Seeking The Straight Path

Many segments of the ag industry have money to spend this year, but they want to invest it wisely. That’s why growers are turning to GPS guidance systems and assorted add-on tools, say manufacturers of the technology. “Even though grain prices are good, farmers are feeling the pinch from higher input prices and are adopting precision farming practices to help,” says Dave King, marketing manager, Ag Leader Technology.

“Guidance system sales have exploded,” says Rhett Schildroth, precision agriculture product marketing manager, Topcon Positioning Systems. The demand curve started to escalate greatly over the last year. “And it continues to rise; it’s not linear, it’s exponential,” says Paul Welbig, business development manager, Raven Industries.

“With higher input costs and other efficiencies in the production process, the adoption of GPS technology will grow, primarily due to the value it delivers to farm operation,” adds Rich Gould, vice president of product strategy for TeeJet/Spraying Systems Co.

That value is measurable in dollars and cents. “Once considered just nice to have, GPS guidance tools are now producing serious returns-on-investment for growers by improving efficiency, reducing fatigue, saving time, fuel, overlap, etc., which can lower input costs and even increase yields,” says Joe Robertson, manager of communications with AutoFarm.

Savings will become even more important as commodity markets shift. Growers are also “facing up to the fact that when commodity prices eventually fall, there will be another economic shakeout which only the efficient will survive,” says Rob Lindores, director of marketing, Trimble Agriculture Division.

Why The Gains

Part of the reason for optimistic predictions is the decision by equipment manufacturers — who anticipate increased sales of tractors, combines and the like — to install guidance options and steering options at the factory. In addition, units are being added at the licensed equipment dealership level.

“Farmers today consider an auto-steering system to be an essential piece of equipment,” agrees Schildroth. “We expect that trend to continue to the point where virtually every new machine will be outfitted with an auto steering system of some type.”

It also appears there will be a lot of upgrading from lightbar guidance to real hands-free automated steering due to the latter’s efficiencies and reduced operator stress and fatigue, Robertson adds.

Emily Harringa, communications specialist with John Deere AMS, points to growers’ increasing adoption of farming techniques, such as strip-till and variable-rate application, to explain the boom in guidance sales. Strip-till, in particular, offers more efficiency in time, travel and labor savings, says Robertson. It also means more demand for systems that promise repeatable accuracy, such as real-time kinematic (RTK) equipment and networks.

Welbig says the ethanol industry is a significant driver, but “the agriculture boom is not limited to U.S. production,” he says. “We’ve seen substantial growth in our international markets, that include South America, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Then too, the recent devaluation of the U.S. dollar — which is making U.S. ag commodities more popular because of their lower international prices — is also making U.S. guidance products more desirable.

Pricier fertilizers, used so much on the expanded corn acreage, have particularly encouraged guidance system use. “The payback of auto-section control devices for sprayers, spreaders, and anhydrous ammonia systems has jumped way up with the skyrocketing input costs,” says Topcon’s Schildroth. “Where previously it could take up to five years for systems to reach a payback, today the payback can sometimes occur in one season.”

Room For All?

Anhydrous has come back like a lion, says Welbig, so using guidance products to help apply it is more popular. Plus, he says applicators will add products, like Raven’s Accu-Flow system, to apply nitrogen at a specific application rate per acre.

“We’ve sold fewer cotton-yield monitors with more cotton acres going to corn, but we have made this up with grain-yield monitors for corn,” says Ag Leade’s King.

While the guidance market is hopping, competition is keen. “I don’t know if there will wind up being fewer companies in the precision agriculture arena, but the firms that focus on customer support and service in conjunction with innovative product offerings will fare much better,” says Hemisphere GPS’s Jeff Farrar, channel marketing manager.

Innovation would include developing products that can be used on already-owned systems. “We have a lot of products that can interface with the equipment they already have,” says Welbig. “My advice is that you don’t have to throw away what you already have. You can add some of this technology in a lot more cost-effective manner, and still get to take advantage of all the newest features that are available today, and recoup rewards right away.”

