Automatic Steering: Precision Agriculture’s Killer App

Not too many years ago, the concept of a tractor or combine or application rig steering itself across the field wasn’t much more than a curiosity. Today, GPS steering is taking the agriculture community by storm. Including application and tractor manufacturers, more than a dozen companies have thrown their hats in the ring with a GPS steering product, creating a dizzing array of choices for end users.

“The popularity of automatic steering is catching on just like the first phase of manual guidance did,” says Rick Heard, North American sales and marketing manager for Farmscan, an Australia-based technology company which just opened up shop here this year. “Now we have 3 to 5 years or even longer before a peak is expected. And at that time, automatic steering will be standard equipment on many farm vehicles and an option on all of them.”

Jerry Schmitt of AGCO Global Technologies says the era of standardization is coming fast. “AGCO began selling Auto-Guide in 2001, and those products now run well in excess of 60% factory installed,” he notes.

Exactly why your operation should be on the GPS steering bandwagon can be summarized in a single word: efficiency. No matter what you’re growing or who you are serving, there’s likely a place where the technology can deliver benefits – if you buy the right product for your operation. That will take a bit of education, asking questions of manufacturers, evaluating your business, and test driving. But in the end, it will be well worth the effort.

In this article, we’ll review the evolution of guidance tecnhology adoption that got us where we are, then discuss some of the potential range of benefits that GPS steering is capable of delivering.

How We Got Here

When the precision agriculture movement first began taking hold in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, three technologies moved the market from curiosity to adoption: The yield monitor, the Internet, and global positioning. Of the three, the unleashing of previously government controlled global positioning satellites to the agriculture masses made the most profound impact. For the remainder of the decade, technology built around the establishment of precise, satellite-delivered field position rolled out from everywhere. Companies large and small, new and old, attempted to harness the power of global positioning and build products that would improve agronomy and efficiency.

This first half-decade of GPS use in precision technology was focused on improving agronomic decision making. Satellite and aerial imagery that was only marginally useful without GPS was now the basis for an entire wave of technology development. Through a variety of data collection devices, retailers, consultants, and growers began collecting soil sampling data, varying the rate of fertilizer application, and monitoring yield by layering variables electronically on field maps.

Purdue University and sister publication CropLife magazine, who have been tracking precision technology adoption at the ag retail level since 1996 through an annual survey, confirms this agronomy focus. Variable-rate application of fertilizer, a service most retailers hung their hats on as a way to measurably improve their service to growers using GPS, dominated the data collected. Nearly 4 in 10 retail locations were mapping fields electronically in 1999, and slightly more were soil sampling using a global position system (GPS).

However, controller-driven, single nutrient variable-rate application has never surpassed the 50% adoption level and has actually regressed a bit in recent years. As an agronomy program building tool, guidance – at least as the technology currently stands – peaked out in 2002 when 49.9% of retailers said they were performing this service.

GPS guidance for efficiency has been a different story. The CropLife/Purdue retailer study added lightbar guidance in the year 2000, which established a benchmark of just under one in four retailers employing the technology strictly for the benefit of application efficiency. With the influx of more low-cost technology using the then-emerging free Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for GPS guidance, and the lowering cost of GPS receivers in general, adoption doubled in two years to more than 55% of retailers using GPS guidance.

Last year and this year, the survey appears to have topped out at just short of 64% of retailers using GPS for guidance just as automatic steering made its first appearance in the survey. The 2005 survey found that already more than 6% of retailers utilizing a GPS steering technology – an impressive feat for such a young technology.

The expense of early GPS steering technology the end of the last decade kept it largely out of the commodity crop areas in early development. Companies like Trimble and AutoFarm worked in high value crop regions on the West Coast, where crop return on investment and intensive crop management practices could provide a clear payback to growers. But as the technology evolved, it was clear that the benefits of GPS steering, if made more affordable, could benefit almost every ag region.

Midwest Litmus Test

Substantiating a payback for Midwest row crop use of GPS steering was a primary goal last year for ag economists at Purdue University. Jess Lowenberg-Deboer and then graduate student Matt Watson designed a study to evaluate and compare the economic impacts of using no guidance vs. manual lightbar guidance, DGPS-based guidance, and higher accuracy real time kinematic (RTK)-based steering systems on a 1,800 acre farm with a 50-50 corn-soybean rotation.

Using a 12-row planter, each system was measured on its ability to improve field efficiency and reduce skip and overlap, increase the number of hours worked, and utilize techniques to control traffic patterns such as skip rows to increase efficiency.

The results were dramatic. While manual guidance increased field speed by 13%, DGPS and RTK systems increased speed by 20%. Mean time spent in the field, was reduced 11% using manual guidance, and an additional 6% using DGPS and RTK systems.

Doing the math, Purdue determined that the same 12 row planter could handle and additional 800 acres in the given time frame usuing manual lightbar guidance, and an additional 1,300 acres with GPS and RTK steering systems. Finally, and most importantly, grower net profits would be expected to increase by $9,700 annually using GPS steering systems and $4,500 for the more expensive, higher accuracy RTK steering systems.

Benefits Galore

Economic payback through field efficiency is critical, of course, but there are a number of other benefits that GPS steering systems are bringing to the end user:

Reduced Fatigue. Because the operator of the equipment does not have to turn or hold the line with a steering wheel, nor manually correct the steering using a lightbar, the operator stays “fresh” and works both longer and more effectively.

Time Flexibility. GPS steering works day or night, allowing faster, safer, and more accurate field operations even when visibility is very low. This allows the user to get in the field whenever it’s convenient, or to work around light and weather conditions that would be impossible with traditional guidance.

Operator Awareness. Because the steering takes care of itself, the operator can watch other important operations, such as the condition of the crop, monitor feedback, the condition of the implements, and obstacles in the field. Correcting a malfunctioning implement in the field can in itself enhance the steering product payback.

Employee Retention. Comfortable and safe employees are happy employees, making it easier to hold on to good people.

Staying In The Game. Older members of the crew or farm family may be able to do more cab work because the steering handles the most physically stressful aspect of field operations.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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