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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ISOBUS

Anyone shopping for new farm equipment should by now be aware of this acronym. It is loosely used to indicate compliance with the International Standard Organization (ISO) 11783 standard that allows different brands of electronic devices on farm equipment to easily communicate with each other through one common connection.

Farm machinery manufacturers have been working on this standard since 2001. But it wasn't until recently that consumers started to see the results of this industry-wide effort. A record number of companies launched ISOBUS equipment in 2006, according to William Rudolph, North American ISOBUS Implementation Taskforce and TeeJet technical director. Expect to see even more companies offering products that meet this standard.

Here are some tips from Rudolph to ensure you buy up-to-date electronic equipment:

  1. When you purchase your next tractor, make sure it is ISOBUS compatible.

  2. Purchase ISOBUS-compatible implements that come with an ISOBUS monitor (if you don't already have one).

  3. Purchase an ISOBUS monitor in conjunction with your first ISOBUS-compatible implement so you can use the same monitor with future implement purchases.

Visit this Web site for a list of manufacturers of ISOBUS-compliant devices: http://www.isobus.net/isobus_E.

Implement steering

In the past, the only wheels worthy of automated steering were those on a tractor or combine. But what about the wheels on the implement? Farmers who farm hillsides can attest that it is hard to keep their implements following in the exact same path as the tractor. The new implement steering systems keep implements on course by putting sensors and actuators on the implement wheels so they follow exactly in line with the tractor that is pulling them. The fastest payback for this technology comes from using it in applications where accuracy is important, such as strip-tillage and drip irrigation. However, the adage in the industry is “accuracy is addictive.” Once farmers get a taste of it, they won't want to give it up regardless of the payback.

 

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Internet in the cab

Growers don't have to forsake the cyber world just because they are in the field. Raven Industries proved this by launching a Viper with Internet access. The new task controller is the first to bring cyber digital waves to corn and soybean fields across the Midwest. The company uses the same card technology that is in a cell phone for the Viper. Or growers may use a USB WiFi adapter. Expect other companies to piggyback on the same technology, bringing competition into this new field.

Joint ventures

Agricultural companies have teamed up in joint ventures to become more competitive in a dog-eat-dog world. They chose partner companies with different strengths to produce a better product. Seed and chemical companies started this model, and now electronics and iron makers are following. Here are some of the partnerships that have occurred in the past few years:


Dickey-john/Trimble
Ag Leader/Kinze
AutoFarm/Raven Industries
Case IH/Trimble
Redball/Wil-Rich
CNH Global/Shanghai Tractor & Internal
Combustion Engine
Monsanto/Dow AgroSciences (8-stack hybrid)
Pioneer Hi-Bred/Syngenta (germplasm)
DuPont/Beijing Weiming Kaituo Agriculture
Biotechnology (gene discovery)Monsanto/Valent (rewards program)
Bayer CropScience/Soygenetics
Bayer CropScience/Stine Seed
Monsanto/BASF
DuPont/Syngenta (Greenleaf Genetics)
AGCO/Beeline
Leica Geosystems/Rinex Technology

Krutz, Gary

Professor Gary Krutz was tired of having to replace tires on his daughter and son-in law's car after 10,000 miles of use. So Krutz and graduate research assistants at Purdue University developed a “smart” tire that senses problems before it goes flat or loses air.

Krutz says traditional tire sensing systems detect low air pressure or unbalanced pressure between tires but fall short of alerting drivers of problems unrelated to improper inflation. The smart tire uses the concept that the entire tire is the sensor. Measurements are taken on the tread and the layers beneath it to detect damage caused by cuts, punctures, manufacturing defects, rubber hardening, over-deflection, impact, or improper mounting or repair. Signals are sent to on-board computers for processing.

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Land management

The average age of the American farmer is mid-50s, and this has major implications for the future of farmland. More land will roll to family members who are not farming. These non-farming landowners will turn over the land management to professionals. As a result, professional land management firms, rather than individual farmers, will become the new major decision makers for inputs and renters.

Mosaic

Cargill spun off the fertilizer company called Mosaic in 2004. A hot world market for fertilizer has helped propel Mosaic stock from $15/share in 2004 to $94.34/share at the end of 2007. In fact, the Minneapolis-based company was the top earner of a local stock index with a 342% increase in price during 2007. With the fertilizer shortage continuing indefinitely, Mosaic is sure to keep climbing upward.

Nitrogen

The availability and price of nitrogen fertilizer will continue to be an enormous factor in the profitability of corn. All efforts will focus on precisely applying nitrogen at the optimum time to promote corn growth because N will not be a low-priced option in the near future.

