Impressive Evolution

Real-Time Logistics

In January, I was invited by the Nebraska Ag Technologies Association to speak at the organization’s winter meeting and share some thoughts on where we are with technology in agriculture and where we might be headed. I was only marginally enthused about the prospect of hearing my own voice for almost an hour, but I was really excited about doing the prep work that would be needed for such a presentation.

About a month was spent interviewing experts from ag technology companies and retail dealerships, as well as consultants and other people with a lot to say on the subject. After more than 30 interviews, a fairly clear image of ag technology trends in the immediate and longer term came into view.

Consolidation Comes Around

One interesting trend in technology last year was the plethora of consolidations and joint ventures occurring in the precision side of technology. Trimble, which traditionally has been strong in GPS guidance technology, made a move toward adding more “on the ground” technology by purchasing planter clutch company Tru-Count and variable-rate controller manufacturer Rawson Controls. Trimble also partnered up with DICKEY-john on a variable-rate seeding technology offering. Equipment manufacturer AGCO partnered up with Topcon to bring Topcon’s range of current and future guidance offerings to AGCO machinery. Certainly, the drive to be competitive on as many fronts as possible and the desire to gain user loyalty through fuller product lines impacted the industry in 2008.

Looking at the bigger picture, the message from everyone was that, despite the general economic malaise, the fundamentals of agriculture are sound. And while agriculture is managing to dodge and parry challenges all around, it’s a good time to tighten up efficiency and improve productivity. Bringing on new technology, or using the technology you already own more efficiently, is a part of any improvement strategy.

Global Positioning

If data means virtually nothing unless it’s geographically referenced to a specific point on a field, then global positioning is the underpinning to all meaningful data. Not surprisingly, improvements to global positioning systems have been an important focus both for governments and private companies.

In the sky, there’s been a dramatic uptick in the number of available satellites for positioning, and more are on the way. Along with the U.S.’ GPS constellation, Russia continues to add birds to its GLONASS system, and China, India, and Japan are also moving rapidly forward on plans to add positioning satellites. Receiver manufacturers are adding capabilities to use these satellites to improve accuracy and reduce the chance of losing a signal.

On the ground, the real-time kinematic (RTK) base stations and tower networks now covering millions of acres across the country are being joined by CORS networks in some areas. CORS — Continuously Operating Reference Stations — have largely been used by state governmental agencies such as departments of transportation to provide positioning for surveying and construction. States such as Iowa and Alabama are opening up their CORS networks and making them available to users who register with the state free of charge. The networks can offer RTK-quality signals.

The operational CORS networks are working well, but how fast they might proliferate across the country remains to be seen. Retailers can contact their state department of transportation for information on plans for CORS networks in a particular state.

Telematics: Managing Data

In conversations before and after the meeting, one word I used to describe growers and agronomists and their relationship with their own field data rang true: exhaustion. Folks are exhausted with trying to manage the amount of data flowing in on a particular operation, and with the task of making data make sense on a given operation.

A key part of the problem is the amount of data intercession in which growers must engage along the way — for example, moving data cards from cab to computer. The data movement issue is huge because of the potential for miscues from the machinery to the office. Use of telematics — allowing smart machines to transfer information wirelessly and compatibly — is showing great promise and is a key focus of development for manufacturers.

In addition to information such as georeferenced data, field machinery will be able to transfer maintenance and efficiency information to help operators manage the equipment to avoid breakdowns and make best decisions.

Some manufacturers are taking a “dashboard” approach to developing new software, which would give growers a view of their total operation. The idea is to include everything in one screen — for example, equipment maintenance reports sent wirelessly from the equipment to the desktop, letting the grower know about upcoming regular maintenance or failing parts, as well as access to field data and other farm operation information.

Telematics: Logistics

Spring season is always full of surprises and curve balls that test the mettle of logistics managers at retail dealerships, and by all accounts this spring will be particularly difficult. Any tool that has the potential to help manage the madness is worth a look — thus, there’s plenty of buzz around the plethora of logistics programs being offered by manufacturers.

With the proliferation of reliable cellular signals in many rural areas and the availability of data plans, there are a growing number of programs available that allow retailers to track equipment operating in the field in real time. Using a computer and monitor in a central location, logistics managers can monitor the movement of equipment across a geographic area, along with details of the field work such as equipment speed and work order specifics. It also allows the manager to quickly make on-the-go changes that improve efficiency and take intuition and guesswork out of the process.

Sensor Technology

A bit farther down the road, developments in on-the-go sensor technology will likely make serious progress in precision agriculture programs. Some experts are imagining a time when sensor technology could eventually serve to replace soil sampling for nutrients by scanning a plant and making an on-the-go application based on plant need as detected by the sensor. There are also some success stories, in particular in Australia, that use the GreenSeeker on-the-go sensor in post applications for weed control. Sensor technology, and the algorithms that drive them, continue to improve.

These are but four trends that technology experts shared with me, but there are plenty of big ideas still in the hopper. And they’re coming on fast.

It took more than 60 years from the time the tractor was invented for tractors to outnumber horses on the farm. Conversely, it was just over two decades ago that agriculture’s technological revolution began with Soilection, the marriage of computer technology with an application rig. Now, more than two-thirds of retailers do electronics-based variable-rate application. And it’s hard to imagine a rig without functional computer technology that’s built in, ready-to-go, and features controlling aspects of the rig we could have only dreamed of back in 1985.

Despite the challenges of compatibility and adoption, technology is making us more efficient, more profitable, and better stewards of the land.

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