Seeding now reliant on GPS — which is scary

The grain industry has become so dependent upon guidance technology that we’re ex-tremely vulnerable to service disruptions.


Without GPS, we have a heck of a time operating. 


Not many years ago, the first tractors steering themselves were a novelty at Regina’s Farm Progress Show. A few years after that, producers across Western Canada started adopting the technology. Soon it was a tsunami.


We went from occasional fields with the rows perfectly straight to almost all the acres seeded that way. Most of the early naysayers had to admit the advantages and climb on the bandwagon. 


Dramatically reduced overlap means saving money on seed, fertilizer and crop protection products. It’s easy to calculate the monetary payback. On top of that, operator fatigue is reduced and you can make a seeder operator out of someone with limited experience or someone of advancing years. 


The systems became better and less expensive, but many producers wanted and needed better accuracy than what they could get with the free satellites available. Paying an annual or seasonal subscription was a logical and worthwhile investment.


This spring, there have been problems with one of the subscribed services. Users have struggled with dropped signals and irregularities.


For us, the solution was to upgrade the hardware on the seeding tractor so we could go to another subscribed service. This one, I’m told, uses a bunch of additional Russian satellites to provide dramatically im-proved reliability and accuracy. So far, it’s living up to the billing.


We didn’t stop seeding during the service disruptions but we did curse a lot. Sometimes the system worked well for much of the day, but less than straight seeding rows in many fields clearly shows the times when it wasn’t running. 


You would be hard pressed to operate at all without GPS in some seeding systems, such as disc openers in tall stubble. The days of mechanical markers for drills are long gone.


And you’re likely hooped if the GPS doesn’t work on your sprayer. Foam markers that were the industry standard have gone the way of the dodo bird.


It would be interesting to know how many service calls and how much downtime is caused by GPS related issues. And unlike all the mechanical problems you can have on a tractor, seeder or sprayer, most of us are helpless to fix GPS malfunctions. 


For me, it’s a little disconcerting that I’m now relying on Russian satellites for improved service. 


Some people worry about genetically modified crop technology being controlled by industry giants. And they worry about the concentration of herbicide manufacturers. There are worries about joining the rest of the world in the adoption of UPOV 91 standards for plant breeders’ rights.


We prepare for fertilizer and diesel shortages by having more on-farm storage. We stock up on crop protection products we’ll need in case they become hard to find.


Maybe we’re missing another key vulnerability. Not only are we extremely reliant on GPS, but it’s now possible for companies to collect reams of production data from producers. Major companies are making big investments to have access to this data. Isn’t that a bit scary?


Yes, the future will probably see the adoption of more precision farming techniques, but the advancement 
is entirely reliant on Star Wars technology.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

  • Ron Lewkowicz

    I just mounted a video camera out at the end of each wing. I can’t quite make the perfectly straight rows but I can keep the overlap and misses down to inches.