Ship Shape

The high tide raises all boats, and that was certainly true for the good ship “Ag Technology” on the seas of agriculture in 2008. Across practitioner groups, retailers to consumers to growers were investing dollars in yield-boosting, efficiency-building technology.

“With the ramp-up in grain prices over the past couple of years, farmers have had more money to invest in upgrading their operations,” notes Harold Reetz, director of external support, Foundation For Agronomic Research — and long-time precision champion. New tractors, combines, and other equipment have brought a new wave of farmers into the world of precision farming technology, and have allowed early adopters to upgrade to newer versions of hardware and software tools.

Dave King, marketing manager with Ag Leader Technology, agrees. “I think an interesting trend is that for as long as precision farming has been around we are just now starting to get past the early adopters.  There has been a large increase in first-time buyers of precision farming hardware this year.  The rising costs of inputs have made everyone start to think about how they can save money.”

What are they buying? “They are buying everything,” says King. “Some are starting with guidance, while others are starting with application control or planting. It just depends on what the farmer sees as the best fit for their operation right now. We are also seeing people who took the first step a year or two ago come back and add additional precision farming products.”

Good news? Yes, as long as it all works. “Are we providing enough opportunities for these new clients to learn about their new tools?” asks Reetz. “Do we have sufficient support staff available? These are important questions to answer, and important opportunities to provide service and support and build a tighter relationship with key customers.”

Reviewing The Year

Beyond the generally upbeat market this year, here are some additional observations from “the year that was.”

Closing The Data Loop. While new field technology like automatic steering and boom control has been flying out the door, data consistency and connectivity also made strides in 2008. Mark Waits, marketing manager with SST Software, says that the most compelling technology trend he’s seen is the movement towards efficient data communication between desktop and field computers.

“We see a continuing trend in the combining of traditional precision agriculture technologies with information management practices for a more complete decision support system,” says Waits. “There is a growing interest by precision agriculture equipment manufacturers to ramp up recordkeeping features for their customers. This will have a profound effect on the information management side of precision agriculture, which is where we would argue the real decision-making, as well as the compliance benefits, are found.”

Waits asserts that there is an emerging need for devices to “talk” to one another with little or no file management by the user. “In time, we think a desktop computer and an in-field device will be able to wirelessly and synchronously exchange data,” he explains. “When that happens, seed and variable-rate fertility recommendations, crop plans, etc. will flow seamlessly from an agronomist’s desktop computer to a grower or applicator in the field. All as-applied data could ‘synch’ back to the agronomist creating a true collaborative recordkeeping system that will yield a lot of valuable information for growers.”

Building In Precision. Mike Gomes, product manager at Topcon-Sauer Danfoss, says that manufacturers are more often building capabilities into the equipment. “OEMs such as AGCO are coming out with their next-generation products, such as Auto Guide 2, that are continually more embedded or integrated into the equipment,” says Gomes. They use the existing display in the tractor, existing steering valve and wheel angle sensor, etc., and this is a trend I believe we will see continue.”

Partnering Up. Gomes also sees a continuation of the kinds of partnerships that manufacturers have been forming over the past few months as a way to stay competitive in the marketplace. “Consolidation will occur as more industry players form strategic relationships to shore up any perceived weaknesses or ‘gaps’ in their product lines to offer a more solutions-oriented product offering,” says Gomes.

Developments in Telemetry. Data movement via cellular technology took big leaps forward, with the release of several new logistics and field communication programs. The October issue of CropLife® (“Rethinking Everything”) presents one example of the power of cellular communication. Equipment manufacturer GVM recently threw its hat in the ring with a logistics program of its own, GVM Telematics. Aaron Hunt, who is working on the project for GVM, admits that high-speed cellular data coverage has expanded into the rural areas much faster than he had anticipated.

“This has opened up a host of new technologies to precision agriculture that were either not previously possible or prohibitively expensive,” he says. “The new technology that has grabbed a lot of attention and interest in the past year has been telematics.”

Telematics includes the real-time GPS tracking of moving assets and the remote management of internet-capable displays in the field, including remote desktop control and the wireless push of application files and workorders. “Telematics systems have opened up new ways for operators and fleet managers to optimize their field operations, saving money on overhead cost and creating greater potential income through more efficient use of current assets,” says Hunt.

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