Farm equipment will get smarter, not bigger

How big can we go? It’s a question many producers ask each year as they attend Canada’s Farm Progress Show in Regina.

When I first started wandering around the show back in the early 1980s, I remember marvelling at the size of the tractors, cultivators and combines. Who could afford this stuff? Surely, the practical limits of size would soon be reached.

Like many small to moderate-sized farmers, I’m well behind the technology and size curve. In my case, I’m using equipment that was state of the art 10 to 20 years ago. At the time, it was considered pretty large.

I’ve no doubt that technology will continue to advance, and fortunately much of that technology can be retrofitted onto older machines. However, I’m still waiting for the raw size to reach a plateau.

Is it practical and efficient to haul a seed cart that has capacity for more than 1,000 bushels? Fewer stops to fill with seed and fertilizer is a big time saver. Most farmers wish they could afford to buy and pull a bigger cart, but more than 1,000 bu.?

At some point, the horsepower and fuel required and the potential problems with soil compaction should put a limit on cart size. Saving a couple of hours on fill time every day is great, but it needs to be weighed against the cost.

And what about drills that are 80 or 90 feet wide? They may be fine for wide-open land with no sloughs or other obstructions, but much of the prairie landscape isn’t like that. And the equipment still has to be able to fold up so it can be transported on a road.

Equipment size isn’t the limiting factor on a lot of farms — it’s the labour to make everything happen. Treating workers well and paying them competitively can reduce the money spent on ever-larger iron.

And there are other ways to gain time during seeding and harvest. Field peas can be seeded early and crops such as barley and oats can be seeded later. And if you can get winter wheat into the ground in the fall, it reduces pressure in the spring.

A mix of crops also staggers harvest work. Field peas or red lentils might be the first crop off, with canaryseed and chickpeas being the last.

Some operations seed only 50 acres for every foot of drill width. For instance, they may have a 60 foot drill for 3,000 acres. Others may do 150 or even 200 acres for every foot of drill. To accomplish this, the outfit typically has to run 24 hours a day during much of the seeding season.

Interestingly, it isn’t always the operations with the lowest acres per foot that finish first. Breakdowns, family dynamics, poor decisions, lack of labour and off-farm distractions can all take a toll on seeding progress.

You can buy a bigger drill, but it’s better to just address the issues.

Twenty or 30 years from now, if there are still enough farmers around to justify a Farm Progress Show, will the air drills be 200 feet wide with 2,000 bu. carts? I doubt it.

More likely, the drills will be a moderate size with several outfits run remotely by one operator sitting in front of a bank of monitors.

Efficiency gains will continue, but increasingly those gains are going to come from technological advances rather than bigger iron.



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