9 Most Advanced Agricultural Technologies

Published in the June 2012 Issue Published online: Jun 12, 2012
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Farmers have always been innovators. Sometimes you're out in the middle of nowhere and need to make an unexpected repair, but you don't have the right tools. Not a problem for a farmer. In a pinch you can make something else work for you 9 times out of 10. Farmers are also great at adopting new technology. Nowadays tools on many farms and ranches are very sophisticated. From tractors that drive themselves to cows that text, the modern farmer's toolbox contains a host of cool toys. Here are 9 of the most advanced agricultural technologies employed today.

Thanks to GPS tractors, combines, sprayers and more can accurately drive themselves through the field. After the user has told the onboard computer system how wide a path a given piece of equipment will cover he will drive a short distance setting A & B points to make a line. Then the GPS system will have a track to follow and it extrapolates that line into parallel lines set apart by the width of the tool in use.

These systems are capable of tracking curved lines as well. The tracking system is tied to the tractor's steering, automatically keeping it on track freeing the operator from driving. This allows the operator to keep a closer eye on other things. Guidance is great for tillage because it removes human error from overlap, saving fuel and equipment hours. Trust me when I tell you that once you starting auto tracking, you'll never go back manual steering.

Building on GPS technology are swath control and VRT. This is where guidance really begins to show a return on investment. Swath control is just what it sounds like. The farmer is controlling the size of the swath a given piece of equipment takes through the field. The savings come from using less inputs like seed, fertilizer, herbicides, etc.

Since the size and shapes of fields are irregular you are bound to overlap to some extent in every application. Thanks to GPS mapping the equipment in the field already knows where it has been. Swath control shuts off sections of the applicator as it enters the overlap area, saving the farmer from applying twice the inputs on the same piece of ground.

VRT works in a similar fashion. Based on production history and soil tests a farmer can build a prescription GPS map for an input. By knowing what areas of a field are most and least productive the application rate of an input like fertilizer can be tailored to increase or decrease automatically at the appropriate time. This is a big benefit for farms.

Telematics is being touted as the next big thing in ag. This technology allows equipment to talk to farmers, equipment dealers and even other equipment. Imagine you have a problem in the field and have to stop working. With telematics your dealer can access the onboard diagnostic system of your tractor. Depending on the problem they might be able to fix your equipment right from dealer. No waiting on a mechanic to drive out to wherever you might be. You're back to work, and the dealer saved a trip too.

Farmers will be able to keep track of what field equipment is in, fuel consumption, operating hours, and much more. Personally I've noticed on our farm as we become more technologically advanced our downtime is often caused by electrical, software or hardware problems as opposed to mechanical.

Tractors can even communicate between themselves. The best example is a combine and a grain cart. Grain carts pull up next to harvesting equipment so the harvester can unload on the move without stopping to unload. Telematics can tell the grain cart operator when a combine is filling up with grain. Even better if one cart is chasing two combines. The driver knows which machine needs unloading first. The latest innovation has the combine operator actually taking wireless control of the tractor pulling the grain cart as it pulls alongside, giving him the ability to shuttle the cart forward and back to more easily fill the cart.

Mobile tech is playing a big role in monitoring and controlling crop irrigation systems. With the right equipment a farmer can control his irrigation systems from a phone or computer instead of driving to each field. Moisture sensors in the ground are able to communicate information about the level of moisture present at certain depths in the soil. This increased flexibility allows for more precise control of water and other inputs like fertilizer that are applied by irrigation pivots. Farmers can also combine this with other tech like VRT mentioned earlier to control the rate of water applied. It's all about more effective and efficient use of resources.

Crop sensors. This is taking variable rate technology to the next level. Instead of making a prescription fertilizer map for a field before you go out to apply it, crop sensors tell application equipment how much to apply in real time.

Optical sensors are able to see how much fertilizer a plant may need based on the amount of light reflected back to the sensor. I haven't seen one of these systems in operation yet, but I'm keeping a close eye on them.

It's fairly new and pretty expensive, but I see huge potential here. Crop sensors are going to help farmers apply fertilizer in a very effective manner, maximizing uptake and reducing potential leaching and runoff into ground water.

Because of onboard monitors and GPS the ability to document yields, application rates and tillage practices is becoming easier and more precise every year. In fact farmers are getting to the point where they have so much good data on hand that it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do with all of it.

And of course, every farmer's favorite form of documentation is the yield map. It sums up a year's worth of planning and hard work on a piece of colorful paper. As harvesting equipments rolls through the field it calculates yield and moisture as it goes tying it in with GPS coordinates. When finished a map of the field is printed. These maps are often called heat maps. I liken then to weather radar maps. Each color on the map relates to a certain yield range. Now the farmer can see what varieties had the best, worst or most consistent yield over varying conditions. Maps like this can tell a farmer how well a field's drainage system is working. (In case you weren't aware, there is a massive network of private and public drainage at work underground on farms.) All this data allows for better agronomic decisions in the future.

Biotech or genetic engineering (GE) isn't new tech, but it is a very important tool with much more potential. (More on this in the complete article, http://thefarmerslife.wordpress.com.)

Mobile tech is big in ag and it's getting bigger all the time. Farmers and ranchers are using all the social media sites for all types of reasons. Some are using apps like foursquare to keep tabs on employees.

You might even catch me on a Twitter chat, tweeting away right from the tractor cab. The tractor is driving itself and my hands are free (see item #1) so why not?

Apps can control irrigation and grain storage systems. Want to load grain into a truck without getting out of the cab? LoadOut Technologies has you covered.

I can't tell you how many times the flashlight app on my phone comes in handy. Even the camera can be put to work on the farm. If you think you might forget how something goes back together after you take it apart take a picture of it assembled. On my phone I have apps that show me soil type via GPS, agricultural news and markets, insect pests, calculations for mixing herbicide solutions, and one that tracks growing degree days. GDDs are an index based on temperature that gives a grower an idea of how mature a crop may be.

And we're finally getting to where we can take all that data I talked about earlier and have access to it on smartphones and tablets. Precision planting just came out with an iPad app that does just that. I'm very excited to watch this kind of tech develop in combination with many of the things listed above.

Putting up cameras around the farm is a trend that's catching on.

We have a rear-facing camera on the back of the combine that shows up on a monitor in the cab. I can think of all kinds of places to put cameras on large pieces of equipment to help eliminate blind spots.

Our grain cart is wide enough that you can't see around it so I'd like to have one out back to I know if I'm holding up traffic when driving from field to field. Another idea would be to have a camera or two looking at the implement behind the tractor.

So now you're up to speed on some of the latest and greatest things going on in agriculture. It's all about more data, efficiency and precision.

Farmers and ranchers have a lot of awesome stuff to help them produce a bountiful harvest. So long as Mother Nature chooses to play along. She'll come up with at least one monkey wrench each year no matter what you do, but that goes with the territory.

So what's your favorite piece of farm tech? Which one do you want to know more about?