- Tractors that Drive Themselves
GPS makes it possible to auto-steer all kinds of farming equipment including sprayers, combines, and, of course, tractors. The operator tells the computer on the vehicle where to go and how wide a swath it should make. The computer mathematically figures the rest of the parallel lines for the field.
Such a system can drive on a curve, as well. The computer is hooked up to the steering so that the vehicle is always going the right way and the operator can do other things. This technology is perfect for tilling because there’s no chance for overlap that comes from a human operator just messing up. That’s a real time, money and fuel saver. Once you auto-track, you never go back.
- Perfect Swaths and Perfect Dispensing (with VRT)
Another great application of GPS is variable rate technology and controlling the width of swaths. Once farmers add these to their farm management, they start to see how GPS is a real money saver. The farmer decides what the swaths will be, and the technology takes it from there.
How can this save money? It saves on seed, herbicide, fertilizer, and other things used across the field. Eliminating overlapped areas with GPS maps means you are only putting down exactly how much you need. If a machine is overlapping, the controller turns off the part that would potentially overlap. This saves money on what would have been wasted double-application.
VRT is similar. A farmer can collect data using years past and soil samples to make a GPS map that shows what different needs different parts of a field have. The technology then takes that information and applies at varying rates across the field. This is a huge money saver since farmers usually just spread fertilizer and other inputs at the same, high, rate all across a field (in order to help out the poor spots).
- Talking Tractors
This is called telematics – the new thing for farmers. Telematics enables tractors to communicate with growers, equipments sellers and other farming equipment. If a mechanical problem interrupts a day’s work, your equipment dealer just looks at the diagnostics communication that your machine has already communicated. They might even be able to fix the problem and get the farmer back to work without ever coming to the farm. That means farmers get to skip the wasted waiting time when a machine shuts down. Telematics also tracks where the equipment is, how much fuel they use, how many hours they’ve worked, among other things.
The way that the equipment communicates with each other is also helpful. For example, a grain cart can drive up along a harvester so that it can unload without stopping. Using telematics, the grain cart tells the driver when it’s almost full. When there is one cart and two combines, the cart knows which combine to go to first. The most recent versions allow the driver to vocally and wirelessly command the tractor pulling the grain cart so that he can send the cart back and forth with ease.
- Talking Cows
Livestock collars can help farmers keep tabs on their animals. The collars communicate with the farmer’s smartphone to let them know where it is, if it is in distress or ready to mate. It’s almost like a cow thought translator!
Another easy way to keep tabs on each head is to use RFID tags. The tags collect and store data on each individual animal, which makes it quite simple and fast to keep accurate records. RFID tags have also been used in hay bales to monitor moisture and weight. The data is scanned after.
- Irrigation – There’s an Ap for That
There are irrigation systems that can be controlled from a farmer’s phone, so he doesn’t have to drive out to the field. The farmer can know the needs of a given field by looking at information from moisture sensors placed at different levels in the soil. This way, farmers know exactly how much water, or even fertilizer, is needed to be sprayed by sprayers. Combined with VRT technology, farmers can be certain they are meeting the specific needs of the plants, and using their resources well. One farmer even stated that this method help him save on water usage.
- Plants Have Feelings, Too; Now You Can Know Them
Plant sensors take VRT up a notch. With traditional VRT, a map would need to be made pre-application of fertilizer or other inputs. With sensors, applicators are told, in the moment, how much the plants need of a certain input. Sensors that are optical judge fertilizer needs by reading how much light the plants are reflecting. This is a new technology that is still relatively expensive, but is very promising. Adding the right amount of fertilizer based on real-time data will make it so the plants absorb as much as possible, and very little runs off into ground water.
- Field Data
Since GPS can record data like yield, application of inputs, and tillage more and more accurately, there is sometimes more field data than a farmer knows how to handle.
