ONE YEAR AGO we reviewed some of the top technology trends transforming agriculture. We also scanned the horizon for clues about the opportunities for and obstacles in the path of these new advances. Now it's 2005, and some of the technologies we described have been adopted so rapidly they hardly seem new anymore. Meanwhile, others that grabbed our attention have lagged a bit but are still developing over the horizon.

So where are we now? Let's start with a quick overview of trends we've covered over the past year, then preview a few new technologies you're likely to be reading a lot more about in the near future.

TRACTOR CONTROL

THERE ARE CURRENTLY more than 24 global positioning system (GPS) satellites orbiting the Earth. At any one time, four to 10 of these satellites are visible to receivers on the ground throughout North America, allowing everyone from farmers to fishermen to know within a few feet or a few centimeters, depending on the equipment, their exact position on the planet.

Overall, a convergence of GPS guidance and electronic controller systems is driving tractors to be more and more like rolling computers. Farmers in the cab spend their time pushing buttons and analyzing data instead of steering or changing gears. With many new machines now set up to accept the necessary hardware and software, installation of new electronic applications can be as easy as downloading new software or plugging in a new implement or controller.

To make sure all new tractors and implements can work with one another, the ag equipment industry is adopting the ISO11783 communications standard. The standard is a common electronic language that allows pre-wired computerized networks (CANBUS) in new tractors to be plugged into a smart implement as easily as hooking up a printer to a desktop computer — a concept often referred to as “plug and play.”

Most recently, AGCO has promoted this type of interoperability between its Fendt tractors, Hesston round balers and White planters. Kevin Bien of AGCO points out that Fendt tractors were the first to offer this level of sophistication. “We expect an adoption curve similar to but a few years behind what we've seen in Europe,” Bien says. “As farmers expect their tractors and machinery to do more, they realize that a CANBUS system simplifies their transition toward more automation. With the Fendt, for instance, you don't need a wiring harness or wires snaking out the back window of the cab. Everything just plugs in at the back of the tractor. Inside the cab, control and monitoring of the tractor and its implements are done on the Fendt's single Vario terminal. Farmers may think this stuff is too complicated at first, but when they want more automation upgrades, they'll see this is actually a less complicated system for attaining that goal.”

‘SUB-INCH’ SHOWS VALUE

This past spring, Team FIN farmer Erik Petry put an AutoFarm RTK (real-time kinematic) system and base station antennae to the test. He used the no-hands steering, sub-inch accuracy system to successfully plant his corn at night and in dust storms without the aid of his planter markers. Petry enthusiastically reported that not only did the system reduce fatigue and improve his planting speed, but it also recorded the exact position of the tractor on each pass, which will allow him to drive the same wheel tracks the next year and following years to reduce overall field compaction. A skip-row tillage demonstration with the same system demonstrated near-perfect pass-to-pass accuracy.

Similar systems are available from Trimble, Beeline and OEMs.

INPUT TRAITS

IN A SPEECH during a recent American Seed Trade Association meeting, seed industry consultant Tray Thomas of The Context Network observed that four key areas of trait development are most likely to affect the seed industry in the future: yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency.

What's more, farmers won't have to wait as long for traits to be transformed into the newest, high-yielding elite hybrids. Techniques such as marker-assisted selection now let plant breeders peer into a new hybrid or variety's genetic makeup to see if desirable agronomic characteristics are transferred during breeding. With this ability, plant breeders can shave years off the time it takes to bring a new elite hybrid to market.

As in the past, we can expect most patented traits, either directly or indirectly though licensing agreements, to come from gene giant Monsanto. But starting in 2005, farmers may start to see more competition. When Syngenta Seeds acquired the Garst and Golden Harvest seed companies, it also bought access to Bayer's GA21 glyphosate-tolerant gene in corn. Combining those new additions with what Syngenta already offered through its NK Brand, the company appears better positioned to compete with Monsanto on traits.

Jack Bernens, business manager of Syngenta's new Agrisure Advantage Traits division, supports the position that Syngenta's recent moves will give farmers and small regional seed companies more choices on where they get their traits. “In the next five years, you can expect to see largely the same types of traits that have already been on the market,” Bernens says. “The big difference is that you'll have more of a choice on where you can get those traits and more choice on how you use these traits in an integrated pest management program.”

Starting in 2005, Syngenta will market its traits through the newly formed Agrisure Advantage brand. GT Advantage for glyphosate tolerance will be available in hybrids offered by NK and Golden Harvest brands. Agrisure CB Advantage, for season-long protection against corn borer, will be available in Garst hybrids. The Agrisure GT Advantage trait is the brand name for GA21, and Agrisure CB Advantage is the brand name for hybrids with the Bt11 trait.

Even as patent battles with Monsanto continue over some of these traits, Syngenta plans to sell Agrisure Advantage traits with its commercial germplasm through a broader range of foundation and independent seed companies so that growers will be able to purchase the initial traits and future offerings in the elite hybrids of their choice. “These new choices mean growers can choose the pest control program they want to use and still receive a range of assurances and warranties to protect their crops,” Bernens says

RTK NETWORK

One of the keys to an RTK system's high level of accuracy is the base station antenna. Placed at the edge of a field, it sends a radio signal to the tractor that triangulates with the GPS satellite signals. With a range of about six miles, the base station signal can be shared with many farmers.

RTK antenna sharing can be a formal business arrangement, as in the case of the Rural Tower Network in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota. There, regional equipment dealers RDO Equipment, Butler Machinery and Titan Equipment are setting up an array of 100-ft. towers, spaced 10 to 12 miles apart, which can transmit the RTK correction signal to tractors throughout large blocks of the Red River Valley. Dave Meyer, CEO of Titan Machinery, says, “Strip-till fertilizing and seeding with larger implements requires the type of sub-inch accuracy only available with RTK.”