On-the-go sensors

Expect to see new developments with on-the-go sensing from vehicle-mounted devices that help regulate the application of seed, fertilizer and chemicals. “A fertilizer spreader might be able to have a sensor at the front that will test, say, soil pH every few feet and change the rate of lime application as the spreader passes over that point,” says Marvin Batte, Ohio State University.

On-the-go sensing technology has been around in other forms, including nitrogen sensing, since the 1990s. Examples include GreenSeeker, Norsk Hydro (Yara) N sensor, and Crop Circle, which all measure the greenness of leaves for variable nitrogen application.

Precision guidance

Automated steering systems with GPS will fully populate the ag equipment business in the next decade. The early adopters in farming already successfully implemented precision guidance systems. Now the masses will join. Most tractors and combines are manufactured with the ability to handle GPS-directed steering systems.

Quad stacks

Quad stacks were the latest in the explosion of stacked traits in corn and soybean seed. Recently, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences trumped the quad stack with an eight-gene stack. This new multiple-stack product could be called an octostack, but the two companies opted for the name Smart Stax.

With its endless list of new features, the new stacked-trait seed is beginning to sound like a new car. In the future, maybe the seed companies will have to create seed with standard, deluxe and premium packages of stacks.

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Remote sensing

Remote sensing technology is not new but is getting a face-lift. Instead of a week to turn around satellite photos, the new Optigro from John Deere takes only two to three days. As a result, growers can quickly react with rescue operation plans before too much crop damage occurs. The images help show crop stress, pests, weather damage, and low nitrogen and moisture levels.


 

Robot rally

Instead of sitting around a conference room talking about automated machines, a group of agricultural engineers staged a robot rally as part of the Precision Ag Conference held last summer. Robots with names like AgAnt and Agbo were demonstrated. Sure, these robots may not look as posh as the lifelike androids shown each year at Las Vegas electronic shows, but these field versions promise to be more productive, volunteering for the most mundane tasks like weeding and tilling. The University of Illinois is one hot spot for the research. Tony Grift and his university team just received a $300,000 grant to develop one of these androids for the field.

Remote diagnostics

General Motors did it for cars with OnStar and now you can get the same immediate service response in your tractor from Leica Geosystems. Leica's service is a remote diagnostic system called the Virtual Wrench, which is a feature on the company's autosteer guidance system. The Virtual Wrench lets the folks at Leica tap into its real-time kinematic (RTK) system 24/7 and fix it at the touch of a button from their headquarters in Englewood, CO. So a farmer in a tractor cab with the autosteer system (called mojoRTK) can push a button on the system's small console and get a live technician to respond, just like with OnStar.

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Sensorics

A new word has been added to the vocabulary. Pronounced sen-SORE-icks, the term is used to describe the sensor industry. Sensorics may not be a word you've heard of, but it's a hot topic among rocket-science types like those at the University of Illinois who are studying how to use sensors to make smart equipment. Sensors and sensorics have become such a big topic that an entire conference last year was devoted to this area of research.

Smart implements

Tractor cabs have been equipped with electronics for decades. But now the implements pulled behind them are getting hardwired, too, to give them just as much intelligence. Sensors are being added to every moving part of the implement to help it track and operate in the most optimum way. The sensors log information like ground speed, depth of tillage, number of seeds planted, and amount of fertilizer applied.

Strip-tillage

Conferences on strip-till were packed last year showing that interest in this form of minimum tillage is high. No-tillers like it because it provides them a more aggressive way to get rid of residue, and even conventional tillers are interested because of potential fuel savings. Shortline manufacturers led the relatively young strip-till equipment market. But recently, major manufacturers like Case IH-DMI and John Deere have joined in, which some say adds to the validity of this tillage method.

Tier 4

With Tier 3 diesel emission standards now in effect for large row-crop tractors, manufacturers are already working on engine designs to meet Tier 4. This next tier, to be fully phased in by 2015, calls for an even greater reduction in the amount of soot and nitrous oxide allowable in diesel exhaust. “The way I describe it is if you drove through a large city on a smoggy day with a Tier 4 engine, the air coming out of the tractor would be cleaner than the air coming in,” says Jim Wienkes, John Deere tractor engineering manager.

Getting the engine and tractor to meet the new Tier 4 rules is difficult. “If the engineering challenge to meet Tier 3 was a factor of 1, Tier 4 is going to be a factor of 3,” Wienkes says. Engineers have several methods they can use to create cleaner-burning engines, but each has its own set of trade-offs. Expect to see Tier 4 engines available on some 2009 tractors.

Tracks

The track market for tractors is alive and well and John Deere wants to make sure we know this. Deere launched a new type of track last year that it says will put it back on the map in the world of tracks. The new track system combines the benefits of a quad track with a two-track setup. After-market companies are putting the same concept to work on other brand vehicles, hoping to achieve high flotation levels.

