag."

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