If you think automated steering is still a luxury with uncertain payoff, you might want to take another look and think beyond your lightbar. Why? Simplified technology, more accurate guidance and greater competition among technology companies have dropped price points into the range of a possible two- to three-year payback on investment — or even less.

For the cost of an old lightbar ($5,000 to $7,000), you can now have basic hands-free automated steering with 6- to 8-in. repeatable accuracy. And the $40,000 to $50,000 price tag for 1-in. accuracy on every field pass has dropped into the $20,000 range — with better monitors and expanded capabilities.

Purdue University ag economist Michael Boehlje has called such GPS-guided steering systems the “killer application” for agriculture, because growers who tap into its capabilities for improved efficiency and productivity can get immediate payback. And any lender should clearly see current and future efficiencies with this technology investment.

But maybe you don't want to accept just one number-cruncher's view of the technology. Travel across the West Lafayette campus and ask ag economist Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, who has worked tirelessly on this technology for decades to pinpoint the payoff in precision farming.

In a 2004 study of auto guidance, Lowenberg-DeBoer concluded that DGPS auto guidance would be profitable for a substantial group of Corn Belt farmers in a few years. And that study was done long before commodity prices shot up and automated steering costs were drastically reduced.

Still skeptical? The real profit from this trend, according to growers who have switched their operation to GPS-guided rows and real-time kinematic (RTK) correction, is derived from these precision tasks:

Strip-tillage

The highly accurate GPS signal with RTK ground-based correction (accurate within 1 in.) lets a grower accurately strip-till and place fertilizer, then plant the row exactly on top of the fertilizer band. Growers report reduced fertilizer costs, reduced tillage trips across the field and increased yields. And the latest technology offers GPS guidance to the implement being pulled so it won't drift in uneven terrain.

More productive fieldwork

Growers can expand their acreage without added horsepower or equipment by running more hours faster and with less fatigue. Employee flexibility also is improved, because automated steering eases fieldwork for the young, old and inexperienced driver alike.

Fuel saved

Less overlap on every pass yields fewer trips across the field and less fuel used.

Fertilizer saved

Growers say precise placement in a band under the seed allows for reduced rates, especially compared to broadcast.

Herbicide saved

Less overlap saves money on burndown applications, and when combined with auto boom and rate controllers, huge savings can be delivered.

Less compaction

Growers can control traffic patterns of tractors and implements and establish permanent wheel tracks. This substantially cuts planting and root zone compaction, increases water infiltration, reduces erosion and increases yield.

Improved field awareness

Hands-free operation affords growers time to watch the implement, scout and log field issues (weeds, insects, disease, rocks, broken tile), or place phone calls.

New Holland launched its automated and fully integrated steering package, the IntelliSteer Auto-Steering system, in early 2004. The company specifically designed the package for compatibility with its TJ and TG Series tractor lines — through a joint development venture with Trimble.

“We have an extremely high level of integration in this product,” says Sid Siefken, sales channel manager for Trimble. “The IntelliSteer autosteer system is designed to withstand the extremes of agriculture. It has a large, robust touch-screen display with 3-D view that integrates seamlessly with the entire IntelliSteer system. This makes diagnostics, configuration and calibration easy to perform right from the display, with no need for external software — a very user-friendly setup.”

North-central Indiana grower Dan Showley was one of the first North American corn and soybean growers to put the IntelliSteer to the test on his New Holland TG285 tractor.

He farms 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and popcorn in field sizes ranging from 40 to 260 acres with creeks, slopes and woods. Showley was confident this technology (with precise RTK correction) was just the ticket to allow him to switch to strip-till corn. So he sold his deep ripper and 4-wd tractor, bought a strip-till tool and the IntelliSteer.

To check his hunch, he used three fertilizer tests to compare his strip-till yields — banded, broadcast and reduced rates. Where fertilizer was precisely banded into the root zone below the seed, yields were 10 bu./acre higher than in fields on which fertilizer was broadcast. In other strips, he cut the fertilizer rate by 20%, and the yields were the same as those in fields with the full-rate banded fertilizer. “And that 20% lower rate out-yielded the full rate broadcasted,” Showley says.

Manitoba grower John Kichuk worked his IntelliSteer 24 hours a day during planting to cover his 12,000 acres of barley, wheat, canola, grasses and alfalfa. “Last season with the IntelliSteer, our accuracy was within 6 in. [using free WAAS correction] on a 64-ft. seeder,” he says. “And that impacts the bottom line. I save $300 per quarter-section because of less overlaps and skips. If I plant 50 quarters, that's $15,000 [saved] in one year.

“Plus,” he continues, “by planting 24 hours a day with four operators, I could sell a tractor I no longer needed and I saved an added $200,000.”

What does the future hold for this precision automated steering? In the near term, look for companies to continue to make hands-free driving even easier to use, and perhaps even start to offer tools to improve multitasking. Raven has a prototype screen claimed to offer Internet access, which could be available this summer.

Once your hands leave the wheel, you may be able to run your entire operation from your cab.