While rate controllers have been around for almost 30 years, some major gains in the technology have come in the past few years. Today, many controllers can be connected into systems that run GPS, lightbar guidance, field mapping, automatic steering, printable reports, and the like. The controllers can now help fertilize and seed at varying rates, use multiple hoppers to put down granulars, and apply multiple products via direct injection.
The question is which controller will give the most value, whether buyers are starting from scratch or adding to components already on equipment. “Operators want more and more out of the electronics they buy,” says Michael Helling, manager-flow control at Trimble.
Some Keep It Simple
“There are two levels of operators today,” says Craig Fenstermaker, product manager at New Leader. “Those looking for simple operation, and those looking for maximum documentation.” He says on the no-frills end, New Leader’s SP.6 controller provides direct, simple set-up and two functions operators really want: simple input of rate and density and conveyor speed control/closed loop spinner speed control.
Rob Hoehn, sales manager at Micro-Trak Systems, says manufacturers are taking standard control systems and making variations that provide a more “custom fit” for buyers. The company has introduced its new MT-3405D dual channel automatic rate controller, which can handle two products. Able to do variable rates (VR), it controls and records channels 1 and 2 independently — and can apply any combination of liquid, granular, or anhydrous ammonia (NH3).
Rawson’s Accu-Rate variable-rate controller mounts to any planter, drill, air seeder, granular and air spreader, and liquid applicator with constant volume pumps.
The Falcon II covers both ends of the technology spectrum. It can act as a stand-alone, “basic,” single-rate controller or a single-rate controller using a background image to “view” application, explains Wade Stewart, AGCO Global Technologies. But it can also control multiple products (up to 10) and variable rates (up to 200). The unit combines accuracy and automatic recording of as-applied data, with incredibly simple operation, he says.
Controllers are helping variable-rate application gain momentum. In fact, variable-rate control is the new catch phrase in 2006-07, believes Dan Iseminger, business development manager for KEE Technologies North America, a Div. of Topcon Positioning Systems. Grower-customers want to lower input costs and increase yields, “and to appease the environmentalists that are concerned about run-off, leaching, and increased nitrate levels in lakes and streams,” he says.
Also on the high end, the New Leader 7 offers a buffet of capabilities, including liquid and dry operation, auto swath control, multiple product application, auto steering capability, GPS guidance, job summary report, touch screen control, colored screen, and two features unique to the NL7 — feedgate and fan frame automation, a patented feature. On spinner spreaders, Fenstermaker says, this technology adjusts the fanframe and feedgate to the operator’s predetermined settings for each product. “No more moving from the cab to the spinner over and over during application runs,” he points out.
A number of companies released their new or improved versions of automatic boom section control in 2006, some with the ability to control several sections. “Customers tell us it really saves time and money,” says Trimble’s Helling. His company’s EZ-Boom — which also does variable rates — offers the technology at a price that’s accessible to many users. “Up until now these capabilities have only been available in higher end products. We’ve put it at a competitive price point,” he says.
In fact, Helling’s team at Trimble believes automatic boom section control is transitioning from a luxury item to a requirement.
“We’re seeing an increased awareness and demand for Automatic Section Control (ASC),” agrees Iseminger. “This is being driven by National Resource Conservation Service and EPA offices — as well as farmers themselves looking to reduce chemical costs and increase application performance.”
Iseminger reports that with KEE’s ASC ability on a standard five-boom section sprayer, operators have seen between 8% and 10% savings on their chemical bills and application rates due to better “pin-point” accuracy of application. Those that have installed KEE’s highest-end 30-section ASC system have experienced savings as high as 20% on chemicals and 30% on time in the field.
Dave King, marketing and international business manager at Ag Leader, says the Insight Direct Command system gives auto boom section control with its AutoSwath feature. The system does direct control for liquids and granulars and can handle variable rates for multiple products.
The Swath Control Pro from John Deere Ag Management Solutions uses GPS to turn boom sections on and off automatically, according to a coverage map. The map shows where the operator and machine have previously applied product or created external or internal boundaries that shouldn’t be sprayed.
Raven’s Envizio Plus now has a feature called AccuBoom for automatic boom section control, reports Matt Willard, business development manager, Flow Control Division. Envizio Plus also gives users worry-free operation of hydraulically leveled booms, he says. It can now do data logging so drivers can get actual rate information from a Raven console and data-log up to five products.
Mid-Tech’s high end Legacy 6000 is a Controller Area Network (CAN) bus system, which allows a vast amount of information to be shared across the system, says Midwest Technologies’ Rich Gould, marketing manager. The unit uses icon-guided, push-button controls to apply anhydrous and liquid and granular fertilizer, as well as to activate automatic boom section control and automatic steering. “These features are appealing because they reduce operator workload and improve application accuracy,” he adds.
Also taking advantage of CAN-based technology is the Intelliag from DICKEY-john Corp. The system can interface with seed sensors, shaft monitors, and hydraulic valves to monitor and control seeding rates and fertilizer application on planters, grain drills, or air carts. “Operators can then add monitors as needed for planting, spraying, spreading, or autosteering,” points out Pat Fuchs, product manager.
“The main trend we see in controllers is agronomic rather than electronic, especially for grower-applied materials such as seed,” says Eric Lund, president of Veris Technologies. They’re using the variable-rate capabilities of their controllers now more than in previous years. The reasons? He points to high nitrogen prices and escalating seed costs. “And reports of increased profits from VR soybean populations as well as corn and cotton are becoming more frequent,” he says.
In addition, guidance/autosteer products have allowed growers to become more familiar and comfortable with GPS — and operators are looking to extend the capabilities of those investments with variable rates. Many of the new planters have VR capabilities as standard equipment, so many recognize that VR is within their reach. Veris’ new Precision Rate Controller is a hydraulic planter and applicator drive with PosiRate technology, an advance which gives the widest range of pulse-free rates — from 20-300 rpm — eliminating the need to change drive sprockets.
“The next move in the controller industry looks to be virtual terminal systems, along with wireless communication,” says Fenstermaker.
KEE’s Iseminger adds: “Wireless communication between the cab controller and a manager is an attractive feature for today’s large operations. To be able to monitor all the equipment you have running on a daily basis from one central location improves operational efficiencies enormously.”