Whether to buy new or used equipment has been and continues to be an important topic for growers. When it comes to precision agriculture technology, many used machines are outdated and lack features for implementing variable rate prescriptions, documentation, or monitoring and calibrating yield. While there are opportunities for updating older machines, the process can be complicated and expensive.
When it comes to precision agriculture, most think of the newest machines and the latest technology. However, buying new isn’t always an option. For some growers who are running older equipment that still works well or are looking at buying a pre-owned machine, there may be some opportunities for upgrading the technology.
Machine upgrades come in the form of retrofit kits that add functionality to equipment. There are many companies on the market, from small to large manufacturers, that have products designed for planters, sprayers, and combines. The difficulty for many growers is in choosing the right product for their needs.
This can include ensuring compatibility with current equipment, evaluating the features and functionality that are offered, the difficulty of installing and setting up the equipment, and the cost of the upgrades.
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Focusing on three key pieces of equipment — planters, sprayers, and combines — let’s examine the primary opportunities growers have in upgrading their older machines with newer precision agriculture technology.
It can be very difficult for growers to recover from a mistake at planting. Having low germination and emergence from poorly maintained planting depth, poor stands and plant spacing from worn out seed meters or delivery systems, or starter fertilizer application issues can be difficult to catch at planting. Most of these issues are only noticed after it’s too late, and yield loss nearly becomes an inevitability.
There are many opportunities to upgrade used or existing planters, and several companies offer retrofit kits and precision agriculture systems that can improve the planting process. These can include replacing row units with systems that maintain seed depth in variable soil conditions, seed meters that can implement variable rate seeding prescriptions, and fertilizer systems that have rate control and flow meters for more precisely applying and monitoring nutrients.
Sprayer technology is a large opportunity for many. Nearly all producers apply something to their fields during the season, whether they do it themselves or partner with a service provider. Until recently, application equipment didn’t have much technology and many simply applied a flat rate of product on their fields. However, in the last several years there have been many advancements that include new nozzle technology, rate control, variable rate, section control, pulse-width modulation, and turn compensation.
Some of these technologies are so new that many manufacturers are still developing retrofit options. These kits will likely be available only for specific machine models, so care will have to be taken to ensure compatibility. This will be an area to keep an eye on in the coming seasons.
Yield monitoring systems and automated yield calibration are some of the best precision opportunities for combines. Because yield is how farmers make money, it is quite possibly the most important type of data that can be captured. It can inform future decisions on equipment, crop selection, and agronomics that allow farmers to be more successful.
Getting accurate yield data out of a combine, however, can be a challenge. Traditionally, there are a lot of steps in calibrating yield monitors, and growers need operators who understand the process and take the time to get it right. Because it can be a time-consuming process, many simply don’t do it.
Some manufacturers are beginning to offer automatic yield calibration systems that feature load cells in the grain tank. As the grain tank is filled and emptied, it will automatically calibrate and ensure the most accurate data possible. Some manufacturers are offering this as standard on new equipment, and are beginning to work on retrofit kits for older models.
Determining the Best Choice
While these three examples are among the most valuable in general terms, the bottom line with bringing new precision technology into older equipment comes down to a cost-benefit analysis that is unique for each grower. There are numerous precision technology opportunities, but not all are the right choice for every operation.
When it comes to investing in opportunities to retrofit onto older machines, products should be carefully evaluated. Virtually any machine can be upgraded with the right dedication of time, money, and elbow grease. However, the investment to make these systems work might not always pay off.
Agronomists and trusted advisors have a lot of influence over grower’s decisions, which provides opportunities and a degree of responsibility. As a trusted partner in a grower’s operation, agronomists should help their customers decide what precision ag opportunities make sense and which are worth the investment to upgrade on older machines. Who knows, maybe it makes sense to pull out some old equipment from the yard and find new applications for used machines.