OUTPUT TRAITS

THE TREND TOWARD greater access to and choice of input traits that benefit production probably won't change soon. But Tray Thomas of The Context Network anticipates that no major output (consumer-oriented) traits will impact the seed industry significantly over the next five years.

Jack Bernens, business manager of Syngenta's newly formed Agrisure Advantage Traits division, generally agrees, though he says farmers are likely to start hearing more about output traits that improve industrial output characteristics, such as corn hybrids that produce an alpha amylase enzyme for more efficient dry-grind ethanol production. Syngenta, Pioneer and Monsanto are all working on such ethanol-friendly hybrids.

Another trait to watch for, Bernens says, will be hybrids that produce their own enzymes that make phosphorus in feed more digestible to livestock. “This is different from the ‘low-phytate’ hybrids that failed to make it to market a few years ago because of low yields,” Bernens explains.

Instead of trying to reduce the phytate where plants naturally store their energy, these new engineered hybrids will have a gene that expresses itself in the production of a phytase enzyme that helps animals break down the phytate into phosphorus that they can use and absorb, instead of passing it through in manure where it can become an environmental issue.

MENTS

Insecticidal seed treatments on corn gained ground in 2004 with products such as Gustafson's Poncho 250 and 1250 and Syngenta's Cruiser. The treatments offer convenient alternatives to in-furrow insecticides or trait-enhanced rootworm-resistant hybrids. In general, university tests found that these seed treatments provided adequate protection under low-to-moderate insect pressure, while heavy insect pressure situations were often better controlled with either traditional insecticides or by planting resistant (CRW Bt) hybrids.

In addition to the convenience on-seed insecticides offer, farmers' acceptance of these products has been influenced by the continued growth of corn-on-corn and no-till acres where emergence is challenged with cooler no-till soils.

Another driving force for seed treatments is the increasingly higher cost of seed. As farmers pay higher fees for technology and better genetics, it makes more sense to invest in seed treatments and inoculants as a form of insurance in variable and challenging environments.

INOCULANTS

New rhizobial inoculants can now remain viable for up to 30 days on the seed prior to planting, giving farmers more time and flexibility to plant inoculant-treated soybean seed. Several companies' products now include a special coating of nutrients for the bacteria to feed on while they wait to be placed in the soil with the seed.

One product introduced recently with an extender is Becker Underwood's Vault, which the company bills as a “bio-stacked” inoculant. The company's Bill Romp says the inoculant includes multiple strains of beneficial rhizobia to help ensure activity in variable soil conditions. “Some rhizobia perform better in cool soils and others in warmer conditions,” Romp says. “So our shotgun approach, applying a wide variety of carefully selected rhizobia in one treatment, means improved nodulation and nitrogen fixing over a larger range of growing conditions. Better nodulation results in better plant health, higher yields, protein and oil content.” Completing the “stack” for Vault is a biological fungicide called Integral that suppresses common soilborne diseases caused by fungi such as Rhizoctonia and Fusarium.

Another company, Advanced Biological Marketing, also offers a new inoculant product for soybeans. Its America's Best Inoculant Plus 30 remains viable for up to 30 days on the seed and comes with a more concentrated dose of rhizobia, allowing it to work better with fungicide and insecticide combinations as well. The new concentrate will allow a full rate of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia at one-third the volume.

RURAL HIGH-SPEED INTERNET

SATELLITE INTERNET provider AgriStar signed its first subscriber in February of 2002. Since then the company claims to have had rapid subscriber growth. President and Co-CEO Kip Pendleton says the biggest increases have come since August 2004, as more producers see broadband Internet as a critical management and communications tool for their farm, home and family. “Today with 30 million rural residents not serviced by any type of broadband, we expect this to be a large market,” Pendleton says.

Some farmers balk at the price, including set-up fees of $500 to $1,100, plus at least a $59.95 monthly fee, although it is typically closer to $70. But Pendleton points out that the only other option for most farmers is a $20/month, low-speed, poor-quality dial-up Internet service that typically delivers throughput speeds that are about 20 kbps.

“On a value basis, this means dial-up customers are paying roughly $1 for each kilobit of throughput,” Pendleton says. “At $59.95, AgriStar Global Networks delivers to farmers downloads that are 500 kbps, which means that our service costs roughly $0.12 per kilobit of throughput. In other words, based solely on download speed, Agristar is about a 10 times better value for Internet connectivity than dial-up, which is the only option most farmers have. Our complete suite of services, including high-speed connection, ISP services and content such as the Hightower Market Report, provides an excellent overall value.”

AgriStar isn't necessarily the only option for farmers seeking satellite Internet access. DirecWay (www.direcway.com) and Starband (www.starband.com) are two competing companies that offer satellite Internet. Multiple companies market their services. AgriStar uses DirecWay services. Many members of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (www.nrtc.org), whose members include more than 1,000 rural utilities and affiliates in 46 states, sell both services.

Pendleton says the set-up fees vary and are sometimes subsidized by companies or local communities.

REMOTE SENSING

Digital Globe, the primary company that provided satellite images of the recent tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean, also offers farmers images and analysis that are sometimes just days old — timely enough to make field management decisions.

Geosys (www.farmsat.com) takes a different tack, looking at the past to predict the future. The company extrapolates trends and field patterns by layering multiple sources of satellite data for one area over a period of many years. For a cost of about $2.50/acre, farmers can buy “management zone” images that are derived from several satellite images and compiled through a mathematical formula. During the company's research program with NASA, researchers compared these zones with six years of multi-temporal yield data and found a very high correlation between the derived patterns and crop yield data.