This past spring, Team FIN farmer Paul Gervais began testing two Ag Leader Insight monitors: one on his combine and another to provide GPS-guided steering and record keeping on several different tractors. After using the units for a full season, Gervais shared his thoughts on how the Insight monitors worked on his 1,400-acre corn and soybean operation near Tracy, MN.

FACING LOW commodity prices and higher input costs, many farmers seek to stay competitive by buying bigger machinery and acquiring more land. But in a tight market for prime farmland, Paul Gervais has taken a different path to profitability, investing in technology that makes his existing machinery and ground more efficient and productive. His high-tech/modest-sized farming philosophy has led to an ongoing process of precision ag investment, and a continuous learning curve.

Gervais estimates his total investment in GPS and site-specific agriculture equipment has been about $40,000 over the past seven years. As technology improves, Gervais upgrades his system. When possible, he buys new hardware and software that works with his existing equipment.

“I was interested in the Ag Leader Insight monitor because it can do multiple things in a relatively small package,” Gervais says. “The 10.4-in. color touch-screen terminal works with my existing Trimble Autopilot system to steer my tractors. It's easy to set up and, with some practice, fairly intuitive to use.”

Yield and input maps

Gervais used the system to keep detailed data maps of all his field operations. He viewed maps on the monitor and downloaded them to his office computer to be stored, overlaid and analyzed. “The color maps provide an easy way for me to see the yield effects of actions I take in the field,” he says. “I can use the system to compare the payback on operations such as tile drainage, deep tillage, seed selection, herbicide choices and fertility levels. It's already been very useful in reducing input costs and guiding my management decisions for future seasons.”

Gervais says GPS mapping capabilities also have proven useful in helping him resolve potential disputes on fertilizer and herbicide application. “When my neighbor thought my herbicides might have drifted over to his field and injured his crop, it was easy to check my time-stamped spray records on the site-specific map and compare them to the day's weather report. The map assured both of us that my spray wasn't the problem,” he says.

GPS-assisted mapping proved valuable again when a fertilizer dealer wrongly charged Gervais for 120 acres worth of product on a 93-acre irregularly shaped field. Gervais was able to quickly use the Insight on his tractor to drive the field boundaries and produce a precise map that proved his case.

Zone tillage

Gervais says the Insight's advanced features make it compatible with zone tillage and controlled traffic systems, with which he has been experimenting. The system is capable of storing highly detailed data maps and is compatible with a real-time kinematics (RTK) GPS system that allows him to come back in the field and drive precisely the same line every year.

“My goal is to use guidance technology to control traffic in the field, reduce the expense of deep tillage by tilling in zones, and reduce fertilizer expense by creating fertility zones instead of broadcasting fertilizer,” Gervais says. “To get that level of repeatability from one year to the next, I had to invest in more accurate RTK GPS guidance. That requires a base station and a more versatile control system like the Insight monitor.”

To save the additional $15,000 investment on RTK, Gervais leased his RTK antenna from Titan Equipment for $1,500 a year. “Titan is part of the Rural Tower Network in the Dakotas and western Minnesota,” Gervais says. “They didn't have coverage in my area yet, but agreed to set up an antenna on my farm and lease it to me.”

Planting, rock picking

During planting, the Insight monitor allows easy data entry of seed corn varieties. It automatically stores maps of fields and test plots. “This makes it easy to compare hybrid performance,” Gervais says. “When I meet with my seed dealer, I have the maps handy to show which hybrids worked well and not so well for me.

“The 64-megabyte flash memory card removes easily and can be read by another Insight monitor in a different machine, or the data can be downloaded onto a PC. I found it very handy to swap the card between a tractor unit and into the combine so I could integrate data about what hybrids and varieties were planted in each field.”

Field maps are markable with 64 different icons. In his fields, Gervais marked the locations of rocks, broken tile line, plug piles, wet areas, weed pressure and other features that required attention. “While I wouldn't expect anyone to buy this system just for picking rocks, I did find it very handy,” he says. “I'd mark rocks on the Ag Leader map during deep tillage with my Cat tractor, then move the unit to my loader tractor to assist in picking the rocks later. It speeded up the process when all we had to do was drive to the Xs marked on the map. It was well worth the 15 minutes it took to swap the unit from one machine another.”

Spraying

For $750, Ag Leader sells an unlock code that upgrades the Insight with special spray controller software called DirectCommand. This allows the Insight to work seamlessly with a toggle switch control box, which costs an additional $1,400. “This is a really great addition,” Gervais says. “The system remembers where I sprayed and ‘paints’ a green swath on the screen in real time to show where I've already sprayed. Any overlap shows up as dark green, and unsprayed areas are white. It's really handy if you spray your boundaries and end rows first. DirectCommand automatically turns off the sprayer as you enter the sprayed area, then turns it on again as you exit into the next untreated area. The system needs an accurate GPS antennae to work properly but is worth the extra money.”

Technical difficulties

The unit has an on-screen user guide you can access when you have a question. Gervais noted that this “help” feature usually works well, except that there is no regular paper copy manual. “By the time you go from the on-screen user guide back to a different screen where you had a question, you could forget what the user guide told you to do. A hard copy of the user manual would alleviate that problem. My feeling is that if I spend $4,000 on a system like this, it should include a printed manual.”

One reason Gervais selected the Ag Leader Insight monitor is that he wanted something that was compatible with his existing Trimble Autopilot system. But at first he encountered some problems getting the two systems to work together. “Apparently there were some bugs in the system,” he says. “But the Ag Leader tech support people were outstanding in working with Trimble to resolve the problem. I was impressed at the response time and the level of service from tech support.” Since the spring of 2005, Trimble has upgraded its firmware to eliminate the particular problem Gervais encountered.

Value

The Insight monitor retails at $3,995. Buying an unlock code to make the monitor work with Autopilot costs another $750. An unlock code for DirectCommand, which allows the system to monitor and control a sprayer, costs another $750. Ag Leader's SMS software that allows data management on an office computer also costs $750. Cables, mounting kits and other accessories can add more to the bill.

“Overall, I judge the Insight to be a good value considering all the features and things it can do,” Gervais says. “Technical support from Ag Leader has been excellent and timely. My only real complaint is that the unit didn't come with a paper manual, which would have helped me a lot while I was learning to use the unit.”

For more information, contact Ag Leader Technology, Dept. FIN, 2202 South Riverside Dr., Ames, IA 50010, 515/232-5363, or visit www.agleader.com, www.trimble.com, or www.ruraltowernetwork.com.

Cross-platform compatibility

EQUIPMENT USE
Cat 65B tractor Deep zone tillage, zone fertility
Controlled traffic
Strip tillage
New Holland 8970 Site verification while
pulling sprayer and planter
tractor
Top Air sprayer
(withDirectCommand)
Automatic shutoff on treated areas
Eliminating overlap and skip areas
Kinze 3600
twin row planter
Marking hybrid and variety
changes on field maps
Allis Chalmers 6080
loader tractor
Driving directly to
GPS-marked rocks
ATV Tile marking, crop scouting
Gleaner combine Yield monitoring
Variety tracking via planting records
Yield and moisture results in the field

WHEN IT comes to equipment, Paul Gervais is not one to bleed green, red or any other color. So he especially liked the Insight's cross-platform compatibility. “I don't buy just one brand or color of equipment, so I need a system that works with everything on my farm,” he says. “The Insight transfers easily to all brands of equipment and can be used full season — from tillage to planting, spraying and harvest. It could even be used after harvest for laying tile lines.” This chart shows how Gervais used the Insight Monitor on different makes of equipment.