Utility vehicles

Once considered glorified golf carts, utility vehicles have undergone a metamorphosis. Just look at the makeover of John Deere's Gator. The new XUV now fits into the category of “sporty” UVs that includes the Yamaha Rhino, Polaris Ranger and Arctic Cat Prowler. Even Kawasaki has added a new, powerful UV to its lineup with its 750cc Teryx. With the farm population aging and the price of pickups increasing, more growers are willing to pop for a $10,000 UV because it more closely mimics a pickup than an ATV does. The UV can head to the field with passengers or pull plenty of weight. And the operator doesn't have to swing a leg over the back end to get on it. UVs will be the new ATVs of the next decade.
View FIN's ATV/UV archive

Variable-rate technology

We know you've been hearing about VRT for years. But now the technology is getting very precise with rate control by the nozzle and planter row. The majority of growers haven't used VRT, but they probably will in the next decade. (See “ Precision payoff,” February 2008)


Vegetable-oil engine

Imagine dousing your salad with the same oil that you put into your tractor for diesel fuel. What may sound crazy now is much closer than you think. In Europe, Deutz developed the first diesel engine that runs on rapeseed (canola) oil. Farmers can raise their own rapeseed, run it through a rapeseed mill on the farm, and put it in a fuel tank for the tractor. A tractor from Same Deutz-Fahr and one from Fendt are equipped with the new vegetable-oil engine. In addition, Deutz is testing engines with soybean and sunflower oil.

There also was a tractor several decades ago that could use fuel oil. That just proves there are few new ideas — just recycled ones.

Virtual terminal

Office workers wouldn't think of having to deal with multiple computers on their desktop. But that's what farmers have had to deal with for years, says George Huber of Trimble. One tractor cab could be populated with as many as a half dozen different monitors if different brands of electronics were used. The cab clutter was coined “monitor wallpaper,” by Marvin Stone of Oklahoma State University. Finally, the wallpaper is coming down, thanks to advancements in electronics. The industry is moving toward a do-all screen called a “virtual terminal” that can be used to monitor the tasks from many brands of task controllers.

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Windmills

What's old is new again when it comes to windmills and wind power. Wind farms with dozens of enormous steel windmills are cropping up all over the Midwest. And it's becoming trendy for eco-friendly colleges and businesses to put up their own windmills to produce power. But just a few individual farmers have had the courage to put one up. Wind power to generate a farm's energy needs makes a lot of sense and hopefully more farmers will get on this bandwagon.

Wheat

Wheat as a crop lost plenty of ground in the last decade, but in this next one we may see a renewal for this major world staple. A growing demand and decreased acreage created a healthy market. U.S. growers were surprised to see wheat move into the $5 to $6/bu. range last year. There's nothing like money to attract more money. So crop protection and seed companies should start investing more dollars for new and better products to sell to wheat growers who should have more money now to buy them.

Xerion

A new category of machine came to the U.S. in 2007 when German harvester family Claas decided to bring its superman tractor to our shores. This “tractor” is geared to the very large crop operation or a municipality that needs snow removal, road excavation and other big utility jobs. Think skid-steer loader meets 330-hp 4-wd and add in the octopus thrill ride to get an idea of the Xerion's versatility. The entire cab pivots to face behind and run implements from that direction. It crosses many classes of equipment.

Young farmers

With the farm population aging, more strategies, such as joint buying, should be devised to help young farmers. With joint buying, a farmer buys most of his/her farm equipment with other farmers under an LLC (limited liability corporation). The equipment is shared. Joint buying may create scheduling and maintenance headaches when everyone needs to plant at the same time. But it may help keep the next generation of farmers in business. Distributing the cost of equipment across several owners will help a young farmer's bottom line.

Zhang, Qin

Qin Zhang's name is synonymous with mechatronics, the science that integrates “mechanics” and “electronics” to create off-road machinery with a “brain.” Here are some applications this ag engineering professor at the University of Illinois envisions for the future in off-road equipment:

Automated navigationVehicles can drive themselves with the help of “intelligent obstacle avoidance.”

Active rollover prevention systemStill in the early stage, this system aims to protect both the operator and equipment by preventing rollovers from occurring in the first place. It does this by measuring slope and disabling the vehicle when it gets too steep.

Programmable E/H control valveControl-actuating components can be programmed like a computer to perform different applications.

Smart machine health monitor or “predictor.”An automated maintenance system checks equipment health and predicts remaining life so repairs can be made before breakdowns occur.

Vision-based side-dressingA vehicle-mounted camera, equipped with vision sensors, assesses crop growth conditions and then varies the amount of fertilizer applied based on those conditions.