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Hands off!

When hands-free steering was first introduced to agriculture nearly 10 years ago, farmers were skeptical.

"It was looked on quite skeptically because the return on investment was uncertain. It was a big capital investment back then. It has taken time for growers to recognize that they can gain a few percentage points, and the return is surprisingly fast," says Trimble's Levi Kettle. "With automatic steering, farmers can do things with their equipment they didn't dream they could do before."

But even the proven product didn't convince Tipton, Oklahoma, farmer Mike Gosa. He and stepson, Jacob Cope, disagreed on whether to adopt the technology on their 2,600-acre operation.

"Jacob was convinced automatic steering was the way to go. I wasn't. I could drive in a straight line and didn't understand why we needed to invest that kind of money," says Mike.

What convinced him? Mike says there were a variety of factors that eventually swayed his decision to invest in Trimble's Autopilot system. Factors like gaining efficiency, saving money, and having less stress and fatigue.

"Today's farmers have to get it right or they're out. For every dollar you invest, you need to get as much of that back in profit as you can," he says.

While his stepson, who by day installs and troubleshoots precision ag equipment for a local ag equipment dealer, had shared the facts and figures with his father about how the system could benefit their operation, Mike wanted to experience it firsthand. He put it to the test discing one of their fields.

"In a 120-acre field, I made nine extra passes running without Autopilot than I did running with it. In 37 minutes, I figured I could have plowed 31 more acres with the system than without," Mike says. "We figured we were 18% more efficient with the system."

Not only was he able to be more efficient and productive in the field but also he felt the benefits outside of the field.

"I'm getting older. Before automatic steering, I would be hurting all over at night and I figured that's just part of farming. With the hands-free system, I'm not tense and stressed from driving," he says. "I couldn't believe how much better I felt at night and how easy it was to operate."

While it may have taken some convincing by the younger generation to convince the older generation that automatic steering technology was a viable option for their farm, it didn't take much to persuade Mike's wife, YeVon.

Because both men work full time off the farm and with the ever-shrinking window of opportunity to get crops in and out of the ground, they realized it would be difficult to cover as many acres as they needed. When YeVon stepped up to the plate and agreed to take on some of the fieldwork she had one condition.

"I told Mike that if he and Jacob wanted me to do fieldwork and wanted it straight, I was going to need some help," she says. "They can drive pretty straight without the guidance. I can't. With Autopilot, I'm able to get the rows straight, and at the same time they know the work is getting done."

"She makes no bones about it. The new Fendt tractor equipped with Autopilot has now become her tractor and I get the older one," Mike laughs.

While hands-free steering may not help you grow more corn, it does allow you as an operator to pay better attention to your operation.

"You're no longer a driver in that tractor but an operator. If there's a problem with your planter, you catch that problem faster. If you're fertilizing, you're going to catch a clogged line earlier or problems with a sprayer sooner," says Matt Darr, Iowa State assistant professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering. "Just the productivity and stress relief factors alone in these systems go a long way toward justifying their existence."

In its infancy, a high-accuracy system could cost around $50,000. But as adoption has grown, the price has dropped dramatically. Today, systems range in price from about $5,000 to $20,000.

The family says they spent around $20,000 on the Trimble Autopilot system they have in their Fendt tractor.

"This system is allowing many growers to change their practices to become more efficient," says Trimble's Kettle. "Whether it's a sprayer, planter, or tillage tool, every time a piece of equipment enters the field, there is a potential benefit from automatic steering."

"The bottom line is that it eliminates the guesswork," says Jacob.

When hands-free steering was first introduced to agriculture nearly 10 years ago, farmers were skeptical.

If you're doing any of your own planting, fertilizing, or spraying, you're losing money if you're not using some level of steering assistance," says Matt Darr, Iowa State University assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering in Ames, Iowa.

GPS network

  • Planter: Automatic steering systems excel at accurate planting on strip-till fields. As farmers till strips in the fall, they can program their system to plant in the exact location. If using RTK, the seed is placed within an inch of where the farmer wants it. Steering the tractor to get the seed in the right spot is no longer a concern.
  • Fertilizer: Farmers who use self-propelled sprayers can benefit by saving on chemical overlap.
  • Cultivating: Producers can cultivate within an inch of the plants to remove weeds or to apply chemicals in a narrow band to reduce chemical inputs.
  • Drip tape: Once underground drip tape is laid, producers can come back to plant and harvest knowing exactly where equipment is relative to the tape.
  • Mapping: On-screen map displays A-B lines and current pass. The system maps out the fields row by row, year after year.
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