Agriculture is full of mind-spinning new products, technology and trends that promise big changes for Midwest crop farmers. The editors at Farm Industry News have pulled together an informal list of the people, products, ideas and trends that may make your operation more efficient and more profitable in the future. Check out “what's new and what's next” to help you get ready for this new era of high-stakes farming.

Autonomous tractors

Tractors that drive themselves with a computer in control are nearly here. Some equipment manufacturers have experimented with driverless tractors but have not taken them beyond the research stage. The big problem is that the tractor must sense when a person, animal or object is near and stop or move around it. There is little room for error. But guidance technology has advanced a great deal in the last few years. Autonomous tractors can't be far away, especially for tedious fieldwork.

Biofuels

So much has already been said about biofuels that is seems a bit redundant to say anymore. But rest assured, biofuels will continue to be critical in the next decade, and it will take all kinds to fulfill our massive fuel demand — from ethanol and biodiesel to canola and sunflower oil.

Biomass harvesters

For years, the problem has been how to get rid of excess crop residue so it doesn't affect crop emergence. Now, alternative fuel makers have another use for biomass, and equipment companies are scrambling for ways to handle it. The key question for manufacturers is if they should modify existing equipment, develop new prototypes or design totally different machines to collect biomass. Growers can expect to see biomass machines that look a lot like the windrowers and choppers of days gone by but with a new name and higher price tag. It turns out that alternative fuels may keep more than just farmers in business.

Controlled traffic

Just how much does compaction affect your crop yields? It may be a lot. University studies show that the weight of today's supersized machinery is compressing the soil like cold-press coffee. Compacted soil robs a crop of potential yield. Innovators like Iowa farmer Clay Mitchell started experimenting with “controlled traffic.” He found that by strictly following the same wheel tracks in his fields, he could keep soil compaction to a minimum and reduce the overall area being compacted. Now the term “controlled traffic” is starting to pop up at different ag conferences. It is considered an innovative way to limit compaction to designated areas between the crop rows, leaving the soil between the wheels just as light as Mother Nature intended.

Drought-tolerant crops

Seed geneticists found the easy traits first, and now they are working overtime on the tough ones. Drought tolerance will be the mother lode, though, for the first seed company to master this tricky set of genes. The winner of this race will have products in high demand. The major seed companies all expect to produce drought-tolerant hybrids and varieties in the next decade.

E Premium tractor

During a snowstorm when the electricity goes out, an owner of the new John Deere 7430 E Premium tractor can pull up to the house and plug in an electrical cord for power. This new tractor is a change in direction for the equipment industry. The tractor generates electricity to run auxiliaries like air conditioning and will operate implements that are redesigned with electric motors. Without all the extras draining its power, the diesel engine can maximize its performance and save fuel. A side benefit of the tractor's generator is the ability to run power equipment wherever the tractor can go. The E tractor is scheduled for sale in Europe only.

Fleet management

As the average farm gets bigger, farm owners are finding they need a more sophisticated way to keep track of vehicles than driving around in their pickup to see why Larry hasn't showed up at the elevator. Large commercial growers will start adopting the technologies used in commercial trucking businesses to monitor and manage fleets from a single computer screen. The fleet management technology, called telematics, includes vehicle-tracking devices and software that show where all vehicles are located at all times.

 

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Global warming

After the next election, expect to see more support for efforts to reduce global warming. This should include the promotion of carbon credits and the Chicago Climate Exchange. Farmers can take a leading role in this effort by farming with carbon-sequestering practices like minimum-tillage and receive payment for their efforts. The Climate Exchange is a trading system that handles the carbon credits. Although it is voluntary here, some countries enforce carbon emissions levels, and companies will purchase offsetting carbon credits if their emissions are too high. Time will tell if this becomes a mandate in the U.S.

Hydrogen fuel

The hydrogen fuel industry is growing out of its infancy and into a stage where ethanol was about 10 to 15 years ago. Auto manufacturers including Honda, Toyota, BMW, GM, DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen are working on hydrogen internal combustion engines and fuel cell vehicles. BMW just built a small fleet of high-end hydrogen cars and presented one to California Governor Schwarzenegger.

Plenty of work is ahead. The hydrogen industry must work on energy-efficient ways to obtain hydrogen. Hydrogen gas may be produced from renewable sources like methane, ethanol, biomass and water or separated from water with electrolysis that is powered by wind and solar energy.

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