A Boom in Automation

January 30, 2012 07:01 PM

Farmers pocket savings with automated section control

Automated section control was relatively unknown in 2006 when Cline Farms purchased the technology for its then new 90' planter.

"Our options at the time were to buy markers for $17,000, or we could get RTK [real-time kinematic] and swath control on the planter for $23,000," Michael Cline recalls.

Family members chose the latter but wondered whether they would eventually regret spending the extra $6,000.

Their concerns vanished once Michael crunched the numbers postharvest. He determined they had pocketed nearly $19,000 in seed savings alone, based on current seed corn prices.

"We were like, wow, there’s a lot more to this than we first thought," says Cline, who farms 6,000 acres of corn-on-corn with his father, Mike, and uncle, Allen, near Ladoga, Ind.

Since then, Cline has fine-tuned his family’s use of automation on the planter from having a quarter-width section shutoff to having the ability to turn off every two rows. "Even if you are overlapping just two rows in on the headlands, the savings will add up fast," he says.

A variety of input savings is available from automated section control technology, says Brad Beutke, technical support specialist with Crop-Tech Consulting. Farmers using automated section control benefit from fewer application overlaps; reduced seed, fertilizer and herbicide use; improved application efficiency; less operator fatigue; and decreased harvest losses, he says. The technology can also help prevent applications in areas farmers want to avoid, such as waterways and buffer strips.

Matt Darr, an Iowa State University (ISU) precision ag specialist, says overlap of machinery varies a lot based on the operation and field conditions. "Sprayers are one of the most overlapped systems due to the increasing trend in boom widths and the negative impact of unsprayed regions," he says. "A typical sprayer would overlap between 5% and 17%, with the lower end being in square fields and the high end in fields with significant point rows."

Students at ISU recently completed an overlap assessment with two producers in Iowa, Darr says. The study covered more than 2,000 acres and included spring tillage and planting.

Results showed that without any precision ag tools, the producer overlapped 7.1% during field cultivation and had a headland overlap of 3.3% while planting, Darr says. Although the overlap numbers seem small, they carry a significant cost implication.

C26 A boom of automation  Chart

"The potential return to the producer for using auto-steer during tillage was 96¢ per acre, while the gain associated with section control on the planter was $7.89 per acre," Darr says. "For a producer growing 900 acres of row crops, section control technology will pay for itself in three years. Every year after that, the producer is money ahead and can use the auto-steer and display components for other field operations as well."

Research at Kansas State University (KSU) indicates that two types of farm operations reap the most financial benefit from automated section control use: large-acreage grain operations and midsize farms with fields that have unusual shapes and sizes.

Large farms can spread the cost of the investment over more acres, so even small gains per acre can make it a good investment, says Kevin Dhuyvetter, a KSU ag Extension economist. Smaller farms can benefit if they have unusually shaped fields with undesirable headland acreage.

"The headlands are where the action is, because they increase the costs of operating equipment, and you tend to double-apply inputs there," he says.

"Some fields also have less than optimal angles, which increases your area in headlands. Not many fields are perfectly square," he adds.

Dhuyvetter explains that a square, 160-acre field divided into two triangular fields with a diagonal road can result in about 1.84 more acres of overlap when planted with a 12-row planter. Using current seed costs, an extra 1.84 acres of overlap in a field can increase seed costs by almost $230.

Technology circle. However, both Beutke and Dhuyvetter encourage farmers to weigh costs before purchasing technology. For most, that means purchasing a GPS receiver and guidance equipment before taking the step to use automation.

This often includes software, clutches, boom valves, solenoids, cables and electronic control units. Plus, any data generated must be evaluated either by you or a consultant in order for you to know how much or how little financial reward the technology is providing.

"To maximize the return on auto-guidance, someone will need to manage boundary data and make sure they can handle your particular file type," Beutke says.

The more exact the navigation service you use, the better your results with automated section controls. While RTK is most accurate, Beutke says, many customers find that decimeter level correction services are adequate.

Most manufacturers recommend that farmers use a GPS receiver with a 5 hertz update rate or higher. "This is the speed at which the receiver updates your position," he says.

Beutke advises farmers to develop a plan before they purchase equipment. "We like to sit down with a grower and develop a technology timeline. We’ll prioritize that list with A being what you purchase for next season, B in the next two to three years and C is usually five years out," he says.

Cline, who helps farmers evaluate automated section control technology in his job as an ag management solutions technician for Wright Implement in Crawfordsville, Ind., agrees.

"Weigh all your options before you buy anything," he says. "Look down the road at what you might want to do in two or three years. Some of the cheaper monitors, for instance, don’t give you the ability to upgrade or as much information as you might want to utilize in a few years. You don’t want to be shortsighted."

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