Farmer Iron

Precision Ag Reaching Critical Mass?

They call it the tipping point when suddenly it's more likely everyone has something, have we tipped with auto-steering?

The skies are filling up with the RTK differential signals from a half-dozen companies as those tower networks become a standard fixture on any high point in the county. It's a prime example of technology moving faster and getting cheaper, providing later adopters to get the best for less.

Depending on who you talk to, each of the major players in RTK systems have networks up covering most of the crop acres these days - the challenge for you is finding the network that covers your farm. However, you'll find that's not too hard. And once a network moves into the area, farmers who sign up find they can offer a lot of value.

First, you get very precise activity - sub-inch - and you can come back and make the same pass again. It changes your perspective.

Second, you can come back to the same field next year and do exactly the same thing - which is a boon for those strip-till folks who want to maximize residues (and store carbon) while getting the highest production possible from seed and crop protection product investments.

Already, growers are finding that even row-shut-off systems for planters and boom controls for sprayers (perhaps even down to the nozzle level based on some stuff that's on display at Agritechnica this week can be a money maker for the farm. Only makes sense when you consider that seed prices - with their super traits - are getting higher. There's no way you want to be double-planting those seeds for sure.

When RTK first came to the market, with its stunning $50,000 price tag - farmers were putting base stations in the corns of the field to get that precision. They were paying for it, and they were happy with the results because those early adopters had a plan for payback. Now that the network is almost as cheap as a high-end satellite correction signal, will RTK become the product of choice?

Essentially, the bigger change is that fewer farmers are hands-on when operating their tractors and combines. Running auto-steering equipment may be hard to figure on the payback side - until of course you remember that last spring we were planting in the dark. And I'm sure there are readers now that are happy they have some auto-steering for harvesting in the dark.

In the old days when market penetration for a new technology topped 18%, that was it, the see-saw tipped in favor of everyone having it. I think we're nearing that for true auto-steering systems with satellite or RTK correction. As those tower networks become more common, more growers are going to find that a hands-off approach to running equipment may be the way to go.

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