GPS helps farmers plot fields, spread chemicals, steer tractors

GPS helps farmers plot fields, spread chemicals, steer tractors

By CHAS SISK
The Tennessean
NASHVILLE (AP) — Time was, a farmer had no better guide that his rows were straight than the back of his mule.
Not so anymore. A wave of technology is sweeping through the agricultural sector, with computerized systems that use global positioning technology to bring greater precision to fields.
Many of these new technologies were recently on display at the Commodity Classic, an agricultural trade show at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
GPS-based technology can now be used to plot out a field to the inch, control distribution of seeds and fertilizers — even steer a farmer’s tractor itself, in much the same way that a car’s cruise control manages speed.
Prices for these technologies are also falling fast. Basic systems sell for half the prices of a decade ago, and they come with much easier interfaces and many more features than their predecessors, exhibitors and attendees said.
“It’s just getting to the point where the guinea pigs have done it, and they’ve seen that it works, so now everybody else is starting to look at it,” said Timothy Dolan, a farmer and agricultural extension agent from Winthrop, Minn., who attended the conference. “Some of the equipment is still kind of expensive, though.”
Proof of GPS’ acceptance could be seen at the booths of firms that don’t sell the technology. Several were raffling off GPS systems to draw in passers-by, much as an iPod might be used to get people to stop at a booth in a shopping mall.
A basic GPS costs about $2,000, down from about $4,000 to $5,000 a decade ago. Proponents say farmers recoup that expense by reducing other costs.
Even a basic GPS can help a farmer cut down on fuel, chemical and fertilizer expenditures by wiping out overlaps. Farmers can also use the information they provide to draw up maps that show soil moisture, nutrient levels and other key data for different sections of a field, a crucial help to planning.
Add-ons that use GPS can cost an additional $10,000 to $35,000, but they can bring more sophistication to the process. A seed controller can vary the amount of seed put into different sections of a field by using the maps generated by GPS.
Later, GPS can be tied to the spray booms. That lets farmers control how much fertilizer and chemicals each section of a field gets.
“It’s better utilization of your dollar,” said Christopher Hill, a corn and soybean farmer from Brewster, Minn.
“You don’t spend $400 an acre on something that’s only going to return $200. You can write a prescription before you go into the field.”
Even that most basic task, plowing the field, can be automated.
Heavy farm equipment now comes with an optional auto-steering package that will guide a piece along the row.
Fully 50 percent of the combines now sold by Case Agriculture come with auto-steering, said Terry Snack, a specialist who appeared at the show.
The company plans to make the feature standard once sales hit 60 percent.
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Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
Published in The Messenger 5.6.08

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