Auto guidance boasts deep agricultural roots

Reduce stress | Auto guidance systems pay for themselves by reducing overlap of seed, pesticides and nutrients

REGINA — Auto guidance began in the 1870s with patents for systems that would help farmers keep their furrows straight and crops evenly planted.

Producers and the people who mechanized farming saw the need to remove human error, fatigue and skill from the operation of farm machinery, says researcher Rajiv Khosla.

“And that’s still the main tool for precision agriculture today —guidance — but soon, very soon, there will be another set of benefits for the famer,” said the soil science professor and precision agriculture specialist with Colorado State University.

In 1910, the Big Four Tractor had an optional automatic furrow follower mounted on the right front wheel.

A pair of 12 foot of arms attached to a guidance wheel prevented overlaps and wasted tillage and land breaking.

“More than 100 years later, we seem to able to do that once again,” Khosla said at Canada’s Farm Progress Show held recently in Regina.

According to Purdue University’s most recent farmer poll, auto guidance systems are still the fastest growing area of precision agriculture.

“About 70 percent of farmers in North America now use auto guidance or auto pilot … paid for with savings in pesticides, seed and nutrients,” said Khosla.

“Reduced stress and operator fatigue has been a big benefit, but a lack of skilled labour has improved farm efficiency. More work gets done and it reduces the negative effects on the operator, then and now.”

Khosla said the next step for most farmers — on-farm data collection — is just starting.

“Today we cannot only help with steering and efficiencies there, we can collect more than a million data points from a single quarter section of land.”

Technology such as Green Seeker and others like it can measure crop needs on the go and add nutrients only to the areas that need them to maximize production.

He said those real-time systems need yield, topographic and soil quality information.

However, they are only of limited benefit without farmers’ own experiences with the soil and the crops they typically grow, he added.

“We haven’t always found that more inputs in high-yielding areas will pay off, but in some cases, they do,” Khosla said.

“However, we do know that inputs can be wasted in low fertility areas, so there are benefits.”

He said the trend toward grid soil sampling has cost most farmers money and been a waste of resources. The benefit of variable rate applications in highly managed and prescribed amounts hasn’t delivered the returns needed to pay for the time and testing, he added.

Khosla said a 160 acre field that is sampled on a 7.5 metre grid sounds impressive, but it’s too coarse to be considered good science and too fine to be good agronomy.

“When we sample at a rate that is good science, it is far more intense. The farmer often asks if the researchers are just setting up a new field to play with back in the lab, so much dirt is needed,” he said.

“You can create a pretty map, but in reality, well, it isn’t real.”

He said farmers can find value in variable rates of nutrients, fungicide and seed by creating management zones, similar to what they did in the early days of prairie agriculture when they more intimately knew their much smaller farms.

He said breaking most fields into three management zones based on yield, topography, electrical conductivity, satellite and aerial imaging, organic matter and salinity seems to produce the greatest re-sults, particularly when layered with farmers’ own knowledge.

Khosla said managing those areas of the field with variable rate tools and mapping and limited soil sampling appears to be the most effective solution and likely the next step that farmers will embrace.

“There are too many variables that can play into the planning otherwise. So it’s better to manage the more obvious ones,” he said. “High costs of inputs and seed, high prices for labour or a lack of it: they will drive farmers to (use precision tools).”

Robotics is another area that Khosla expects farmers will soon embrace.

Most major equipment companies are now testing drone machinery that doesn’t require an operator, while machines are starting to take over skilled pruning and rice planting duties in high-value crops.

Khosla said that automation rapidly finds its way into other areas of the industry as companies look for new markets for their technology.

About the author

explore

Stories from our other publications