Precision Product Review 2008

Ag Leader

According to Dave King, marketing manager, Ag Leader is seeing a lot of interest in its DirectCommand application system and more interest in SeedCommand for planting.

“The AutoSwath feature for both these products is very popular and we expect continued growth in this area,” says King.“AutoSwath automatically turns individual planter or boom sections on and off to help save money on inputs. With the addition of planter monitoring for SeedCommand we expect to see continued growth for our planting features.”

In addition, King adds that the company has also seen more growth for its SMS software products. “Customers want to analyze their field data to help them do better planting,” says King. “With the increased cost of inputs, this is becoming a priority for growers.”

AutoFarm

According to Joe Robertson, manager of communications, Novariant – AutoFarm, the high commodity prices mean greater rewards for the yield-enhancing benefits of RTK-steering. “High input costs shorten the payback period on precision agriculture products through reduced overlap, fewer engine hours, etc.,” says Robertson. “The challenge of more trash in the fields caused by corn-on-corn acres makes repeatable RTK-steering a must.”

In 2008, continues Robertson, the custom applicator or grower should not sink high-cost inputs into their fields without looking at technologies such as boom section and planter section control. To this end, the company has launched the FarmPRO GPS Steering & Application Control System — the result of a joint product development agreement between AutoFarm and Raven — and the FarmPRO GPS System, which offers boom and planter section control solutions.

Designed for professional growers and custom applicators, FarmPRO combines the Viper PRO state-of-the-art display and control system from Raven Industries with sub-inch accurate RTK AutoSteer from AutoFarm. FarmPRO offers a feature-rich steering and application control system that is all right at the operator’s fingertip through a single large-screen display.

“What is currently multiple but separate applications, requiring multiple screens in the cab, is now integrated into a single control stream with just one terminal in the cab,” says Paul Welbig, business development manager for the Flow Control Division at Raven Industries. “This all-in-one system for variable-rate and complete boom management, along with sub-inch accurate steering will really simplify customers’ lives in the field.”

“FarmPRO combines the best-in-class in sub-inch RTK auto-steering with the best-in-class in variable-rate spray and boom controls to offer customers a product that takes a back seat to no one,” says Justin Larouche, AutoFarm director of product management. “Previously, customers have been dazzled by a lot of bells and whistles which often fell short in terms of usability, reliability, and steering accuracy. With FarmPRO, that situation has now been rectified in a single, easy-to-use system.”

FarmPRO offers a full complement of automatic steering and application control functions, including WAAS to RTK steering accuracy options, as-applied maps, variable-rate control of up to five products, automatic boom height control, automatic boom section control, a large 10.4-inch color touchscreen display, and Windows XP operating system.

“With its multiple functionality of steering and application controls, FarmPRO will significantly expand the GPS market for both companies domestically and internationally,” says Larouche. “This is an exciting new system that will help satisfy the expanding needs of our customers through real cutting-edge technology.”

John Deere AMS

According to Emily Harringa, communications specialist for John Deere Ag Management Solutions (AMS), the company is making several product upgrades available to help precision agriculture users cope with changes in the marketplace.

“With the rising cost of inputs, ag producers cannot make an investment in precision agriculture for the sake of the technology alone,” says Harringa. “Proven value is essential to serving their needs. John Deere AMS is ensuring that products coming to market expand on those investments and save customers time and money.

An excellent example of this concept is the upcoming release of Swath Control Pro for planters. Swath Control Pro utilizes the existing GreenStar 2 (GS2) System components to turn planting sections on and off according GPS coverage maps.

“This saves costly seed inputs and reduces wasteful double-planting in fields of all shapes and sizes,” she says. Swath Control Pro precision can be used with John Deere’s StarFire Network signal, SF2, or real-time kinematic (RTK) for less than 1-inch accuracy with increased coverage.”

Besides this, John Deere AMS recently announced the new Long Range RTK that allows coverage of 12 miles, with unobstructed line of sight, between the vehicle receiver and RTK Base station. “That’s double the coverage at no cost to existing customers,” says Harringa. “RTK users have the choice of purchasing their own base station, or many choose to work with John Deere dealers who have established RTK networks. Choice is a luxury that John Deere customers can afford.

