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How Automated Guidance Changed Farming

Once farmers adopted guidance, there was no going back.

All NASA wanted was a space helmet that didn’t scratch before it licensed the technology that spawned today’s scratch-resistant glasses. Ditto for its astronaut vital-sign monitoring technology that helped create insulin pumps. Meanwhile, polymers used by NASA in astronauts’ suits make up today’s flame-retardant firefighter uniforms.

Scott McPheeters followed a similar route when he used an Outback S guidance system in 2001 to mark the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of buried irrigation pipe and risers. He also used it to measure the border of a center pivot irrigation unit he was developing.

“Back then, it wasn’t so much guidance as it was simply positioning,” says the Gothenburg, Nebraska, farmer. “It didn’t do anything except tell you where you were.”

Still, McPheeters thought the concept had much more potential (akin to the NASA spin-off products compiled by the media firm 24/7 Tempo). He envisioned guidance one day improving spraying efficiency. He had used the Outback’s positioning capacities to spray crops at night and return to the same spot where he had stopped the previous day. 

The same goes for planting. He recalls a Montana small grains farmer discussing how slicing 10% overlap with a 60-foot drill paid for an automated guidance system in a couple years. 

“Back then, I didn’t think we had a lot of undesirable overlaps or skips,” McPheeters says. “That was the first time I thought maybe these systems could pay.”

Moving Forward

McPheeters next installed Trimble’s EZ-Steer assisted steering in his tractor. “It worked surprisingly well, keeping us on the row at planting,” he says. 

By 2012, McPheeters’ sons, Clark and Kerry, had joined the operation and implemented GPS-centered automated guidance with their father to guide strip-till corn and soybeans. The trio started varying seeding rates in 2012 and fertilizer in 2014. Teamed with yield maps, variable-rate seeding and fertilization fueled by automated guidance enable the McPheeterses to accurately apply inputs where they are most needed.

“GPS really opened things up,” says Kerry McPheeters. “You can have GPS guidance without technologies like variable rate (seeding and fertilization), but you can’t have variable-rate technology without GPS.” 

Slow Speed to Warp Speed

The McPheeterses’ journey typified automated guidance adoption, says Gary Esselink, a Raven Industries product manager. 

“These things start slowly,” Esselink says. “Farmers always wanted to see who could plant the straightest rows. Then, they’d see a few straight-row fields and say, ‘Oh, he must have (automated) steering to plant rows that straight.’ ”

This helped key farmers to adopt automated guidance faster than beer sold to thirsty baseball fans during a steamy summer doubleheader. 

“Now, it’s a base technology to a lot of farmers,” says Ryan Hough, a John Deere product manager. “If you are making a purchase decision, the cost of guidance will be less of a discerning factor. It’s reached a point much like cruise control or air conditioning in cars.”

“When auto steer came out, it seemed costly at the time,” recalls Chad Leman, a Eureka, Illinois, farmer. “But after running it for a day, you wanted it on everything.”  

Benefits include:

Reduced operator stress and fatigue. 

“The big thing I found (with automated guidance) was the reduction in stress,” says Anthony Thilmony, a Valley City, North Dakota, farmer. “I can run all day and not have to worry about driving a perfectly straight line. I never had that capability before.” 

Increased accuracy. “It makes sure that overlaps don’t damage crops, even if a residual preemergence herbicide is applied,” Esselink says. “It also helps prevent gaps where weeds will grow. I’ve had some commercial applicators tell me it makes their poor drivers average ones and good drivers even better.”

Automated guidance also enables farmers to quickly catch planter and sprayer malfunctions. 

“If I have to stare down the hood of a tractor to drive it, I pay less attention to sensors that are bringing information into the cab,” says Bryce Baker, integrated marketing manager at Precision Planting. “I could miss a problem with ground (seed-to-soil) contact or a plugged row nozzle because I am steering instead of looking at cab monitors. From this standpoint, it (automated guidance) absolutely pays.”

Improved efficiency. Automated guidance enables farmers and applicators to cover more acres in a day, Esselink says. That’s crucial, particularly given increasingly tightening weather windows. Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa, examined central Iowa spring precipitation over two time frames. Workable field days in April through mid-May decreased 3.5 days in 1995 to 2010 compared with a 1979-to-1994 time frame.

“Agriculture has become how many acres can you cover in a day,” Esselink says. 

By the Numbers

Whole-farm analysis conducted by Jordan Murphy Shockley and Carl Dillon, University of Kentucky (U of K) agricultural economists, and Timothy Stombaugh, a U of K ag engineer, found auto steer navigation for a Kentucky grain farmer boosted net returns up to $3.35 per acre. The U of K researchers also found the technology could slice production risk. Shockley adds economic gains would even be higher today, given decreasing technology costs. 

“My personal viewpoint is the smaller the tool, the larger the payback with guidance,” says Duane Kiess, a partner in Nidlinger Farms, Decatur, Indiana. “When overlap is 1 foot each trip with a 15-foot ripper compared with a 60-foot implement, you are making four times as many passes. A 1-foot overlap on each pass adds up.”  

Transitions

Automated guidance also started a transition in planters, seeders, and tillage implements to be more site-specific, says Leo Bose, AFS product manager at Case IH. Technologies that automated guidance springboarded include the following.

Section control. This allowed farmers to turn planters and sprayers off in sections. By nixing overlaps and skips, farmers saved money on inputs, Bose says.  

Section control also saved labor. “We don’t have to get out of the cab to shut off rows like we used to,” Leman says. 

It’s not all blue sky and eatin’ peanuts, though. Section control is difficult to retrofit on older equipment, Thilmony says. 

