Gravy Time For Guidance
Users of the technology are willing to pay to get high-cost crop inputs applied effectively.
September 10, 2008
Indeed, "guidance system sales have exploded," says Rhett Schildroth, precision agriculture product marketing manager, Topcon Positioning Systems. The demand curve started to escalate big time over the last year — "and it continues to rise; it's not linear, it's exponential," says Paul Welbig, business development manager, Raven Industries.
"And with higher input costs and other efficiencies in the production process, the adoption of GPS technology will grow, primarily due to the value it delivers to farm operation," adds Rich Gould, vice president of product strategy for TeeJet/Spraying Systems Co.
That value is measurable in dollars and cents. "Once considered just nice to have, now GPS guidance tools are producing serious return-on-investment for growers by improving efficiency, reducing fatigue, saving time, fuel, overlap, etc., which can lower input costs and even increase yields," says Joe Robertson, manager of communications with AutoFarm.
Savings will become even more important as commodity markets shift. Growers are also "facing up to the fact when commodity prices eventually fall, there will be another economic shakeout which only the efficient will survive," says Rob Lindores, director of marketing, Trimble Agriculture Division.
Why The Gains
Part of the reason for glowing predictions is the decision by equipment manufacturers — who anticipate increased sales of tractors, combines, and the like — to install guidance options and steering options at the factory. In addition, units are being added at the licensed equipment dealership level.
It also appears there will be a lot of upgrading from lightbar guidance to real hands-free automated steering due to the latter's efficiencies and reduced operator stress and fatigue, Robertson adds.
Emily Harringa, communications specialist with John Deere AMS, points to growers' increasing adoption of farming techniques such as strip-till and variable-rate application to explain the boom in guidance sales. Strip-till, in particular, offers more efficiency in time, travel, and labor savings, says Robertson. It also means more demand for systems that promise repeatable accuracy, such as advertised by real-time kinematic (RTK) equipment and networks.
Welbig says the ethanol industry is a significant driver, but "the agriculture boom is not limited to U.S. production," he says. "We've seen substantial growth in our international markets," which include South America, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Then too, the recent devaluation of the U.S. dollar — which is making U.S. ag commodities more popular because of their lower international prices — is also making U.S. guidance products more desirable.
Now-pricier fertilizers used so much on the expanded corn acreage have particularly encouraged guidance system use. "The payback of auto section control devices for sprayers, spreaders, and anhydrous ammonia systems has jumped way up with the skyrocketing input costs," says Topcon's Schildroth. "Where previously it could take up to five years for systems to reach a payback, today the payback can sometimes occur in one season."
Room For All?
Anhydrous has come back like a lion, says Welbig, so using guidance products to help apply it is more popular. Plus, he says applicators will add products like Raven's Accu-Flow system to apply nitrogen at a specific application rate per acre.
"We've sold fewer cotton yield monitors with more cotton acres going to corn, but we have made this up with grain yield monitors for corn," says Ag Leader's King.
While the guidance market is hopping, competition is, admittedly, keen. "I don't know if there will wind up being fewer companies in the precision agriculture arena, but the firms that focus on customer support and service in conjunction with innovative product offerings will fare much better," says Hemisphere GPS's Jeff Farrar, channel marketing manager.
Innovation, in part, would include developing products that can be used on already-owned systems. "We have a lot of products that can interface with the equipment they already have," says Welbig. "My advice is you don't have to throw away what you already have — you can add some of this technology in a lot more cost-effective manner and still get to take advantage of all the newest features that are available today and recoup rewards right away."
"And the easier it is for growers to use a piece of precision agriculture equipment, the more likely they will be to buy and use it," says Trevor Mecham, North American business manager, ag, for Leica Geosystems, creator of the Virtual Wrench Web-based service and support tool.
"We have seen an increase in companies sharing technology and resources in order to compete in this ever-changing industry," says Farrar.
Auto Everything All The Buzz
CropLifeÂ® asked manufacturers which of their guidance systems are generating the most buzz this spring. While companies are tweaking the nuts and bolts of the systems themselves, it's the add-ons like new automatic steering, automatic boom section control, and automatic boom leveling they say are getting a lion's share of buyers' attention.
John Deere's iTEC Pro allows automatic turning at headland boundaries and "is an exciting industry exclusive," says Harringa. "It continues with the pattern of greater efficiency when an operator can allow iTEC Pro to slow the tractor speed, raise the implement, and complete a headland turn — all hands-free."
Ag Leader's SeedCommand and DirectCommand product lines have been of great interest to both growers and applicators, says King. "SeedCommand helps lower seed costs and improves yields by eliminating over-planting on end rows, point rows, and terraces. DirectCommand automatically turns boom sections on and off, helping to lower the cost of chemicals. It also automatically creates an application report based on your field work," he explains. "This is great for government-required reporting and for custom applicators who want to provide a detailed report to their customers."
Robertson says AutoFarm's newest GPS product, the FarmPRO GPS Steering & Application Control System, is getting lots of attention. It combines "industry-leading sub-inch RTK steering from AutoFarm with state-of-the-art variable-rate spray and boom control in the Viper PRO from Raven Industries," he says. It uses a single touch screen terminal at the operator's fingertip.
More New Systems
TeeJet/Spraying Systems Co. is getting lots of requests for information on its FieldPilot and BoomPilot. "FieldPilot is an affordable way to add assisted steering to self-propelled sprayers and tractors," explains Gould. "BoomPilot allows the user to automatically shut off or turn on boom sections in previously applied areas while they can pay attention to other settings or functions in the process of applying crop inputs."
Trimble's Lindores says the simple-to-use AgGPS EZ-Steer 500 has been appealing to both first-time GPS users as well as veteran operators.
Introduced just this February by Hemisphere GPS, the Outback S3 combines the established Outback S2 and the Outback 360 with the latest development in Crescent GPS receiver technology, says Farrar. It features a high-resolution touch screen display that provides clear, easy-to-read job data and system status information in real time. Though the S3 is loaded with features and the latest technology, it is extremely easy to use, he adds.
Topcon Positioning System's flagship product, the X20, continues to be a big seller. Users can start with a simple screen-based manual guidance system and quickly and easily add many applications without cluttering up the equipment cab, says Schildroth. In fact, the new X20 console has a super-bright touch screen that is 70% larger than previous models for ease of viewing and use.