“The long-awaited release of iTEC Pro also makes greater use of an GS2 System investment,” she adds. “iTEC Pro (intelligent Total Equipment Control) extends functionality of GreenStar AutoTrac with hands-free, end-row turning that automatically slows the tractor and raises the implement. Drivers can concentrate on other tasks instead of executing the perfect turn, resulting in efficiency through technology.”

Hemisphere GPS

According to Jeff Farrar, ground ag marketing manager, Hemisphere GPS has several product introductions in the works for the new year that tie into various industry-wide trends.

“While I don’t really consider it a trend but more of a reality, the continued increase in ag inputs is driving the interest and demand in precision agriculture tools,” says Farrar. “Any practice or tool which can be utilized to generate savings will do well in 2008 and beyond.”

Precision placement of inputs, he adds, whether it’s variable-rate technology or Strip-Till require the use of GPS. As a result, GPS autosteer and mapping/data collection systems — once considered a luxury to many growers — are now commonplace. “By utilizing these systems, a conservative 3% to 5% savings can be achieved on input costs, resulting in return on investment in just one season for many growers,” says Farrar.

The Outback Guidance Product line by Hemisphere GPS covers the spectrum. The company offers basic manual GPS guidance systems utilizing WAAS for under $1,000 to full hydraulic autosteer systems utilizing RTK, which also provide visual awareness and data collection, starting at $15,000. All Outback Guidance systems are upgradable to include a comprehensive service plan which provides overnight replacement of components if deemed necessary, resulting in minimum downtime, says Farrar.

“With its new Outback S3, Outback AutoMate, and the Outback eDriveTC, Hemisphere GPS has introduced the next generation of performance to its popular Outback Guidance product line,” he says. “The newest addition to the Outback family is the Outback S3, which combines the market proven Outback S2 and the Outback 360 with the latest developments in Crescent GPS receiver technology.”

Featuring a high-resolution touch-screen display, the Outback S3 provides clear, easy-to-read job data and system status information in real time. The electronically integrated Outback Steering Guide uses GPS data and the specific job details to display simple heading direction and provide precision guidance.

Although the S3 is loaded with features and the latest technology, it is extremely easy to use, says Farrar. “Simply turn the steering wheel to match the direction indicated by the Steering Guide.”

The Outback eDriveTC GPS assisted steering system extends the functionality of the Outback S3 even more, he adds. “Once engaged, the eDriveTC uses GPS technology to steer the tractor automatically,” says Farrar. “As a result, it provides more uniform treatments, extends hours of operation, and requires less driver skill. Not only does eDriveTC steer more accurately than humanly possible, it now includes the Tilt Compensation (TC) feature. Tilt Compensation corrects for GPS position errors caused when driving on slopes in the terrain. This compensation is essential for precision applications.”

Another new product is the Outback AutoMate. This system is an automatic boom shutoff product that works directly with Outback Guidance products, such as the Outback S3. “Featuring Raven’s controller technology, the Outback AutoMate monitors and controls individual sprayer sections to minimize overlaps and skips,” says Farrar. “It offers up to seven-section automatic control, manual section control, and user-adjustable section overlap. Machine and rate controller-specific interface kits will be available for a wide variety of vehicles and applications. Given the increased cost of herbicide and fertilizer, the Outback AutoMate drastically reduces waste and offers a quick return on investment.”

Leica Geosystems

Trevor Mecham, North American Business Manager, Ag, focuses on price, scalability, ease of use, and installation as trends which will drive growth in precision agriculture in 2008. “Growers should feel comfortable working with the latest technology, not overwhelmed,” says Mecham. “The easier it is for a grower to use a piece of precision agriculture equipment, the more likely they will be to buy it and use it.”

Leica’s service and support tool, Virtual Wrench, facilitates user comfort with the technology — as well as making tech support easier — as it enables Leica to not only see the customer’s system, but to provide direct service, eliminating wait time and reducing or eliminating in-person service calls. “We are striving to exceed expectations as far as support turn-around time,” says Mecham, “particularly in times of high demand. We can instantly see what’s going on with the system, adjust settings, and provide service directly to our customers from our service center in Denver.”

Virtual Wrench, which supports mojoRTK customers, is the industry’s first Web-based remote service and diagnostics tool. To request Leica Virtual Wrench support, the system operator simply presses a button. A support technician — who is an auto-steer field service veteran — returns the call to your designated number.

