Saturday, April 13, 2013

Those Magic GPS Boxes

One of the latest innovations in agriculture is a spin-off from the military, Global Positioning Satellites (GPS). Many of you may have a Garmin or something similar in your car, or a GPS enabled iPad that will give you directions. Our tractors now sport a box that makes your Garmin look like a toy. Your Garmin or iPad is accurate to about 10 feet, plenty good while driving a car. Our GPS devices are accurate to less than 1 inch, called real time kinematic (RTK) accuracy. This is so we can plant, cultivate and spray without driving over the plants. A base station is needed to get RTK accuracy. To start with we rented the RTK signal from our dealer.

Our GPS devices will take over steering the tractor through the field, once you have set a pattern. If you want straight rows, no problem. Just set an A-B line from one end to the other and your entire field will be perfect. If you have a curve to follow and want the whole field to follow that durve, no problem. Just set a curved A-B line.

Steering is just the beginning. These devices can also be configured to do many other functions in your tractor or combine. These include, but are not limited to, driving the seed shaft on a planter, turning seed row clutches on and off, driving the fertilizer pumps, turning spray booms on and off, regulating how much fertilizer or spray is applied, changing the amount of seed, fertilizer or spray applied on the go - automatically,  measuring yield or altitude, installing drainage tile, etc. All of the above are being done on our farm now.

The first use of a GPS system on our farm was yield mapping with a combine mounted device. We got cool maps that showed us what yielded great and what didn't. We already knew where most of these areas were, but it sure looked cool. Next step was to put those maps to work.

We entered the field of GPS control four years ago when we bought our current planter. We opted not to purchase the standard planter monitor, but put the money toward a GPS device that would control the planter AND auto-steer the tractor. We chose the Trimble FMD brand of monitor. At the time they were way out in front on guidance hardware and had pretty good application controls. Unfortunately they were not the best at customer service.

The first year we were content with auto-steer and planter controls. Later in the summer we added an EZ-Boom to control a sprayer. The sprayer had an automatic shut-off feature so if we sprayed the edge of a field first it would shut the booms off as they got to the already applied area. No more double spraying and no skips. Things went pretty well; then after the initial setup, there were tear your hair out issues.

We disced down all our previous ridges in our fields so we could start from scratch. Over the years of ridge-planting our corn fields, many rows had gotten crooked and the guess rows (the space between one pass and the next) were not exact. Unfortunately the old ridges still had an influence and cause us some issues yet today, pulling the cultivators from side to side.

We traded tractors to get a second tractor with an FMD monitor in it. We were set. Who could want anything more? Well, me. We added a coulter fertilizer machine to apply fertilizer while the crop was growing, so that meant another EZ-Boom.

And then we purchased another tractor and added a guidance system to it. Unfortunately Trimble had moved on to a new platform, FMX, that wasn't totally compatible with the old system. This meant that tractor could follow the same A-B lines set up by the other monitors for cultivation, but could not run the planter and could only run a sprayer with extra cabling.

Then I started writing prescriptions for each field to vary the amount of seed and fertilizer applied. I used the cool yield maps as guidance. On the great yielding areas I increased the seed populations and fertilizer to boost the yields even higher. On the lower yielding areas I lowered the seed populations and fertilizer to cut costs. Many of those areas won't yield as much no matter what.

Then we added row clutches to the planter seed drives so we could control each row separately. This works great when you have end rows. Plant the end rows first and then the field. When the planter comes to the end rows, the rows just shut off, one by one. No double planting, and no skips.

In 2012 we purchased a tile plow (see Tile Plow 3/12/12). To control the tile plow we moved our GPS receiver from the roof of the tractor to the mast of the tile plow. We used a unique monitor for tiling, that was all it could do. It worked pretty well, but we had some issues with the base station being 8-10 miles away. So last fall I bought a used portable base station and things went great.

Meanwhile last summer we started having issues with our first FMD. Every so often, usually when we hit a bump, the screen would go black. After the first couple waves of panic, I used the Fonzy approach and tapped the monitor with my pliers. Luckily it came back on. It got more frequent and we knew we had to do something before the 2013 season.

While shopping around we discovered that Ag Leader had purchased the company who made our tile plow. They would allow us full retail price to trade in our tile-only monitor for an new Integra monitor that would do everything. I jumped.

Of course that meant we had to rewire the tractor, rewire the planter, learn a new system, etc. And to make it more fun we decided to switch tractors around so that the Integra went into the tractor with the FMX, and the FMX went into the tractor with the bad FMD. The installing tech loved me (insert sarcasm).

Oh, and we also decided to make our portable base station into a permanent base station.  With our own  base I did not need to pay our dealer for that signal. However, to get an Integra (from Ag Leader), and FMX and FMD (both from Trimble) to talk to the same base radio (older Trimble) was ... let's say, interesting. They had three different GPS receivers and radios on the roof and Ag Leader uses a different radio setup. I ended up using the radio receiver from the bad FMD tied into the new Integra and downgraded all of the systems to the same version and it works. I don't know how many hours the dealer's precision farming expert spent figuring out all the cables and hookups, but she is amazing. We are still working out kinks in the new system, but are well on the way.

Now I'm set, again... perhaps.  I'm excited about a new system that senses the crop to vary the fertilizer automatically without a prescription, and I'm sure there is something else new out there just waiting to catch my interest.

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