Sometimes you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to make an unexpected repair, but you don’t have the right tools. Not a problem for a farmer. In a pinch you can make something else work for you 9 times out of 10.
Farmers are also great at adopting new technology. Nowadays tools on many farms and ranches are very sophisticated. From tractors that drive themselves to cows that text, the modern farmer’s toolbox contains a host of cool toys.
Here are 12 of the most advanced agricultural technologies employed today:
1. Tractors on autopilot
Thanks to GPS tractors, combines, sprayers and more can accurately drive themselves through the field. After the user has told the onboard computer system how wide a path a given piece of equipment will cover he will drive a short distance setting A & B points to make a line. Then the GPS system will have a track to follow and it extrapolates that line into parallel lines set apart by the width of the tool in use.
These systems are capable of tracking curved lines as well. The tracking system is tied to the tractor’s steering, automatically keeping it on track freeing the operator from driving. This allows the operator to keep a closer eye on other things. Guidance is great for tillage because it removes human error from overlap, saving fuel and equipment hours. Trust me when I tell you that once you starting auto tracking, you’ll never go back manual steering.
2. Swath control and variable rate technology
Building on GPS technology are swath control and VRT. This is where guidance really begins to show a return on investment. Swath control is just what it sounds like. The farmer is controlling the size of the swath a given piece of equipment takes through the field. This video is a great visual representation of how swath control works.
The savings come from using less inputs like seed, fertilizer, herbicides, etc. Since the size and shapes of fields are irregular you are bound to overlap to some extent in every application. Thanks to GPS mapping the equipment in the field already knows where it has been. Swath control shuts off sections of the applicator as it enters the overlap area, saving the farmer from applying twice the inputs on the same piece of ground.
VRT works in a similar fashion. Based on production history and soil tests a farmer can build a prescription GPS map for an input. By knowing what areas of a field are most and least productive the application rate of an input like fertilizer can be tailored to increase or decrease automatically at the appropriate time. This is a big benefit for farms. Instead of applying a set rate of fertilizer over the entire field (many times a high rate to help those low producing areas) an operator can now apply a rate most effective for a particular section of ground.
3. Your tractor is calling
Telematics is being touted as the next big thing in ag. This technology allows equipment to talk to farmers, equipment dealers, and even other equipment. Imagine you have a problem in the field and have to stop working. With telematics your dealer can access the onboard diagnostic system of your tractor. Depending on the problem they might be able to fix your equipment right from dealer. No waiting on a mechanic to drive out to wherever you might be. You’re back to work, and the dealer saved a trip too. Farmers will be able to keep track of what field equipment is in, fuel consumption, operating hours, and much more. Personally I’ve noticed on our farm as we become more technologically advanced our downtime is often caused by electrical, software, or hardware problems as opposed to mechanical.
Tractors can even communicate between themselves. The best example is a combine and a grain cart. Grain carts pull up next to harvesting equipment so the harvester can unload on the move without stopping to unload. Telematics can tell the grain cart operator when a combine is filling up with grain. Even better if one cart is chasing two combines. The driver knows which machine needs unloading first. The latest innovation has the combine operator actually taking wireless control of the tractor pulling the grain cart as it pulls alongside, giving him the ability to shuttle the cart forward and back to more easily fill the cart.
4. Your cow is calling too
And it’s not saying “Moo!” Collars developed for livestock are helping producers keep track of their herds. Sensors in the collar send information to a rancher’s smartphone giving the rancher a heads up on where a cow might be, or maybe she’s in some sort of distress, or maybe just in the mood for some mating. I suppose you could say it’s kind of like telematics for cows!
RFID tags are also a handy device for livestock management. The information kept on a tag helps producers keep track of individual animals, speeding up and making record keeping more precise. I recently read about RFID tags placed in to hay as it is baled. Data such as moisture and weight can be stored in the tag to be scanned later.
5. Irrigate via smartphone
Mobile tech is playing a big role in monitoring and controlling crop irrigation systems. With the right equipment a farmer can control his irrigation systems from a phone or computer instead of driving to each field. Moisture sensors in the ground are able to communicate information about the level of moisture present at certain depths in the soil. This increased flexibility allows for more precise control of water and other inputs like fertilizer that are applied by irrigation pivots. Farmers can also combine this with other tech like VRT mentioned earlier to control the rate of water applied. It’s all about more effective and efficient use of resources. I read a magazine article recently where a farmer stated that because of these technologies his total water usage is now less than what he was wasting previously.
6. Sensing how your crop is feeling
Crop sensors. This is taking variable rate technology to the next level. Instead of making a prescription fertilizer map for a field before you go out to apply it, crop sensors tell application equipment how much to apply in real time. Optical sensors are able to see how much fertilizer a plant may need based on the amount of light reflected back to the sensor. I haven’t seen one of these systems in operation yet, but I’m keeping a close eye on them. It’s fairly new and pretty expensive, but I see huge potential here. Crop sensors are going to help farmers apply fertilizer in a very effective manner, maximizing uptake and reducing potential leaching and runoff into ground water.
7. Field documentation
Because of onboard monitors and GPS the ability to document yields, application rates, and tillage practices is becoming easier and more precise every year. In fact farmers are getting to the point where they have so much good data on hand that it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do with all of it.
