Implement Guidance Paves the Way to Profitability

No-Till Farmer May 2013 - Volume 42, No.5

Technology that keeps field implements in line is gaining momentum as no-tillers and strip-tillers see increased yields, and lower input costs, through improved accuracy with field operations.

By Jack Zemlicka, Technology Editor, No-Till Farmer

When Jim Irwin bean strip-tilling in 1996, one of his biggest frustrations was being unable to precisely place seed in the strips he formed in the fall. Irwin was an early adopter of GPS technology on his tractor. But with a fair amount of rolling land, he struggled to keep his planter from drifting, and Irwin was paying the price come harvest.

"When I was able to plant right in the strip, I was in the 250s for bushels per acre in corn," says Irwin, 63, who farms about 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans in Arthur, Iowa. "As soon as I got out of those rows, it would drop down into the 230s and I was losing 15 bushels per acre in some other spots." Irwin was one of the first famers in his area to try implement-steering technology for his Dawn Pluribus strip-till unit and Case ID 1200 planter. Five years ago, he purchased a Trimble TrueTracker active steering system, which uses a guidance receiver on the implement to communicate with a receiver on the tractor. To mechanically connect the tractor with the implements, Irwin added an MBW ProTrakker hydraulic hitch, which automatically adjusts to accurately steer on slopes, contours and variable soils.

Essentially a "guinea pig" for the technology, Irwin says he wasn't sure how comfortable he would be with it. But after using markers on his planter and planting "free hand," he was frustrated with the inconsistent yields, which were costing him money. Once he gave implement guidance a fair shake the results have saved him money on inputs, improved yields on uneven acres and reduced fatigue. "I initially thought I could do a better job of going around those hills and contours myself," he says. "I can't do a better job. I look back and think, 'If I was still planting my corn today, like I was then, I'd fire myself."

In The Zone
Jim Irwin One of the biggest benefits implement guidance offers to Irwin is stability with yields on uneven ground. Though he hasn't tracked specific numbers, Irwin says his corn yields are far more consistent since he's added implement steering. "I'm seeing a yield advantage of maybe 4 or 5 bushels per acre. But the big thing for me is that I've lost the variability  I used to have on those contours," he says. "I'm either 99.9% or 99.999% on the strips when planting. It's amazing." For soybeans following corn, which Irwin no-tills in 15-inch rows, he's able to set up 7.5-inch spacing on each side to avoid running over corn stalks and damaging roots. "Before, we were planting too close on one pass and too wide on the next," he says. "All we had to do was adjust the GPS and we were able to get the spacing we wanted, and potentially better yields because of that adjustment."

Being able to build a seedbed in the fall and precisely place seed in the fertility zone is crucial to the success of a plant. When farmers are setting up their guess rows - the area where two adjoining implement swaths meet - being too narrow or wide with spacing can lead to crop damage, says Cory Miller, president of MBW Products, based in Odebolt, Iowa "The big payback with implement guidance is having those guess rows perfect so farmers aren't damaging crops when they come back in the field to spray, sidedress or harvest with a different corn head that doesn't match the planter," he says. "Hitting that nutrient zone is key. If farmers miss it, they're going to suffer."

Nebraska strip-tiller Gordon Shrader started using Trimble's TrueTracker system 8 years ago and eventually paired it with MBW's ProTrakker hitch to improve seed placement in his sandy soils. "We've got to keep at least 50% trash on top of the ground to keep our soils from eroding," he says. "So it was a challenge when I went to strip-till to put that fertility in the strip and be within 1 or 2 inches when planting to get the full benefit." Shrader farms about 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans outside of Ewing, Neb.

