27 March 1999

PRECISION MOVES

Precision technology is moving from the combine to the tractor, reports Peter Hill.

As further development data collection systems come to fruition, precision farming enthusiasts will be able to record more aspects of their field operations and collect yield data more reliably.

"Tractors hold the key to further development of precision farming techniques because they traverse fields several times, performing different tasks, in the process of growing a crop," says AGCOs precision farming specialist Mark Moore.

"That gives many opportunities for real-time management – variable rate fertiliser spreading, seeding and spraying, for example – and for recording different aspects of these operations."

Speaking at a review of research on the use of precision farming technology (see p29), Dr Moore emphasises that in-cab monitors are already capable of performing the implement control duties previously needing a cluster of individual monitors and control boxes. He promises they will do more in future.

"The important thing with any such system, though, is that it must be simple and easy to use," he says.

Compatibility between monitors and implements is similarly important if farmers are to adopt precision farming technology with confidence. Dr Moore therefore welcomes the DIN 9684 standard introduced to encourage physical and electrical compatibility between implements, controls and tractor electronics.

The growing emphasise on traceability and accountability is aiding further developments in real-time data collection. AGCO engineers are developing the companys Fieldstar system, for example, to record wind speed, wind direction and air temperature as part of a package for spray application records.

Spreader and sprayer application rate controllers can already record how much is put on, where, points out Paul Miller of Silsoe Research Institute. And he speculates that, in future, electronic tagging of containers will allow the type of fertiliser or pesticide used to be automatically recorded.

At the yield mapping end of precision farming, AGCO promises to lift the burden of mapping accuracy from the shoulders of the combine operator.

"They have enough to concentrate on without worrying about the finer points of yield mapping accuracy," he suggests.

Apparently low-yielding spots along the edge of headlands will be eliminated by yield meters that are activated automatically when grain reaches them rather than, as now, when the cutting table is lowered. Cutting width detectors will compensate for short-work and other situations when the full width of the cutting table is not used.

In the meantime, operators must do their best by using a consistent crop approach/entry technique and adjusting the recording software lead time accordingly; avoiding short-work by cutting up-and-down rather than in lands where possible; and by avoiding mid-run stops that can disrupt the smooth pattern of yield records.

"These refinements will help produce more accurate yield maps that are less likely to be misleading," says Mark Moore. "And when precision farming technology is being used for farm trials – perhaps looking for differences in crop yield of less than 0.5t/ha – accurate data recording is all the more important."