Learning Curves

When asked what technology challenges are facing retailers for the New Year, precision agriculture equipment and software companies came up with no less than a baker’s dozen, covering everything from iron to data to people.

For one, there’s still uneasiness among retailers and growers about the “technical persona” presented by precision ag, notes Jason Lenhardt, product marketing manager with AGCO Global Technologies in North America.

In many cases, companies are striving to keep it simple because growers and retailers cannot “spend hours and days learning how to operate their software applications when the window to plant, spray, or harvest is so small,” says Emily Harringa, communications specialist with John Deere Ag Management Solutions.

Cost is also a challenge — but it is being overcome. “Many farmers who abandoned experimenting with precision farming techniques 8 to 10 years ago or earlier are revisiting the practice because of affordable GPS-driven precision steering systems,” says Michael Helling, manager – flow controls, Trimble.

Top Five Trends

Besides challenges, here’s some good news:

1) Huge autosteer gains.

By far the trend mentioned most often was an increase in use of autosteer technology. “Expect an explosive adoption rate for automatic steering as producers discover the benefits and incredible return on investment,” says Rick Heiniger, president of Hemisphere GPS. “This will, in turn, trigger even higher expectations on applicators. Automatic steering is an absolute requirement for applicators from 2007 going forward.”

In fact, automated and assisted steering is helping alleviate labor shortages in many areas, says Helling. “A few minutes training of an unskilled operator can produce excellent results with today’s easy-to-use GPS machine control systems.”

2) More multi-tasking equipment and controls.

On Rigs. “Customers are looking for multi-functional equipment, be it applicators that can be converted from dry to liquid systems and back, or GPS systems that can be moved from one machine to another,” says AGCO’s Lenhardt. “Such modular system design extends the use season for equipment and spreads the investment out across more hours and acres.”

Company reps say rigs will use equipment to apply more variable rates — with multiple products. Also gaining are products that help reduce costs, such as boom section control and planter section control

In Cabs. Dave King, marketing and international business manager with Ag Leader, sees more focus on software that integrates with the hardware. Case in point: Multiple functions can now be controlled with the press of a button, thanks to on-board memory and electrohydraulic control systems, says Lenhardt. A map-based controller can start and stop application, adjust rates, and alert the operator to possible problems.

A single console also monitors machine function, collects data, and allows the operator to make adjustments from the cab. “Consolidating in-cab electronics reduces cab clutter, provides one consistent user interface for multiple operations, and provides the user with less of a learning curve,” says Helling. “All of these translate into savings of time and money.”

3) Higher accuracy GPS

Sub-inch, repeatable GPS signals are becoming more available in some regions. One contributor is the development of RTK (real-time kinematic) networks. Dealers and customers recognize that it is both possible and desirable to share RTK base stations and form user networks to make this technology more accessible and affordable, notes Harringa.

Heiniger says that high levels of accuracy become even more important as more growers continue the switch to specialized-till, strip-till, and controlled traffic practices.

4) Adoption of network standards (ISO11873) and open architecture.

“As companies fully adopt the standards, we will see full interconnectivity between brands and machines,” says Lenhardt. And being able to incorporate precision agriculture on equipment fleets that include different brands and model years allows users to maximize their investments in machinery, emphasizes Deere’s Harringa.

5) Better customer service.

Customer service expectations are growing. A trend mentioned by tech companies was the need to “have staff on board who can effectively sell and support precision agriculture /technology products,” says Ag Leader’s King. “The demand for these products is increasing and dealers need to be prepared to answer their customers’ questions and be able to support the products. If they’re not capable of doing that, the customer will go elsewhere for their precision agriculture needs, which may cause them to go elsewhere for their other product needs as well.”

AGCO’s Lenhardt points out that “the beauty of many of the newer precision technologies is they offer both improved efficiency and enhanced customer service benefits.”

Dave Craft, vice president of marketing for SSI, believes dealers will use the Internet even more for communication, sales, and their own purchases. “E-mail is still king, but providing on-line access to customer account activity and field data is starting to gain a lot of traction.” He also notes that Web services are being used to facilitate e-commerce between retailers and suppliers. “Electronic delivery notices can be sent to the retailer and imported as a bill of lading to save time and ensure better accuracy.”

How about employees at the counter? Consider the trend in increased sophistication of point-of-sale retail systems for ag, utilizing bar codes, touch screen monitors, and integrated credit card payment capabilities for all types of products, says Craft. 

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