And of course, every farmer’s favorite form of documentation is the yield map. It sums up a year’s worth of planning and hard work on a piece of colorful paper. As harvesting equipments rolls through the field it calculates yield and moisture as it goes tying it in with GPS coordinates. When finished a map of the field is printed. These maps are often called heat maps. I liken then to weather radar maps. Each color on the map relates to a certain yield range. Now the farmer can see what varieties had the best, worst, or most consistent yield over varying conditions. Maps like this can tell a farmer how well a field’s drainage system is working. (In case you weren’t aware, there is a massive network of private and public drainage at work underground on farms.) All this data allows for better agronomic decisions in the future.
Biotech or genetic engineering (GE) isn’t new tech, but it is a very important tool with much more potential yet to be unleashed. The form of GE most people have probably heard of is herbicide resistance. The other would likely be insect resistant traits. Crops can be made to express toxins that control particular pests. Many employ Bt toxin that is the same toxin found in some organic pesticides. That means a farmer won’t have to make a pass through his fields to apply pesticide, which not only saves on pesticide, but fuel, labor, and wear on equipment too.
New biotech coming online right now are things like drought resistant traits and nitrogen use efficiency. What does that mean? In short it means that crops are going to be able to protect more potential yield in drought conditions. Another way to look at it would be that farmers who irrigate their crops can cut back on water use and not see yields suffer. Nitrogen use efficiency is a lot like that except you’re doing it with fertilizer instead of water. A single crop variety can be made to express one, two, three or potentially even all of these traits in a single plant.
I know this can be a touchy subject, so I welcome any questions you might have in the comments.
9. Don’t forget to flush
Ray Prock dedicated a whole blog post on how he manages cow manure on his California dairy. I’m sure most people know that manure makes good fertilizer, but it’s the method Ray uses to collect it for use that is so cool. An automatic system uses water to flush manure away from the cattle into a holding area where all the solid matter dries up. After it dries the solid manure can be picked up and further processed.
The liquid manure continues on into another area. From here it can be pumped out and used to fertilize Ray’s crop or it can be sent back in to flush out more manure. A metering device lets him know exactly how much liquid is used so that just the right amount is placed on the crops. Excess nutrients are at risk of reaching groundwater, but Ray is all over that too. Irrigation runoff is captured in ponds and is recycled over and over again in the system. For more high tech farm goodness head on over to the Android market and download Mr. Prock’s app for his farm blog! It’s the only one I’m aware exists!
10. Ultrasounds and more for livestock
They aren’t just for checking on baby animals in the womb. Ultrasounds can be used to discover what quality of meat might be found in an animal before it goes to market. DNA testing helps producers identify animals with good pedigrees and other desirable qualities. This information can then be use to improve the quality of the herd which helps the farmer improve his bottom line.
11. There’s an app for that
Mobile tech is big in ag and it’s getting bigger all the time. Farmers and ranchers are using all the social media sites for all types of reasons. Some are using apps like foursquare to keep tabs on employees. You might even catch me on a twitter chat tweeting away right from the tractor cab. The tractor is driving itself and my hands are free (see item #1) so why not?
Apps can control irrigation and grain storage systems. Want to load grain into a truck without getting out of the cab? LoadOut Technologies has you covered. I can’t tell you how many times the flashlight app on my phone comes in handy. Even the camera can be put to work on the farm. If you think you might forget how something goes back together after you take it apart take a picture of it assembled. On my phone I have apps that show me soil type via GPS, agricultural news and markets, insect pests, calculations for mixing herbicide solutions, and one that tracks growing degree days. GDDs are an index based on temperature that gives a grower an idea of how mature a crop may be. If you plan on visiting the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, you won’t have to carry around a map all day that shows vendors booths and event schedules. There’s an app for that too.
And we’re finally getting to where we can take all that data I talked about earlier and have access to it on smartphones and tablets. Precision Planting just came out with an iPad app that does just that. I’m very excited to watch this kind of tech develop in combination with many of the things listed above.
12. Smile for the camera
Putting up cameras around the farm is a trend that’s catching on. We have a rear-facing camera on the back of the combine that shows up on a monitor in the cab. I can think of all kinds of places to put cameras on large pieces of equipment to help eliminate blind spots. Our grain cart is wide enough that you can’t see around it so I’d like to have one out back to I know if I’m holding up traffic when driving from field to field. Another idea would be to have a camera or two looking at the implement behind the tractor. Craning your neck around left and right all day to look behind you gets a little painful after a while.
Livestock managers are wiring up their barns, feedlots, and pastures with cameras that send images back to a central location like an office or home computer. They can keep a closer eye on animals when they are away or home for the night. Val Wagner told me she is setting up cameras to monitor cows during calving season. Her hope is that by being able to watch the cows during this critical time they can lessen the chance of calves being born outside on those well below zero North Dakota nights.
So now you’re up to speed on some of the latest and greatest things going on in agriculture. It’s all about more data, efficiency, and precision. Farmers and ranchers have a lot of awesome stuff to help them produce a bountiful harvest. So long as Mother Nature chooses to play along. She’ll come up with at least one monkey wrench each year no matter what you do, but that goes with the territory.
So what’s your favorite piece of farm tech? Which one do you want to know more about?
Brian Scott is a 4th generation farmer from Northwest Indiana. He grows corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat on 2,300 acres with his father and grandfather. Brian graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Soil and Crop Management. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Nicole, and they have one son. In addition to farming, family, and social media, Brian enjoys all things automotive, playing golf, and watching football and basketball.