Farmers’ love-hate relationship with GPS guidance

Widespread adoption of GPS guidance for field operations occurred 10 to 15 years ago. Just as people under the age of 35 don’t remember a world without internet, farming without guidance systems now seems unimaginable. Unfortunately, guidance systems remain costly and often frustrating.

Growing up in a region where discers were the primary seeding implement, guidance was as simple as keeping the front tractor wheel in the furrow. Harrowing and packing operations were trickier, particularly in situations where it was tough to see the edge of your last pass.

Doing an A/B line meant aiming for some fixed point at the other end of the field. Driving straight was a matter of pride, something I was never good at.

On sprayers, foam markers were considered an advancement over disc markers. Many sprayers still in operation were originally fitted with foam systems.

When the first farmers adopted GPS guidance on seeders, their neighbours often scoffed. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I can’t steer my own tractor.” The advantages soon converted the skeptics.

Perfectly straight lines with very little overlap and reduced operator stress were hard to argue against. For farms with any significant acreage, the investment was easy to justify. The adoption rate was amazingly rapid, going from a few early pioneers to a majority of producers in just a few years.

Today, if the GPS guidance on your seeder goes down, you could still seed the old-fashioned way, but most producers will stop seeding until their guidance is up and running again. The conversion from luxury to necessity is even more dramatic with sprayers where there are no marks to follow.

Like a lot of technology, GPS guidance systems haven’t really become less expensive. They’ve just become more advanced and complicated for about the same price. While some producers pay a subscription to get more accurate and reliable guidance, many others find the free satellites adequate.

Full-blown variable rate application technology is practised by a minority of producers, but GPS guidance is being designed to interface with variable rate maps.

Good luck understanding the manual for a modern GPS system. The capabilities and nuances are far beyond what a majority of producers need or want. Expect to know your GPS technicians personally because you might be on the phone with them for extended conversations if you have to work through any issues.

If your GPS works well and you’re comfortable with it, just remember that everything wears out. When your current system crashes or when you upgrade your tractor, sprayer or combine, you’ll likely be getting a more advanced system. Yes, it will do more, but it might be a learning curve and there are more things to go wrong.

GPS guidance has become big business for equipment dealers. However, the technical support they need to provide has to be factored into the cost of the units.

Overall, it’s a classic love-hate relationship. When the GPS is set up and working properly, life is good. When the system fails and you can’t reach a technician or when even the technician can’t troubleshoot the issue, it can be extremely frustrating.

Picture yourself sitting in a sprayer filled with expensive herbicide on a warm day with calm winds and a broken GPS. The problem might be as simple as the antennae cable or as expensive as needing a new brain box.

Either way, you’re not going anywhere until the problem is resolved.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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