Prior to implement guidance, he struggled with setting up his guess rows because he would get 10 to 20 inches of variability going over a hill. This led to rows running together or being too far apart, allowing invasive weeds to spread. It was an uphill battle - literally - for Shrader to get the right amount of nutrients to his plants. The combination of sandy soil and uneven rows meant he was wasting fertilizer. "We apply a lot of potash and sulfur, and in our sandy soils we're not able to put that much nitrogen on at one time because it gets away from us," Shrader says. "We spoon-feed it through our center pivots. With implement guidance, we've saved between 6% and 8% in fertilizer costs because we're putting it right where it needs to be, rather than broadcasting it. " While he still tinkers with application amounts each year, Shrader says he's able to focus on specific zones, saving him time in the field. Better accuracy with seed and fertilizer placement has also led to increased yields.

Shrader estimates a 5- to 15-bushel per-acre boost through a combination of strip-till and implement steering. "The payback is increased corn yields because I'm planting right in that fertility zone," he says. ''That's an important part for getting early emergence and growth."

A Sizeable Challenge
ProTrakker The success of implement guidance can be determined not only by field conditions, but the size of farm implements. Even in flat fields, large planters are likely to drift, says Gary Mohr, global product marketing manager for Lexington, Neb.-based Orthman Mfg. With a high-horsepower tractor in front of a 48-row planter, that's a lot of mass moving through the field at 5 to 6 mph, he says. "Some of these planters are huge today, so everyone is stepping back to look at the size of this equipment and figure out the most effective way to steer it," Mohr says. Orthman makes two styles of implement-guidance attachments controlled by GPS controllers. The Tracker IV system uses steering blades connected by tie rods and a hydraulic cylinder to provide implement-tracking correction. The company's Shadow Tracker system is similar, but the modules don't require a mechanical attachment.

When Shrader first set up his implement-guidance system, he owned a 60-foot-wide planter and used the OrthmanTracker IV with the Trimble TrueTracker, but he has since switched to a John Deere 90-foot, 54-row planter with an MBW hitch. Despite the size of the planter, the hitch allows for 26-inch lateral movement and precisely adjusts to stay in line with the tractor. "It doesn't make any difference what equipment you have, if you're not always following directly behind the tractor,ยป Shrader says. "It all depends on how hard the soil pulls that implement to one side or the other. We're trying to be accurate within 1 to 2 inches, so we need a high-tech system to make that happen."

For his Environmental Tillage System (ETS) strip-till unit, Shrader attaches the hitch to the tongue of the implement and applies fertilizer behind a coulter in the fall and spring, prior to planting. "I cut a 40-foot swath, or 24 20-inch rows, for com. Then we follow with our planter - which doesn't match up - so we have guess rows all the time," he says. "But it works well because with the hitch and RTK, we're right on those rows and don't have any overlap."

Implement steering on a com planter can require the addition of some heavy machinery to the implement that incorporates the use of coulter wheels, says Mike Martinez, market manager for Trimble. "So you have these big metal discs that dig in the ground and steer, and depending on the size of the planter you can use either a two-disc or four-disc system that gives you more leverage for bigger planters," he says. "This is an additional piece that the farmer has to invest in and install and modify their planters to have something to steer."

Path to Adoption
While progressive farmers are embracing implement guidance, the technology isn't nearly as popular as auto-steer on tractors, a technology that has been around for more than a decade. Although implement steering is basically the same concept as autosteer, Martinez says the technology is a little more complicated to add to a farm operation than auto-steer if farmers want to realize the full benefits. "The biggest challenge is modifying the machine. Having to order machinery from third parties and do fabrication to existing planters and implements to install the steerable equipment is just another piece," Martinez says. "We all know when you have too many pieces, farmers can lose interest."

Implement guidance first gained popularity with specialty-crop farmers. Sugarbeet defoliators and potato planters were easily paired with the technology because they were steerable implements. To reach the same level of adoption in other areas of farming, it's simply a matter of showcasing the benefits, Martinez says. Two years ago, Trimble set up a test market and worked with several corn and hay farmers in Colorado, where exposure to implement guidance had been minimal. Because of the hilly land, farmers there historically only planted on the flatter acres because bigger planters tended to drift down the slopes. "I think we opened some eyes because these farmers were able to control their implements on hillsides and plant and harvest on land they never had been able to before," Martinez says. "One farmer we worked with was able to increase his farmable land by 15%." While examples of payback with this technology are emerging, cost is another consideration.