Another area offering great potential for growth, according to Mecham, is auto-steering, saying it “is still the core of precision agriculture. I think this is where we will see adoption rates continue to increase.” Leica’s own mojoRTK Auto-steer features Virtual Wrench, with plug-and-play capabilities for some third party accessories and competitive equipment. “We believe that mojoRTK must work in conjunction with what other companies are bringing to the market,” says Mecham. “As technology becomes easier to use, auto-steer is becoming even more pivotal as a management tool.” The complete NO-Drift mojoRTK Auto-steer has repeatable 2-inch accuracy with 99% position reliability, according to the company. It also offers superior terrain compensation and supports existing factory and third party vendor steering kits.

The mojoRTK Console is built around Leica Geosystems’ dual frequency GPS/GLONASS RTK positioning technology. Cab clutter is reduced by mounting the console in the radio slot. The radio function is not lost, however, because the mojoRTK console includes quality AM/FM/weatherband radio with mp3 input support. True dual frequency RTK equipment speeds satellite lock, while the GLONASS option provides up to 30% more field performance to avoid satellite loss. The console also supports ISO11783 standard messaging for external screen options.

Accompanying the mojoRTK console is the ag industry’s first truly cordless RTK base station. With no power cables or antennas, users can get set up in the field faster. The housing is waterproof and rugged, and has a built-in 900Mhz 1 watt spread spectrum link radio. Dual frequency GPS and GLONASS capabilities maintain reliability in low satellite times, with future proof communications options that include CAN, serial, and ethernet.

OmniStar

According to John Pointon, marketing manager, the recent rise in commodity prices has relieved growers of some financial pressures and allowed them more flexibility in terms of capital investment and funding for precision agriculture.

“As far as OmniSTAR is concerned, we expect the enthusiastic uptake of autosteer and steering assist to continue,” says Pointon. “The benefits of this technology are immediately apparent, the systems are fully developed, and are normally both reliable and easy to use. We’ve come a long way in two years and the prices are very reasonable.”

In addition to these market trends, says Pointon, OmniSTAR continues to implement improvements to its services. “Recent developments, which should be available during 2008 to OmniSTAR users through easy, downloadable, firmware upgrades from the manufacturers, will improve initial acquisition and convergence time and reduce problems which may arise from signal blockage,” he says. “OmniSTAR now also offers shorter term subscriptions for growers who do not require a full year of service.”

Raven Industries

According to Paul Welbig, business development manager for Raven Industries, the dramatically rising input costs on top of historically high levels is a major concern for growers this coming season, which is an advantage for precision agriculture systems in general.

“Any solutions that can reduce input costs, increase productivity, and maximize yield potential are in high demand,” says Welbig. “Precision agriculture products address many of these issues and deliver significant value back to the customers.

“Assisted steering, variable-rate, automatic boom section, and boom height control systems all have great potential for growth,” he says. “These precision agriculture technologies have evolved to the point where they are very reliable, cost-effective, and simple to operate, generating a very favorable return on investment.”

In addition, he adds, Raven Industries can offer a very broad precision agriculture product line, allowing the company to combine many of its different technologies together into singular, complete systems. “The new Viper Pro and Envizio Pro systems are great examples of this,” says Welbig. “From one console in the cab, the operator can easily control all of their precision agriculture systems offered by Raven Industries or one of its partners. They really make the adoption to precision agriculture a simple process.”

Rawson Control Systems

“We feel that we will once again see growth in the precision agriculture market for 2008,” says Sharon Gauquie, sales manager for Rawson Control Systems. “We are seeing a continued growth in variable-rate using GPS/GIS. With the continued rise of input cost, the trend will be to apply application, where it will give the highest return. Varying the rate as you go thru the fields will allow the ag professional to improve productivity and boost yields.

“Using the latest in precision equipment is going to save time and money,” she continues. “In the last couple of years, GPS has become more accurate. Varying your rate using GPS for ground speed and also using GPS/GIS to have your rate change automatically will give precise placement of seed or fertilizer, saving time and money. The Rawson unit is versatile, as it can be mounted on a planter or use it on a Strip-Till applicator or a piston pump. The ACCU-RATE variable-rate controller is compatible with most GPS/GIS, helping the user to use what they already have, again saving time and money.”

