Auto steer and auto swath: Worth the money?

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High input costs and the search for greater crop efficiency make auto steer and auto swath technology pretty much a no-brainer. Most of the farmers I've talked to say the technology pays off in less than two years.

That may have been why there was a good crowd of farmers at the farm of Skip Klinefelter, Nokomis, Ill., a few weeks ago poring over shiny new gadgets designed to ease your fatigue and lower your costs.

Klinefelter, who farms and operates Precision Seeding Technologies , selling a wide variety of precision and guidance products. He must have been smiling all morning. There's never been a better time to invest in this technology. Farmers, flush with 2007 profits and stinging from high 2008 input costs, are open to anything that will save on the expense side of their business.

Left: Kicking tires at Klinefelter's farm

Every farmer I've talked to who converted to auto steer loves it. Costs can be as low as $5,000 and up to $50,000 for a full-blown, RTK system.

If you're new to this field you quickly learn there are a number of players that specialize in this technology, beyond the big guys like Deere which have their own proprietary systems (see website listing below).

Why purchase auto steer or auto guidance systems in the first place? According to Klinefelter, there are four good reasons:

  • Reducing input costs — fuel, repairs, labor, fertilizer, chemicals, seed
  • Improved timeliness — more acres per hour, more hours per day. It's not that the technology allows you to drive faster. But straight, accurate rows will give you more time.
  • Less operator error, reduced fatigue and stress, more time to watch the implement or make field notes.
  • Potential increase in equipment efficiencies. That's theoretical, and buying the technology means you will have more invested in machinery. But in theory these gadgets should squeeze more efficiency and thus more profit per acre. 

Auto steer definitely will reduce the stress and wear of working fields day and night. Can you put a dollar figure on that? Probably not. But Klinefelter tells the story of a 77-year-old farmer who had recently adopted auto steer. "He ripped open his shirt to show the scar on his chest from open heart surgery, and then he said, •I know what farm stress has cost me - $70,000 for this surgery,'•bCrLf Klinefelter recalls.

Some questions you need to ask yourself before investing: What lines do you need to follow? In other words, do you have large fields with straight lines, or lots of contours? What about pivots? What kind of tillage do you use? Auto steer is perfect for strip-till because you program in the precise line to plant on after laying down fertilizer in the fall.

Do you need year-to-year repeatability? RTK gives the highest accuracy but is not the lowest cost, which is where some farmers may want to be when they adopt the technology.

How accurate do you need or want to be, pass to pass? If you're going to do multiple years you'll want RTK. How large of a geographic area do you operate over? Are there enough base stations if you cover a large area?

You also need to ask questions of your potential dealer.

Do they know the systems? They need to provide service and technical support 24/7, 365 days a year.

"The knowledge factor is key because things are changing rapidly and frequently,•bCrLf says Klinefelter (below).

What kind of repair/replacement inventory do they have? What about software upgrades — are they free or do they charge? Is there financing available?

Is the system upgradeable to higher accuracy? Accuracy is addictive, most farmers say.

Do you need portability between power units and between brands? Is the on-board screen legible to all operators? Are controls conveniently located and easy to use and understand?  Is it user friendly?

Before you invest, talk to other farmer-users. That's the best way to find out what you need. Second, buy systems out of season to allow time for installation and training.

When you do get a system, use it first in a less critical application so you can get the feel for it.

To improve return on investment make as many uses of each system as feasible. Use auto steer to chisel, apply NH3, field cultivate, plant, spray, harvest and fertilize, advises Klinefelter. "Often customers will put it in one tractor and use it there and only there for six months,•bCrLf he says. "You could move it and get value elsewhere.

"No unit will work to 100% accuracy 100% of the time, says Klinefelter. "You need to be dedicated to making the technology work for you. If you don't like it or don't want to adapt it, you're not going to be happy with it.•bCrLf

Precision farm equipment websites:

Trimble

Dickey-John

Linco 

Precision Planting

AutoFarm

TopCon

Outback 

Ag Leader Technology

Precisionag is another website that acts as a sort of clearinghouse for precision ag information, to keep you up to speed on the latest info. For return on investment calculators, go here.

Finally, don't forget to check out Willie Vogt's column, Tech Tuesday, at our Farm Futures site. This is loaded with ideas about new technology including precision farming tools.

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