Where Tech Is Headed (2010)

December 29, 2009 08:09 AM

No one heard the starting pistol, but the race is on to cover acres in a flash with money-saving accuracy. As farm sizes grow and margins shrink, producers are turning to technology to help them close the gap—and win.

Machine automation, performance and data reporting, input maximization and seamless equipment communication top the list of technologies stepping up the pace. You can count on technology adoption to escalate as consolidation continues.

"The adoption curves for embodied technology—the things that increase productivity or efficiency as soon as you install them—have really taken off," says Matt Darr, Iowa State University ag engineer.

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Embodied technology sounds like something might have taken over the machine, but it is really quite benevolent. Think automatic steering, auto section control on sprayers and any technology that provides a direct benefit as soon as you use the system. No steps beyond the actual operation are required.

"Some technology, such as yield monitors, are analogous to a treadmill," Darr says. "They can do you a lot of good if you use them consistently and correctly. That type of technology is valuable, but the recent spike in adoption has been in technologies that provide an immediate return."

Lightbars, ever more accurate guidance systems and section controls for spray booms, for example, are all increasingly popular. "Technology and the accuracy it can provide are addictive," says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal Field Agronomist. "Pretty soon, you think you can't live without it."

The roller-coaster ride for input costs, particularly fertilizer, has more producers getting serious about variable-rate applications. "Nearly every trend we have in agriculture points to the advantages of variable-rate," Ferrie adds. Beyond fertilizer, consider escalating seed costs, pricey cash rent, expensive fuel and tightening margins.

The recent Agritechnica show in Germany, the world's largest machinery show, made it obvious that machines are getting smarter—and they're not afraid to tell you so.

Robotics continue to capture our imagination, but the practicality of them taking over machines is limited. Although automating the entire machine is unlikely in the near term, more active control systems are being integrated onto implements. Down-pressure management systems and seeding controls have already moved in, but you can expect future implements to not only do things but also report what they did via telematics.

Telematics, which marries telecommunications and information and allows the machine to send data to an off-site location, makes it easier for equipment owners to track functions and maintenance. It also lets the machines alert owners to progress and problems.

As machines get smarter, ISOBUS is taking root, making it easier for different brands to talk to each other. The advancement is important, especially in Europe, where there is a melting pot of machinery makers.

"ISOBUS is important for the future, but there's a big misconception that being ISOBUS-compatible means all the functionality of a display transfers to the compatible machine," says Dave King, marketing manager with Ag Leader Technology.

"Even though the power unit and the implement can talk to each other, there won't be a completely fluid, high-tech interface," he adds.

Look for equipment to provide more advice in the future. Take, for example, the Claas electronic machine-optimizing system (CEMOS), which tracks combine function and makes recommendations on how the operator can improve the performance of the machine.

One of the key but slightly hidden advantages of technology adoption is that it allows producers to focus on the operations at hand—and details that can directly impact yields—while covering more acres in less time.

You can e-mail Charlene Finck at cfinck@farmjournal.com.


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