Adjustable Hitches, Guidance Lasers, Weeding Robots: Embracing Agricultural Technology

Combine Chad 510

I run a fairly large combine with oodles of capacity.   So that means I can really push out the bushels when I want to.  In contrast, a few years ago I had a much older; smaller combine, more attuned to an earlier time when I was running fewer acres.   So now with my bigger combine, it’s great to have that extra capacity in your back pocket.

It has made life for me easier on the farm, just like auto steer and some other technologies.  However, a more efficient combine with extra capacity is only good if you can move the grain away from the field in an efficient manner.   If you cannot get rid of the grain, the combine sits in the field.  That is always my greatest challenge, having all conditions just right to utilize the maximum efficiency of my combine in harvest fields.

It takes a lot of thinking to get it right and certainly new technology helps with that.  Getting the right mix of combine capacity with unloading efficiency is just one measurement of good agricultural economics.  Adding more technologies to the equation is only good when the agricultural economics says it make sense.

No, I don’t want to bring the oxcart back!  My late father used to accuse me of that when I would show my favoritism toward older technologies versus new whiz-bang technologies.  I must admit I’m going through that at the present time as I think many of the computer components on some of our new farm equipment will not stay the test of time.  Let’s hope I’m wrong about that.

So it was with interest when I saw a story posted this week regarding 10 new technologies, which were being discussed at the 2013 American Society of Agricultural and Biosystems engineers International meeting in Kansas City Missouri.  For instance, vehicle guidance lasers, weeding robots, variable-rate nitrogen sensors, smart pesticide applicator’s and optical crop sensors are just some of the new technologies being discussed at those meetings with regard to their application on the farm.  It is almost the stuff of Star Wars, but I’m sure at a certain point maybe even I will be using them.

For instance many of us are used to automatic steering in our tractors and combines.  I have that in my tractor and I think it is a godsend.  However, I am guided by GPS signals and now there are some researchers who are looking at vehicle guidance lasers to supplement or replace GPS signals.  This would essentially mean farm equipment wouldn’t need an operator anymore, but I’m sure our insurance executives would have something to say about that.  The idea of weeding robots is being developed at Iowa State University, which is looking at plant spacing information to identify weeds within rows.  Zap goes the weeds, we hope!

Variable-rate nitrogen sensors, smart pesticide applicators and optical crop sensors I find extremely intriguing.  I used to review this technology for another publication, but at that time it was a little bit more pure science fiction.  If we could be so specific with regard to measuring our crop needs, our management could be that much more focused and hopefully cut our costs further, while boosting production.   Of course, the agricultural economics has to work.  It has to make economic sense.  And, it has to pass the raccoon test, that is, it has to survive little varmints trying to destroy the equipment while standing the test of time, vibration and a grimy environment.

Those technologies as a farmer I could surely use.  However, sometimes even simpler technologies have great effects.  For instance, I’m currently now trying to harvest my wheat even though it rains every other day.  One of the simplest technologies I enjoy is the adjustable hitches or tongues on my grain wagons.  I have both front and rear adjustable hitches in many cases, simple ideas, which make farming so much easier.

It’s a long, winding and somewhat intoxicating road, this technology in agriculture business.  I once interviewed a retired John Deere engineer who was instrumental in adding turbochargers to John Deere tractors in the 1960s.  He told me at the time the big challenge was transferring power to the ground on most tractors.  He said it was easy today; you could just tweak the software to give the tractor operator a myriad of forward and reverse gears.   He had no such luxury.  However, his vision with the technologies at the time sure helped putting the power where it was needed to boost agricultural production.

So we move ahead.  Who knows, maybe there will even be a newer, cheaper technology come along one of these days to dry grain.  Boy, could I use that now.  Whether simple like an adjustable hitch or complicated like on farm lasers, the push to make farmers more efficient continues.  If we could apply it to the market to keep them from declining, wouldn’t that be something?  Alas, I guess there are limits.  However, as it is, agricultural technological innovations continue.  We need to evolve and embrace it all.