Since 1984, Rawson Control Systems has been helping the ag market to apply seed and fertilizer to get the most return. “We also offer the ACCU-SPEED for ground speed, which helps save time and money as the unit can be easily moved from one applicator to anther one,” says Gauquie.

Spraying Systems Co.

Investments in precision agriculture equipment pay off, says Rich Gould, vice president of product strategy for Spraying Systems. “We certainly see strong crop prices having a positive effect on the adoption of precision agriculture technologies in 2008,” he explains. “Higher crop values increase the returns from precision farming investments; and in addition, growers have funds available for the investment.

“Manual guidance, automated steering, variable-rate application, and automatic boom section control all seem to be growing markets,” Gould continues. “With increasing seed prices associated with genetically modified crops, precision seeding is growing in significance, which is an area that has not traditionally been a major component of precision agriculture.”

Most of all, however, Spraying Systems sees a growing market in automatic boom section control: TeeJet, a subsidiary of Spraying Systems Co., recently launched BoomPilot — a simple addition to nearly any existing GPS receiver or lightbar guidance system. Gould says that this is what the company’s “most important efforts for the 2008 season will focus on,” explaining that GPS-controlled automatic boom section control “will provide increased application accuracy, reduced operator workload, and amazingly fast payback times.” The BoomPilot provides automatic boom section control for sprayers and spreader equipment to minimize costly chemical consumption.

BoomPilot records the GPS location and the location of the applied areas in the field, so that when a sprayer boom section overlaps an applied area, BoomPilot automatically switches that boom section off. The boom section turns itself on again when it re-enters the unapplied area — automation which is especially useful on point rows, on curved rows, and at the end of each pass.

BoomPilot, which also features a manual override function, provides control for up to six boom sections. Kits are available to increase control capabilities up to 15 independent boom sections.

“Automatic on and off control of sprayer boom sections is becoming much more critical in spraying and spreading applications today,” says Jim Shone, sales director for TeeJet Technologies. “The BoomPilot reduces overlap and saves money on material inputs, fuel, time, and operator fatigue.” BoomPilot’s simple T cables connect and can be used in conjunction with most third party rate controllers, maintaining accurate application rates and area measurement, and icon-based setup screens allow for simple, intuitive operation.

Integrating automatic boom section control with GPS guidance in a single device, the new CenterLine 230 offers a graphical display, says Gould, that “shows guidance data, an overhead map guidance view, and the status of automatically controlled boom sections.”

SST

According to Mark Waits, marketing manager for SST Development Group, Inc., the company is very excited about the opportunities and challenges ahead in 2008.

“We see a continuing trend in ag retailers and growers combining traditional precision agriculture technologies with information management practices for a more complete decision support system,” says Waits. “To be more specific, there is a growing interest by precision agriculture equipment manufacturers to ramp-up record keeping features for their customers. This will have a profound effect on the information management side of precision agriculture, which is where we would argue the real decision-making, as well as the compliance benefits, are found.”

“A large percentage of growers have bought into the idea of using on-board computers for variable-rate fertilizer and other applications,” says Waits, “but they haven’t been given enough robust and easy-to-use tools for recording those operations in a true record keeping system. That shift is occurring now,” notes Waits, and growers will be able to continue using those equipment pieces while building a useful historical database of every operation that takes place on their farm, culminating in the ability to make better future decisions by looking back at what they did right and what they did wrong. They will have increased abilities to ask questions of the data and find out, for instance, what variety did better on what soil type at which seeding rate.”

With an industry-wide communications standard in place, he adds, all data recorded on a farm in a certain equipment piece or software program could be shared with all other equipment pieces and software programs. “Then, we feel, precision agriculture will be much more useful to all growers and those providing services to them,” says Waits.

Regarding its own product offerings, SST continues to improve its Exchange Standards, a standardized reference database that is included in the SST Summit family of software products as well as in the company’s on-demand data processing service, FarmRite.

“Because of the use of these data standards, all of our Summit and FarmRite customers can use a delivery system called SyncNow to synchronize their databases with others,” says Waits. “Growers and the ag retailers that work with them are collaboratively collecting data and analyzing the information together to better understand how to be more successful in the future.”

In 2008, SST expects more precision agriculture equipment companies to join its efforts, as John Deere AMS has done, by licensing the company’s Exchange Standards and making these available in their guidance, steering, and mapping products.