“And the easier it is for growers to use a piece of precision-ag equipment, the more likely they will be to buy and use it,” says Trevor Mecham, North American business manager, ag, for Leica Geosystems, creator of the Virtual Wrench Web-based service and support tool.

“We have seen an increase in companies sharing technology and resources in order to compete in this ever-changing industry,” says Farrar.

Auto Everything: All The Buzz

Asked which of their guidance systems are generating the most buzz this spring, manufacturers say that while companies are tweaking the nuts and bolts of the systems themselves, it’s the add-ons, like new automatic steering, automatic boom section control, and automatic boom leveling that are getting a lion’s share of buyers’ attention.

John Deere’s iTEC Pro is a new Pro Module from John Deere that automates the sequences in an end turn, including the turn itself. When paired with AutoTrac, iTEC Pro assumes control at the headland, allowing the user to remain hands-free as it automatically decreases ground speed, lifts the implement, steers the tractor into the next row, and re-engages the implement. “All of this is based off of GPS distances from a boundary,” says Kevin Ripple, senior marketing representative with John Deere AMS. “This feature increases the consistency and efficiency of end turns.”

Ag Leader’s SeedCommand and DirectCommand product lines have been of great interest to both growers and applicators, says King. “SeedCommand helps lower seed costs and improves yields by eliminating over-planting on end rows, point rows, and terraces. DirectCommand automatically turns boom sections on and off, helping to lower the cost of chemicals. It also automatically creates an application report based on your field work,” he explains. “This is great for government-required reporting and for custom applicators who want to provide a detailed report to their customers.”

Leica’s mojoRTK Console is the new platform for it’s two-inch RTK auto-steer guidance system that fits into a standard radio slot. Mecham says the company squeezed everything drivers need in a stylish and compact unit that reduces cab clutter and makes driver operation simple.

Robertson says AutoFarm’s newest GPS product, the FarmPRO GPS Steering & Application Control System, is getting lots of attention. It combines “industry-leading, sub-inch RTK steering from AutoFarm with state-of-the-art variable-rate spray and boom control in the Viper PRO from Raven Industries,” he says. It uses a single touch screen terminal at the operator’s fingertip.

More New Systems

TeeJet/Spraying Systems Co. is getting lots of requests for information on its FieldPilot and BoomPilot. “FieldPilot is an affordable way to add assisted steering to self-propelled sprayers and tractors,” explains Gould. “BoomPilot allows the user to automatically shut off or turn on boom sections in previously applied areas while they can pay attention to other settings or functions in the process of applying crop inputs.”

Trimble’s Lindores says the simple-to-use AgGPS EZ-Steer 500 has been appealing to both first-time GPS users as well as veteran operators.

Raven Industries’ new Raven Cruizer “goes back to that simple, affordable, cost-effective guidance system to reach the late adopter group,” says Welbig. “It’s simple to use, simple to install, simple to operate — at an affordable price. It definitely hits the market that’s been begging for something.” Raven also introduced the Envizio Pro last summer, which is capable of adding AccuBoom, AutoBoom and automatic product control/variable-rate application.

Introduced just this February by Hemisphere GPS, the Outback S3 combines the established Outback S2 and the Outback 360 with the latest development in Crescent GPS receiver technology, says Farrar. It features a high-resolution touch screen display that provides clear, easy-to-read job data and system status information in real time. Though the S3 is loaded with features and the latest technology, it is extremely easy to use, he adds.

Topcon Positioning System’s flagship product, the X20, continues to be a big seller. Users can start with a simple screen-based manual guidance system and quickly and easily add many applications without cluttering up the equipment cab, says Schildroth. In fact, the new X20 console has a super-bright touch screen that is 70% larger than previous models for ease of viewing and use.

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