No-hands steering is nice. No-hands steering with RTK sub-inch accuracy is even better. But would a corn and soybean farmer in central Illinois find sufficient value to justify a $40,000 investment for this kind of technology?

We talked IntegriNautics into letting our Team FIN farmer Erik Petry borrow one of its AutoFarm GPS 5001 AutoSteer systems for an entire season. Petry, who farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his father near Rochelle, IL, was eager to test the system during planting season. Here is his report.

We received notice of this test in mid spring — just enough time to install it on my planter tractor, a John Deere 8410. The company sent a unit with the “older” version software but promised to send updated software later in the season. Although the system I was given has sub-inch accuracy, the newer version has the additional capability of steering and guiding a given machine around curves.

Our farming operation is mostly conventional tillage with some no-till corn into soybean stubble. Uses for assisted steering on our farm would be spring-applied NH3, planting of corn and soybeans, spraying corn pre and post, harvesting, and fall tillage. Because we were short on time, we only installed it on one tractor that pulls a Kinze 24-row planter for corn and a homemade 40-ft. planter for soybeans.

System overview

A GPS-guided assisted-steering system with sub-inch accuracy, the AutoFarm unit will record and store data for multiple farms. Here's the easiest way to describe how it works: Say you have a square 80 acres, which you call “Home 80.” You tell it what operation you will be performing, such as corn planting, as well as the total working width of the corn planter, let's say 60 ft.

When you pull into the Home 80, you align yourself to make your first pass along the fence line. The centerline of the tractor should be approximately 30 ft. from the fence, and this is your “A” point. Then you drive or plant to the other end, and when you reach the end, you set your “B” point. The computer will “draw” a straight line between points “A” and “B” and use this line to guide the tractor on its 60-ft. passes. The system will store and remember these data. So, ideally, you will never have to set those points again for that field.

Say I set my A and B points as above and later I want to do some spraying. However, my booms are 90 ft., not 60 ft. like my planter. I simply go into the program, change my implement from planter to sprayer and my working width to 90 ft. — and go! The system automatically changes the A and B points using the data already set when I planted. Likewise, if I want to row-crop cultivate using a 12-row, 30-in.-row cultivator, it will reconfigure itself to the smaller implement. The next year when I plant beans I will be able to use the A-B points set from the previous year. My goal is to use the system to plant corn and soybeans.

The initial setup and changing of fields was easy to learn. The program basically asks you questions and you answer them using a touch screen — very similar to an ATM. Once I had my A-B points established, all I had to do was turn on the end by touching “stop” on the screen or by turning the steering wheel, which gives the operator control of the tractor. Once you are 90∞ to the next pass, you can let the system take over.

I found the “skip pass” feature to be very helpful. This allows you to skip as many rounds as you like and go back to fill in the remaining later. This is a great asset when planting around house lots and obstacles in a field.

The best use I found was planting point rows. I could concentrate more on turning half of the planter on or off and not worry about driving straight ahead without a mark.

Moreover, at the end of those long days, I did not feel as tired as I would have felt if I had concentrated on a planter mark all day.

Also, as dry as it was in our area during early spring, combined with the wind, I know I would have had to stop simply to locate my marker in all the dust.

Before I used this system, I found that, when planting soybeans with a narrow-row planter, I was always planting into the row mark. In addition, it seemed the marker constantly brought up wet, mucky soil, and I not only had to plant into that, but into the trench it created as well. With this system there is no mark! You can really tell how accurate it is in narrow rows because it is easier to tell if you are off an inch in 10-in. spacing than in 30-in. spacing.

Mobile base station

As with any assisted-steering program with sub-inch accuracy, the unit needs a base station. The AutoFarm base station consists of three components: a GPS antenna to receive GPS coordinates to calculate position; a brain box to decipher information; and an FM antenna to relay data from the brain box to the tractor.

The base station can be fixed or mobile. A fixed station has a six- to 10-mile radius and is mounted to a tall structure, such as a grain leg or silo. One-inch accuracy is consistently attainable within a six-mile range of the base station. Accuracy may degrade to several inches per pass beyond that range.

I received a mobile base station that is powered by a 12v marine battery and has a range of three miles. Every morning I would have to set it up and every evening I would take it down, just a three-minute job. I also would have to recharge the battery daily.

To have the ability for repeatable operations, it is important that the GPS antenna go back into the ground at the same spot every time. I ended up driving pipes into the ground that would accept the GPS antenna base; that way I can place the station exactly where it was when I planted.

When I first learned of the mobile base station, I was afraid that I would be moving it all the time. However, having most of our farm within a 10-mile radius, I found I had to move the station just three or four times.

Problems

We rarely make it through a planting season without a few setbacks, and spring 2004 was no exception. At one point, I did have a problem when one of the GPS antennae failed. Not knowing what was wrong, I contacted the company via its “800” trouble-shooting number. Within five minutes of placing the call, I was talking with a tech rep who ran me through some diagnostic tests (basically, the system will tell you what is wrong if you know where to look). He was agriculturally literate, and between the two of us we discovered it was a faulty antenna. He understood my urgent situation, and he ordered a part to be air delivered. I was planting “hands free” by the next morning.

Another problem was that, in certain looser soil conditions, the planter pushed the tractor around. Perhaps it was the system's trying to keep the tractor driving straight or the planter's working side-to-side, but the rows became crooked. This happens in manual steering as well, so I don't blame the AutoFarm system in any way. However, I do think it will create a dilemma for any accurate repeatable passes, such as row-crop cultivating. I believe the smaller the implement, the lesser the chance of this occurring.