There are certain decisions in farming that don’t get made more often because of how much they hinder efficiency. One area where this happens often is the planter. Soil types, weather, tillage, and other variables can change many times during a planting season. They can even change many times during a planting day. If a farmer wants to keep a planter rolling at a decent pace, some planter settings have to be set for at least one field, and they can be checked again at the next field. But now there is technology available and more coming that can automate and control settings on planters and other farm equipment.
The first place to look for such tech is my own planter. Many farmers would argue the planter is the most important piece of iron on the farm. We’ve run two seasons now with Precision Planting’s DeltaForce hydraulic downforce. What DeltaForce replaced on my planter was the OEM setpoint airbag system. I would set the downforce as best I could for field conditions. Field conditions usually meaning where the planter was setting still at a given time. And I could only set it as one setting across the entire planter. Now DeltaForce makes the decision of how much downforce should be used. And every row is making its own decision thousands upon thousands of times per day. I set parameters, and it works within them, but it’s trying to create the ideal situation for every individual row on the planter. Something an operator won’t always do multiple times a day software is doing multiple times per second. Dawn Equipment also has hydraulic downforce on the market.
And Dawn just recently showed off what parts of the planter it will begin to automate. Dawn is coming out with automated depth control as just one feature of their Planter Automation Controller. This is pretty cool! My understanding is this system can be controlled by sensors, and my first thought goes to soil moisture at planting. Daytime temperatures, soil type, and how far a planter is behind a tillage tool can affect soil moisture. Seeds want to be in just the right amount of moisture. Not too little, and not too much. As a general rule of thumb I like to plant corn about 2 inches deep and soybeans at 1.5 inches. Regular checks of moisture will necessitate raising or lower the depth in quarter-inch increments.
With a moisture sensor running on the planter, Dawn’s system could adjust planting depth on the fly as dictated by soil moisture. The more ideal the conditions a seed is planted in, the better it will perform at the end of the season. And it just so happens Precision Planting just announced a seed firmer called SmartFirmer that is also a carrier of various sensors including soil moisture. It will also sense organic matter (OM) and create an OM map of a field as the planter covers acres. That information is not only valuable to farmers, but the firmer is capable of controlling seeding rates based on OM content. Take for example a field I farm where the soils vary greatly. In parts of this field I go from really nice black soil to sand ridges on every pass. If my planter was making more decisions for me, it could automatically drop more corn seeds in the good ground and less in the poor ground while also adjusting depth to hit a moisture target. And it would do it every second where as I can only stop, get out, and make sure everything is going OK.
Spraying is another place where automation can take over. I saw a video on Twitter of an unmanned robotic sprayer applying herbicide. Not only was this sprayer autonomous, but it was also able to see weeds. And because it could see weeds, it sprayed only where there was a weed and nowhere else. The sprayer being unmanned is neat in itself, but the targeted spraying can be applied to conventional sprayers. In situations where this is feasible it would save a great deal of herbicide. If residual herbicides are being used where a farmer wants a longer term blanket of protection, then the whole field needs to be sprayed. This type of technology is also being used to automate variable rate fertilization in season. GreenSeeker, OptRx, and TopCon have had this technology out for several years mainly geared toward applying nitrogen on wheat and corn.
Harvest is being automated as well. Header height and tilt sensors for combines isn’t new, but it’s great tech. Sensors keep heads at optimum working height and adjust lateral tilt without the operator having to constantly tweak those inputs. What is new is the threshing components of combines adjusting themselves to get the best grain sample in the tank as conditions change.
I’m sure more decisions will be automated as the years roll on. What this type of automation does is make farmers better performing farmers. It takes what farmers already do to be sure they are planting, spraying, fertilizing, and harvesting well, but it can do these things in real time, all the time, and on the move.
Brian Scott raises corn, soybeans, popcorn, wheat, and kids on an Indiana farm and blogs under the name The Farmer’s Life. His goal is to promote the virtues of modern agriculture and feature the operations of his farm. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his site.