Precision ag takes the next step

When it’s time to replace or upgrade farm equipment, cool new bells and whistles are not enough to satisfy today’s savvy shoppers: they’re looking for smart farming technology that’s easy to use and seamless in terms of how it integrates with their overall farm businesses.

From potential to performance

Get ready for a closer connection between what a technology is designed to do, and how that potential is put into action by those who use it, says Jim Wood, VP Ag, Rocky Mountain Equipment (RME). “In the search for higher yields and better quality, the agronomy side of farming will become tied more tightly to the field equipment used to grow tomorrow’s crops.”

RME’s move in that direction began about three years ago when the Calgarybased CNH dealer integrated its product and technology specialists. Known now as ag optimization specialists, these individuals are trained to help farmers understand how to make the best use of the equipment they buy, and improve its performance.

“These machines have a lot of moving parts,” says Wood. “We can’t sell a machine to someone and hear two years later that he didn’t know what a particular switch was for, or that he didn’t find value in the technology.”

Advances in telematics, which transmits real-world data from the field to a remote specialist, already allows some machinery dealer specialists to monitor their customers’ equipment from their own offices.

JDLink, for example, feeds John Deere specialists information about how a particular machine is running. If there’s a problem with the transmission or engine oil temperature, they contact the owner. Corey Leonard, VP Ag, Cervus Equipment in Saskatoon, says, that data is getting to machinery owners “before they even know there’s a problem.”

That’s critical information for the growing number of farmers who hire people to run their machines during peak seasons. “There is no question the relationship between dealers and farmers is evolving from a transactional to more of a partnership relationship,” says Leonard.

“It’s hard to imagine how far the technology will go,” says Wood. “But farmers will always be looking for ways to cut their input costs, improve production, get a better grade and harvest a cleaner sample.” He foresees a time when producers will monitor and control farm equipment from the farm office. There may be a farm employee in the combine or tractor seat, but the farmer, in cooperation with technical machinery specialists, will be deciding what the machine does.

Next up: efficiency

Wood sees efficiency as agriculture’s next technological frontier. The people who design and manufacture farm machinery have arguably maxed out on size and comfort. There’s simply not much room to go bigger, and they’re running out of ways to make time spent in the cab even more pleasant.

But producers who trade in halfmillion- dollar machines for new halfmillion- dollar machines are looking for technological advancements, and they won’t be disappointed by what’s expected on the market over the next 10 years, says Wood.

A case in point: Clean Seed’s no-till precision seeder. This machine lets an operator seed six different seed varieties at six different rates, and is a prime example of how a machine can drive efficiency through nuts and bolts (and bits and bytes). In addition to improving fertilizer placement, this technology can under-seed a crop, like alfalfa, in wheat. “That’ll save a field pass the following year,” explains Wood.

Add in the integration of independent technologies, like telematics (real-time data transmission), geomatics (mapping) and unmanned aerial technology (drones), and the same seeder will eventually let a farmer use soil samples and yield maps to calculate seed and fertilizer placement for every square foot of his field. “Right now, the best we can do is about 10- to 18-foot sections of the drill,” says Wood.

The ability to translate highly detailed field maps into such specific seed and fertilizer decisions still needs fine-tuning. But auto-guidance technology is here and it’s dramatically changed the way many farmers run their businesses. “A lot of our customers are surfing the web, checking commodity prices or buying fertilizer for next spring while they’re combining,” says Wood.

Of course, the raw efficiency of autosteer goes way beyond multi-tasking. “More importantly, it prevents overlap when you’re seeding or spraying. That improves input performance while cutting fuel and labour costs. Auto-steer also reduces operator fatigue, and that triggers further increases in productivity,” says Wood. “All of this makes an operation much more efficient.”

While farmers know only too well that technological potential doesn’t automatically equate to real-world performance, so do the people who make and sell agricultural equipment. Still, says Leonard, that push to improve financial margins is driving the growing interest in what precision-farming technology is capable of. FF