I recently called my dad while he was running the tractor and field cultivator, preparing the field to plant corn. I quickly offered to call another time, but he insisted that he could talk for a minute because he was “hands-free.” He wasn’t just referring to using a blue-tooth head-set, either. He was driving the tractor hands-free, too!
His tractor is equipped with an automated guidance system. The system uses a GPS receiver mounted on the tractor and a computer equipped with special software in the tractor cab to control the tractor’s steering system and guide the tractor through the field. Automated guidance systems are one part of precision agriculture, which has brought many changes in farming in recent years.
So why do farmers use auto-guidance systems, aka self-steering tractors? Steering a tractor seems easy, especially since tractors are already equipped with all the amenities I appreciate in my car. Most have heating and air-conditioning, tilt-steering, tinted windows, a nice stereo system, and comfortable seats. Some models are even available with cruise control, heated seats, and leather upholstery. Seems pretty nice, right?
While reducing driver fatigue is one perk of automated guidance systems, there are many other benefits that make this technology a valuable investment to farmers.
Cost Savings. Before guidance systems, farmers sometimes overlapped rows when planting or applying fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide. Auto guidance systems precisely guide the equipment so there is little to no overlap. When the planter does cross over an area that was already planted, some will automatically shut off rows of the planter so no seed is released.
Less overlap means fewer trips across the field, which reduces fuel and labor costs too.
Overlapping rows-by 3-4 inches does not seem like a big deal, but it adds up to a significant waste of resources over hundreds of acres. In this 2012 study, a tractor and planter equipped with auto-steering and automatic row shut-off technology increased profit by $111/acre in corn and $65/acre in soybeans. According to the USDA, farmers often recoup the costs of a guidance system in just two to three years.
Better for the Environment. Using less fuel and fertilizer is not only good for the bank account, but it’s good for the environment too. Reducing overlap and applying fertilizer more precisely, reduces environmental pollution and improves water quality by reducing nutrient runoff.
Reduced Soil Compaction. Driving heavy equipment across the field compacts the soil, which can make it more difficult for seedlings to emerge and restricts water, nutrient, and air movement in the soil. This reduces crop yield and can lead to increased runoff and soil erosion. Auto-guidance systems can enable farmers to drive in exactly the same paths when cultivating, planting, spraying, and harvesting. The soil is still compacted in these paths, but it reduces the overall compaction of the field.
Improved crop yield. Using auto-guidance technology can increase yield in several ways. By covering more acres in less time, farmers can finish planting earlier in the season which has been shown to increase yield in corn. Reducing overlap improves yield, too. Overlapping when planting results in crowded plants that that compete for water and nutrients and do not grow well. Over-applying fertilizer due to overlap can stunt plant growth and decrease yield, too.
Improved efficiency & safety. Driving a tractor can be exhausting and stressful. In addition to steering, the driver is listening to the engine, watching the gauges, keeping an eye on the implement behind them, and scanning the field for rocks, west spots, and other obstacles. When you’re tired or stressed, mistakes happen. Mistakes while operating farm equipment can be dangerous and costly.
Auto-guidance systems take the work of steering away and enable farmers to focus on the tractor, implement, and field. Less multitasking decreases stress and driver fatigue, which improves efficiency and safety.
Auto-guidance systems also enable farmers to better operate equipment when visibility is low because of dust, fog, or sun glare. Nighttime operation is much more feasible, too.
Technology in agriculture has advanced dramatically since I was a kid riding with my dad in the tractor. It’s exciting to think about the technology farmers will use 20-30 years from now.