Farm Horizons, February 2008

Tracking the future with GPS

By Teresa Jagodzinski

Chad Hoese, who farms 1500 acres between Silver Lake and Glencoe with his dad, Terry, has been using GPS since the spring of 2006.

“I absolutely love it,” he said.

GPS work from a system of orbiting satellites, which communicate to equipment on earth to let operators know their exact locations.

In agriculture, farmers started using GPS in the last decade, although it seems to be catching on more recently.

Hoese sees many advantages to using it including perfectly straight planted rows, no overlapping, not missing any crops, and not wasting product, chemicals, fuel or time.

From equipment he uses on the tractor, the information is entered at planting.  The system remembers all the information that was entered and applies that during spraying and harvesting.

“It lets you compare year to year,” he explained; which is especially useful with yields from different varieties of seed.

For example, if two different types of seed are planted in one field, the information is entered into the system during planting and when harvest time comes, the system knows exactly when the combine starts on the different seed because of  GPS, he explained. “It tells you what to plant and what not to plant, and what varieties work better in certain fields,” he explained.

A software package also lets him look at a field and enter the day and variety of seed at planting, the day and time it was sprayed. All of that information is checked at harvest time or any other time the information might be needed. “It keeps track of things that you didn’t used to,” he noted.

He also sees benefits during not-so-ideal conditions like at night or when it’s very dusty, or when he can’t see the field well. The system keeps the tractor or combine on track. “It’s scary how perfect it works,” he added. Their 1,500 acre farm is made up of 700 acres each of corn and soybeans and 100 acres alfalfa.

Hoese uses the GPS only on the corn and soybean fields because with GPS, “John Deere caters more to corn and soybean farms.”

One area he doesn’t see it working well is in plowing. Because the tractor and plow aren’t in line like the equipment is during planting and harvesting, it tends to pull to one side, and the system tries to correct that when it doesn’t need to be corrected.

The cost is also a factor. Keith Zajicek of Midwest Machinery Co. in Glencoe said that GPS is not as prevalent on smaller farms as it is on medium or large farms.

“Larger farms can justify the cost and the return they get,” he explained. Zajicek said that it takes a large number of acres to see the savings on fuel, chemicals, and seed add up, something which small farms wouldn’t see as quickly because they have fewer acres.

Hoese agreed that the equipment is expensive, but he says the savings will pay for itself in a couple of years.

Two types of GPS systems

There are two types of GPS-based agricultural guidance systems, according to Ben Swenson of Midwest Machinery in Howard Lake.

The manual guidance systems use a visual indicator to show the farmer where they are in relation to the intended path. The equipment needs to be steered by the operator, but it tells how much to correct the steering.

This type of system is the less expensive and less elaborate of the two types.

The assisted steering guidance systems are “hands-free” systems. An initial pass needs to be made by the farmer with the tractor, then the tractor will steer through each parallel pass. The operator will still need to turn at turn rows and around obstacles, though. This is the “top of the line” type and more expensive than the manual system.

Swenson added that work is currently being done on the driverless tractor where the farmer uses a laptop computer to control the tractor in the field.

For more information on these systems, check out the John Deere website, n

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