Software Driven Farm Machinery Has Gone Too Far


You see it everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.  Last week found me boarding a big mammoth theme park ride, which I had no business going on.  Just before I got into the “bobsled to hell” I see the next guy in front of me talking on the latest “smart phone”, just as he’s getting on.  I’m wondering, what can be so important now, that can’t wait?

Newer and newer cell phones are one of the best examples of new technologies shaping our world.  However, in the world of agriculture, there are whole genres of new technologies coming into our market that will have the capacity to change the way we farm.  In my opinion, most of the time these are very good things.  For instance, generally they lower our cost of production.  However, in 2008 as we move ahead I see one major flaw moving onto our farms which is being touted as a great move forward.  I call it “software driven” mechanics.  Put more succinctly, I’m talking about tractors, combines and other pieces of farm machinery with on board computers taking the place of simple mechanical actions to make these machines work.

I have seen it coming for several years now.  However, before I get into it further, let me preface my remarks.  Some people would call me a computer expert, however I don’t care to be.   I’ve worked with them (and against them) for over 30 years.  I’ve worked PC and Mac plus UNIX, Rainbow, NEXT and a whole plethora before that which give away my age.  When it comes to publishing, communicating, podcasting, radio broadcasting, accounting, whatever, I can make a Macintosh computer smoke.  However, when you transfer this type of technology onto the farm, there are a few environmental limitations, which come along with it.  It’s called grease, dirt, moisture, vibration, time and the occasional varmint.

Welcome to the farm in 2008.  Whether it’s a new combine or tractor you are driving or some other hardware-software gizmo attached to your SUV, software driven mechanics is here and I’m not quite sure how long it will last.  In my opinion transferring this technology into a farm environment has been vastly overdone.  Having a digital monitor to intuitively change your screen opening in the back of a 500 Hp Class IX combine might be nice.  However, how will it stand the test of time, dirt, vibration, moisture and those varmint raccoons?  Not so well, I suspect.

I think many of you know what I’m talking about. However, driving tractors with computer monitors, which adjust tractor functions, is surely the bane of many of you.  Beeping alarm signals are surely dancing in your head.  However, I’m afraid it’s only the beginning.  As alarms go off, productivity goes down and so do profits.  At the end of the day, I’m asking who really wins in this scenario?

I walk a fine line with this.  As many of you know I write the Machinery Guide section for Country Guide magazine.  Each issue I’m asked to feature machinery items, which are relevant to today’s North American farmer.  A few times a year I’m asked to write about “what’s cool” in today’s market.  Needless to say, I write about things which I can both understand and drive myself.  As one Nebraska Class IX combine manufacturer told me, Phil come this fall you show up in Nebraska, “we’ll let you take the stick for a day?”

What does taking the stick for a day mean?  Well, it sounds a bit like being on the set of the Jetsons.  However, if I did get to Nebraska in the fall and took the stick I’d be driving a Class IX combine (above 500 Hp) with whistles, alarms, computer monitors and wiring which would surely challenge even me.  I’d enjoy it, hearing the roar, seeing 16 rows of corn going inside below me and unloading into a 1200-bushel grain cart.  However, what happens if that varmint raccoon settles in the night before?

On my own farm I bought a tractor last year.  Darn nice tractor, computer screen, and whole nine yards.  To change hydraulics, lights, whatever, a nine inch computer monitor lights up with intuitive, almost Mac like controls.  It’s great for me because I can understand and operate it super fast.  However, the local service manager told me most guys want to throw it in the garbage, in fact he told me I understand it far better than he does.  It’s a nightmare for him and his customers.  However, the great unspoken vision here is, wait until it gets a bit old.  All of that software driven stuff won’t work and the costs to fix and tweak it will be enormous.

Ponder that as you view your latest DTN price quotes or Market Matter blog on your new iPhone.  Yes, technology is great.  Nonetheless, at every juncture on the farm we must ask, what’s relevant here?  Does the marriage between computer technology and mechanical farm technology have a real downside, which should be avoided?  Are there opportunities here for simpler more effective uses of technology on the farm while avoiding the gaudy more toy-ish expensive technology solutions proposed by some?  I think so.  Just because you can add another relay, switch, chip or sensor doesn’t mean you should.  See that raccoon over there.  No you don’t.  However, he sees you and he can’t wait to get busy.