Back in the late 1970s I was machinery editor for Farm Progress and I took the time to visit all the major machinery manufacturers at the time. One of my questions was "look into your crystal ball. What do you see twenty, thirty years down the road in terms of farm equipment?"
One of the answers was "someday there will be only two or three farm equipment manufacturers as in the automotive industry." That has come to pass.
Another was "in the future farmers will not simply buy new tractors and combines off the dealer's lot. They will order them to the specifications they want and they will be built for them at the factory, just like the automotive industry." That also has come to pass.
Some even took the Buck Rogers approach and predicted driverless tractors and combines. Well, that, too, is very close to becoming reality.
A year ago I had to opportunity to watch the Kinze folks demonstrate Kinze Autonomy – a driverless tractor pulling a grain cart. At a command from the combine operator, the tractor would pull up alongside the combine, which would unload on-the-go. Then the combine operator would signal the tractor to return to the end of the field. It was, and still isn't, commercially available. But it is getting closer.
Kinze reports this past season it leased its autonomous harvest system to three farmers. The three had been participants in the early work but Kinze engineers were on hand to make sure everything worked okay. This year the Kinze engineer were not in the field and the farmers used the technology independently.
“Because the technology was brand new last year, we took every precaution to make sure it ran properly,” said Rhett Schildroth, senior product manager at Kinze. “We made several minor improvements, and this year the farmers ran the technology by themselves. We’re now getting very positive feedback. The system just works – the farmers keep asking when they can buy it.”
Minor adjustments made for this year’s harvest included: increasing the range of wireless communication between vehicle, more diagnostic feedback, and a "go-to-here feature". That's a big improvement as now the combine operator can locate the tractor where it is most convenient for the next unloading, rather than just at one location.
Kinze continues to work toward full commercialization of the system. I imagine a lot of folks can hardly wait.
Monitor fields from your computer, smart phone
There were also those back in the 70s that predicted someday farmers would use satellites and computers to help them make basic planting and harvesting decisions. That too has come to pass!
I just returned from visiting Climate Corporation in San Francisco where I saw demonstrations of their Climate Basic and Climate Pro programs.
Climate Basic gives you up-the-minute, field-level information on weather, soil and crop growth stage information. Perhaps most cool is the fact that the program also tells you whether you can work a particular field. With these programs you don't have to get in your pickup to see if that 80 down the road can be planted. You can find out right on your computer or smart phone with the "field workability" feature. There are lost more cool features, too.
Climate Pro is a web and mobile service that actually makes recommendations before and during the growing season that adjusts to changing weather-related and other field conditions.
Key features include a planting advisor, nitrogen advisor, pest and disease advisor, variable rate advisor and harvest advisor.
"Climate pro deals with the more complex decisions facing growers such as weighing different options as to when to plant, apply nitrogen, etc.," James Ethington with Climate Corporation told me.
All I can say is, what will they think of next?