As for the FarmRite On-Demand Information Services, SST continues to improve its automated data processing service. “Using SyncNow, an ag retailer can upload field boundaries and soil test results to his FarmRite account, place orders on those fields, and, within minutes, receive information products in the form of variable-rate recommendations, maps, and advanced analysis reports,” says Waits. “In the past, creating these information products at the local ag retailer level was a time-consuming and costly process in terms of personnel, software, and computer resources. Now, automated processing via Web services delivers products in just minutes, thus freeing personnel to concentrate on service and sales.”

Topcon Positioning Systems

“Autosteering of the tractor is becoming a common industry standard, multiple satellite constellation for accuracy and reliability as well as additional integrated functionality, like what’s available with Topcon’s X20 for multi-function operation, from a single vendor for sales and support seems to be quite popular with customers,” says the company’s Mike Gomes. “Certainly the X20 with multi-tasking operation, coupled with the Pro Steer Mark II ECU for enabling steering control, and auto section control functionality is a popular combination. Many custom spray operators are adding the boom leveling functionality to their RoGators to increase efficiency and productivity while minimizing risk of boom damage on 90-plus-foot booms.”

For these reasons, Topcon offers a full suite of products for tillage and seeding through harvest and planning. “We are dedicated to helping customers understand these technologies through our Ag Education Speaker series, popular at Farm Shows to help growers better understand how others are using the technology for additional on-farm profitability,” says Gomes.

According to Rod Haarberg, Topcon area manager, the trend to use precision agriculture technologies in more applications on the farm such as spray control, seed control, and land forming will drive growth in 2008. “Products such as Boom Section Control, Boom Leveler, Seed and Spray Rate Control, and multiple product Variable-Rate Control when combined with 24/7 RTK accuracy will allow the customer to be profitable,” says Haarberg. “Topcon’s GPS plus multiple constellation technology will meet the needs for continuous satellite signal.”

Trimble

Having taken a close look at the adoption curve for GPS in precision farming, Rob Lindores, director of marketing, Trimble Agriculture Division, says both the “majority” and “laggards” segments are now included. Growers are aware of farming as a cyclical business, he explains, and are now “facing up to the fact that when commodity prices eventually fall, there will be another major economic shakeout which only the efficient will survive.” That efficiency includes reducing crop inputs, says Lindores, and “many thousands of farmers now realize that GPS can help them reduce the amount of crop inputs needed to improve their profit margins.” This comes with a caveat, however: “Part of their decision to buy in 2008 is the harsh reality of $3-a-gallon diesel fuel, $250-$300-a-bag transgenic seed, and $600-a-ton anhydrous ammonia.”

The saving grace to this is that “there’s a powerful economic up-trend at work in the ag sector,” says Lindores. “Due to strong commodity prices, both current and soon-to-be GPS customers have money in hand — money they’re ready to spend very soon.” This has been a boon for Trimble, Lindores says: “In fact, they’re already descending on our dealers, purchasing Trimble AgGPS systems at all price points.”

Trimble has strengthened its dealers’ product offerings with a new high performance, low-cost EZ-Guide 250 lightbar guidance system. “The EZ-Guide 250 system is designed for first-time GPS guidance users,” explains Lindores, “as well as veteran GPS operators who may be upgrading to assisted steering. It will replace our popular AgGPS EZ-Guide Plus lightbar.”

New Trimble software has also just been released in the form of two new products that work with Trimble’s brand new Connected Farm business software suite. The new EZ-Office software is a desktop application for linking field records and data collection with Trimble guidance systems such as the AgGPS EZ-Guide 500 lightbar guidance system and AgGPS FieldManager displays. EZ-Office offers farm management record keeping and reporting. The second software product is the Trimble Agriculture Manager — a Web-based system including GPS, machine sensors, and automated communications to help keep large machinery fleets operating smoothly and profitably.

Nearly all of Trimble’s AgGPS products are in strong demand, says Lindores. However, he lauds the AgGPS EZ-Steer 500, which, with its “simple but award-winning assisted steering system … appeals to many first-time GPS users — as well as veteran GPS operators — who are determined to cut their costs for fuel, fertilizer, seed, and chemicals.

“Ever since farmers and ag retailers began using GPS,” Lindores says, “our dealers have been out in front of their competition. In 2008, I think they’ll be pulling away.”

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