Still, section control has a powerful economics argument. A 2011 whole-farm analysis conducted by Shockley and Dillon of the U of K, and Scott Shearer, an Ohio State University agricultural engineer, found automated section control increased net returns under all study scenarios, up to the top net return of $88.92 per acre. Shockley adds economic gains would even be higher in 2019 due to lower technology costs. 

“We aren’t just saving money; we are also helping the environment by not double-spraying or overfertilizing fields,” Thilmony adds. 

Variable-rate technology. “This made it possible to make zones that enabled agronomists to write prescriptions for seed and fertilizer,” Bose says. 

Variable-rate technology had always intrigued the McPheeterses. “There were farmers who had the dual-rate switch where they could manually turn it up or down when they went in and out of the dryland pivot corners on irrigated ground,” says Scott McPheeters. 

Automation has changed this for the better, particularly row-shutoff features, Kiess says. “That’s where the seed savings results,” he says. “We aren’t overlapping anymore.” The variable-rate technology also boosts seeding rates on productive ground and slices them on lower-producing ground, Kiess says.

Variable-rate fertilization also has worked for the McPheeterses. 

“One of the most disappointing things I heard at first is we weren’t going to be able to buy less fertilizer,” says Scott McPheeters. “I wondered, ‘Why are we doing this then?’ However, we became more efficient, and environmentally speaking, it’s the right thing to do. You don’t want to put fertilizer on for 200-bushel corn when your potential is 150. By the same token, if your yield potential is 250 bushels, why are you fertilizing for just 200?”

Signal Challenges  

Connectivity, though, has been a challenge for automated guidance. 

“You still hear cases where growers are essentially down because they lose a GPS signal,” Baker says. “In general, though, as the technology has changed, it’s pretty reliable.”

More planters are now ordered without planter markers, he adds. 

“That’s pretty telling,” Baker says. “If you are going to plant without a marker, you’re going to be confidant that the signal won’t be down for a day.”

Two factors have helped connectivity, says Clark McPheeters. Receivers now pull in more GPS satellites, and more satellites now exist. “Where we previously picked up four or five satellites, we now pull in 14 or 15,” he says.

What’s Next

Initially, tractors and other implements needed to be retrofitted for automated guidance. Today, nearly all large tractors ranging from 200 hp. and up are auto guidance-ready at the factory, Baker says. 

Hough sees automated guidance use increasing among older implements. “Everyone will be able to find that opportunity, especially in the used market,” he says.  

Esselink sees accuracy increasing, particularly with RTK-based (real-time kinematic) satellite systems that have sub-inch accuracy. 

“When I was a kid. I watched Star Trek on TV,” he says. “I would see all their different technologies, and they had these little handheld devices that they would use to communicate. We have blown way past that with what we can now offer.”

Farmers have had two automated guidance forms from which to choose: passive or active. Each has advantages and drawbacks, says Leo Bose, Case IH AFS marketing manager. 

Both require GPS receivers on both the tractor and implement. Beyond, that, though, there are differences. 

Under passive guidance, the system adjusts the tractor to stay on the desired guidance path when it starts to drift.  This is advantageous when a heavy side draft movement exists, such as when an implement is on a sidehill, Bose says. 

Meanwhile, active guidance maintains direction, making it ideal for precise operations like strip-till. “If you’re on 30-inch rows, it will stay on 30-inch rows by calculating where the tractor and implement are,” he says. 

Since passive guidance just needs two receivers on the implement, it costs less than active guidance systems that require a second auto steer system. Bose says entry-level prices are $6,000 to $7,000, with active guidance systems costing around twice as much.

Clark McPheeters is excited about the technology that automated guidance has unleashed. The Gothenburg, Nebraska, farmer cites variable depth control and better seed trench closing systems as the next steps that build on automated guidance and subsequent variable-rate technology. 

Last spring, McPheeters, his brother, Kerry, and his father, Scott, fit their planter with Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer attachment that measures in-furrow soil temperature, moisture, and residue that’s displayed on its 20/20 in-cab monitor. By measuring soil organic matter, Precision Planting officials say SmartFirmer allows the farmer to change hybrids and seeding and fertilizer rate based on organic matter. 

Clark McPheeters says technologies like SmartFirmer have the potential to vary seeding rates even more than current variable-rate technologies do. 

“We have places in some of our fields that are veins of old river channels in which production (capacity) drastically differs in one area from one 10 feet away,” McPheeters says. “The SmartFirmer and our yield maps have potential to capitalize on that kind of microvariability.”

He adds that better seed depth and trench closing technologies also interest him. “It’s still a challenge on both corn and soybeans to plant them at the right depth,” he says. 

“All these technologies stack up on top of each other,” McPheeters says. “By using these technologies, we feel comfortable taking the next step rather than trying to do a whole stack of technologies all at once.” 

Electric planter drives will build upon automated guidance and variable-rate technology, predicts Ryan Hough, John Deere product manager.  The electric drives eliminate hydraulic, chain, and ground drives on planters. and boost efficiency, he says.

“It’s one thing to change populations, but another to quickly and more accurately place seed in the ground,” Hough says. 

Electric drives combined with the BrushBelt seed delivery system also can enable planters to travel faster, he says. 

“You may have planted at 4.5, maybe 5 mph to get the most accurate seed placement. With an electric drive, you may be able to plant at 6, 7, or 8 mph,” Hough says.

Accuracy levels in automated guidance

Wide Area Augmentation System
(WAAS):
6- to 12-inch accuracy level

OmniSTAR: 2- to 5-inch accuracy  level

RTK: 1-inch or less accuracy level 

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