The farmer favorite, understandably, is the yield map. A good one colorfully shows the product of a year of hard work. The harvesters adds up the yield and moisture and pairs the data with the appropriate GPS coordinates. After the harvest, a map of the yield, sometimes called a heat map, is ready to print. They appear similar to a weather radar map. Every color represents a different range of yield. The farmer can easily see what kinds of crops did better than others, and which ones were more consistent in their yield. This kind of map enlightens the farmer to problems in drainage systems. This kind of data helps the farmer plan for the future.
- Genetic Engineering
This isn’t anything new, but a technology that is extremely important with promising future developments. The most well-known examples of genetic engineering, or biotechnology, is resistance to herbicides or insects. Some crops even put out toxins that ward off certain pests, such as Bt – a toxin in organic pesticides. Such biotechnology saves the farmer the money, time, fuel and equipment wear of applying pesticides later.
Now, biotechnology is coming out that makes crops resistant to dry years or crops that use nitrogen more efficiently. That means crops can still have a great yield during a drought. Farmers needn’t water their crops as much. Plants engineered to be efficient with nitrogen can be treated similarly with lack of fertilizer. There is the potential for one variety to have more than one of these useful and advanced traits.
Since biotechnology is controversial, questions are welcome.
- Manure Management
One farmer/blogger, Ray Prock, wrote a whole post about his interesting method of dairy cow manure retrieval. Prock uses water to automatically flush the manure away to where it can dry up. Then it’s easy to pick up and process. Liquid manure flushes on to fertilize his crops or go back and flush more manure. He uses a meter to ensure that the right amount (and not too much) is getting to his plants. Since the extra runoff runs the risk of contaminating the ground water, Prock put ponds around his field to catch the high-nutrient runoff and recycle it through his system again and again. Prock created an android app for his blog followers who want to keep up on high-tech ideas such as his manure management.
- Testing The Livestock
Ultrasounds and DNA testing are all part of wise management to ensure that the meat is high quality and the animal has a good pedigree. Such data helps farmers learn for the future and improve their herd.
- Mobile Management
Using your phone to manage the farm is getting more and more popular and easy. Social media is used for many reasons. Foursquare, for example, helps employers know their workers. Not only that, the flashlight app has become indispensable for some farmers. Make use of the camera to capture an image of something before you take it apart. Then you’ll have a map of how to put it back together.
There are apps for irrigation systems and storage systems. LoadOut technologies created an app to let you get grain into your truck without ever leaving the vehicle. There are apps that use GPS to map soil varieties, apps for ag news, apps about pests, apps for how to mix farming inputs, and apps that show temperature increases throughout the days. GDDs, for example, utilize a temperature index that shows where your crop might be on the growing cycle. There’s even an app for the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville that shows the schedule and all vendors.
Now, agricultural technology is meeting mobile technology so that all the data collected by GPS equipment and other farming software can be at your fingertips in an app. Precision Planting recently released its iPad app that displays such data. It will be fun to see how the preceding technology will become accessible and controllable via smartphones.
- Camera Craze
Cameras can be utilized well all over the farm. Put a camera on the end of a combine to display, in the cab, what’s behind. There are many pieces of equipment that could make use of a camera to do away with blind spots. A big grain cart might be holding up traffic between fields, and the driver wouldn’t know it, unless a rear-facing camera showed what was behind. Since neck-craning is a tiring activity for a tractor driver, put a camera on the tractor to keep an eye on the hauled implement.
Farm that deal in livestock are now placing cameras in feedlots, barns and pastures so that the farmer can keep a watchful eye from his office or home. One farmer, Val Wagner, said she intentionally put up cameras to watch them in calving season. She hopes to cut the risk of an outdoor calf birth on a freezing night.
That’s the cream of the crop when it comes to agricultural technology. It’s more precise, more efficient and collects more data. Farmers can utilize so much of this to get a great yield … if the unpredictability of nature allows (it always throws some curve ball, doesn’t it? That’s the nature of the beast called “farming.”)