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High technology revolutionizes farming

Staff writer

Online gamers by the millions have flocked to Farmville, a computer simulation game where they create and manage virtual farms, but emerging technologies in the real world of farming are no game, with an increasing number of advances that promise to make farming more efficient, more profitable, and more environmentally-friendly.

“It’s changing — it’s crazy,” said Randy Rice, agricultural management systems consultant for PrairieLand Partners of Marion. “Ten years ago, technology was for the big guys, but the last few years it has exploded.”

The pace of technological change in agriculture is moving so quickly employees at farm implement companies even have a hard time keeping up.

“What we’ve done is specializing and we’re now hiring people who just do GPS and technology,” Marlin Bartel, manager of Straub International in Marion said.

Randy Rein, a precision farming specialist with the Straub International office in Great Bend, gave an example of just how far technology has come with tractors, combines, and other implements.

“There’s a law in California that you have to have someone in the driver’s seat, because theoretically you could operate without one,” Rein said.

While the use of global positioning systems, or GPS, had its advent in the 1990s, early applications were limited.

“Even when I started four years ago it was all about steering the tractor,” Rein said.

Today, GPS technology is integrated with on-board computers, sophisticated sensors, and wireless communication that provide famers with unprecedented levels of control over their operations.

“You’re going to see your biggest differences in the way to control input costs,” Rein said. “Now it’s turned more toward flow and application control.”

“The average overlap on any equipment is approximately 10%, so if you’ve got a 40-foot implement your overlap on average is approximately four feet, when you’re eyeballing it and looking back there,” Rice said.

“If you can get down to where you’re overlapping only six inches, then obviously at three feet a pass times every pass over your field, you have reduced the number of passes, so it’s that much less fuel, that much less fertilizer, that much less wear and tear,” Rice said.

The integrated systems not only provide tracking information, but also intelligently control where and how much seed or fertilizer is applied.

“Let’s say you have a sprayer and it has seven sections on the boom. Technology and GPS location allow you to turn off those sections,” Rice said. “If you’re coming in at an angle, it’ll turn off the sections where you’ve already sprayed.”

“We can also control the rate at which it’s coming out at,” Rein said.

Integrated technology has increased the use of a farming strategy called strip tilling, in which fertilizers and seed are put down in narrow strips, rather than in wide applications.

“It used to be when a farmer went out to put anhydrous ammonia on, he put it on the whole field,” Rice said. “Now you put it in strips that are maybe six or eight inches wide, and leave the rest of the field alone. Next spring you come and plant your corn right on that. You get the most efficiency out of your fertilizer, because you’re able to plant where the fertilizer is.”

PrairieLand Partners has implemented what he termed a real time kinematics (RTK) system that counteracts GPS drift over time by storing and broadcasting GPS data.

“We’re gathering that information at a base station as a reference point. I’ve got one on top of the Lehigh elevator,” Rice said.

“With the RTK we take the same information, and we send it via a radio, so year after year your lines don’t drift. A guy can put that strip of fertilizer in next week, and in March he can go plant and be within a half-inch or less of where he actually put that fertilizer,” Rice said.

While the cost-savings generated by such efficiency is evident, Rein pointed out another benefit farmers experience from integrated technologies.

“For the one-man operation you’re talking saving dollars in fuel, in seed, and you end up with a higher quality of living because a guy isn’t so tired and stressed out when he’s done,” Rein said. “The biggest comment that I’ve had now over the past four years is about how much better they feel at the end of the day.”

Computers and wireless technology are changing the ways in which farmers become aware of machine performance and maintenance issues as well.

“Tractors have twenty-some computers built into them nowadays, little modules that are controlling the engine, controlling hydraulics, controlling the transmission and those kinds of things,” Rice said.

“It’s supposed to be coming out within the next couple of years where I will be able to know there’s something wrong with a guy’s tractor before he knows, because I’ll see it come across my computer,” Rein said.

“We fix a lot with wrenches still, but we’re fixing a whole lot with computers — software upgrades, firmware updates, compatibility, things like that,” Rice said.

Technology is on the verge of making remote access of on-board devices and computers a common experience.

“Being able to remotely access a guy’s monitor out there in the tractor, it’s all coming down the pike,” Rein said.

“Guys want remote access,” Rice said, “and with machine synchronization and things like that, the farmer can access that information potentially from an iPhone or a smartphone, or from a computer at home or a laptop, and be able to go in and actually get readings from that combine.”

Integrated technology even lets a tractor take the lead in communication.

“There’s a module on these new combines and tractors that can actually e-mail us if it has problems. It will send an e-mail to our service manager with a code,” Rice said.

With the increase in shared information between farmers and implement dealers, Rice emphasized dealers take precautions to keep important information confidential.

“It’s the customer, he paid for the machine and he paid for that technology, so it’s not necessarily mine to go share,” Rice said.

“As a dealership if I get a call from somebody who asks what they should set their combine at, I’m not going to go look at Bob’s combine and say ‘Bob’s got his set at this, this, and this,’” Rice said. “Bob can share with Jim if he wants to. It’s proprietary information.”

Rein pointed out how systems are designed to guard against becoming obsolete.

“Any time they come up with a new feature, they include it on a free firmware upgrade. If you bought the monitor five years ago, that feature is available to you for free just through a memory stick,” Rein said.

While the level of integrated technology is greater than ever, Rein believes even greater things are in store.

“The sky is the limit with what they can do. Someone’s just got to think of it,” Rein said.

Last modified Nov. 3, 2011

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