Active systems guide the implement independent of the tractor and require GPS receivers and an attachment to the implement. These systems can cost upwards of $25,000. Passive systems, which require two receivers - one mounted on the implement and the other on the tractor - can be less precise because the tractor steers the implement. But they're cheaper and start at about $3,500. "It's like trading tractors. It's not cheap, but I felt I could get a return on it," says Irwin, who spent $55,000 on precision technology in a single year to include RTK, receivers for his tractor and implement and the MEW hitch. One way Irwin helped offset his initial investment in implement steering was by enrolling in the USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program. "I've gotten so many dollars per acre for using GPS and I've been able to reinvest that money in precision technology," he says. "The reality is I didn't have to get a yield increase because the program is paying for my GPS."

Work In Progress
No-tiller Steve Pontious purchased Trimble's TrueGuide passive implement guidance system 2 years ago, but says he hasn't seen enough payback to justify upgrading to an active system. Pontious farms about 1,300 acres of com, soybeans and wheat in Lancaster, Ohio. His goal with implement steering was to be more accurate while sidedressing nitrogen after planting. Pontious sets his Great Plains planter for 12-row com and 23-row soybeans, pulled by his John Deere 8110 tractor. "When I first bought the system, I was dribbling nitrogen with the sprayer and my rows were pretty far off," he says. "My objective, now, is to make it easier to plant off of the com rows when I plant soybeans. But I'm not there yet. "My hope, at some point, is to be accurate enough to not have matched header equipment with my planter equipment," he says. "I think it's possible, but right now, my planter still behaves differently on some of my slopes than I thought it would." Despite some of the early struggles Pontious plans to stick with implement guidance, because he sees the potential. "Each year there is improvement and with a little tweaking, it's getting easier to make those additional passes more precisely," he says. "Accuracy gets addictive."

Trending Upward
While manufacturers suggest the technology behind implement guidance is where it needs to be to get results, equipment enhancements are likely on the horizon. Steerable axles on corn planters and other pull-type implements could promote adoption of implement guidance and simplify the technology for farmers, says Martinez. "It's kind of an evolutionary step that equipment manufacturers will have steerable devices in the future," he says. "They will need to do this anyway, because implements are getting so big and heavy. "We already have that mechanical steering ability and, after that, some type of ISOBUS or plug-and-play capability will follow."

Miller likens the landscape for adoption of implement guidance to the early days of auto-steer for tractors, which started slow but eventually exploded. "I think in 3 to 5 years it's going to become part of the implement, or part of the tractor," he says. "Right now, farmers are using attachments. But I can see it advancing to where a farmer can back up the implement, drop the hitch pin in and go." Planters and strip-till units are where farmers are getting the most value with implement steering systems today, Mohr says - but it's not a limited market for the technology.

"If you're putting liquid fertilizer and planting in one pass, implement steering probably isn't that critical. But if you're putting on fertilizer in the fall and coming back in the spring to plant, that accuracy is important," he says. "It always goes back to being consistent with fertilizer placement and seed spacing in the two-pass operation." After some early reservations, Irwin is on-board with the benefits of implement guidance. In fact, he's expanding on his use of the technology this year. Irwin plans to variable-rate fertilizer in his strips in the fall with two compartments attached to his rig to apply phosphorus and potassium as needed.

Irwin is still one of the only farmers in his area to embrace implement guidance, but he believes that will change, at some point, because of the benefits. "My soil-sampling advisor told me that I could save $10,000 by applying what I need on just one farm this year, aided by implement guidance," A Single disk, high speed opener for precision placement of anhydrous ammonia, he says, "It made me think that on my five farms, eventually, I can start to see a profit from this change. "It saves fertilizer and seed overlap and can stabilize or improve yields. I want to be farming at least 5 more years and this will help me do that. In that time, I think there will be very few people who won't be using some sort of implement guidance."