How to upgrade your fleet to autosteer guidance for £20k

If you thought autosteer guidance systems were only for those farmers running the latest top-end machinery, think again. Farmers Weekly sets about kitting out a mixed machinery fleet with a £20,000 budget.

For many farmers, the thought of getting their machinery fleet set up with a full guidance and autosteer system is more than a little daunting.

But even if your kit is not brand spanking new, or from the same manufacturer, it is possible to get a system that works across the whole lot.

However, unlike buying a simple plug-and-play lightbar system, the process can be a little complex.

See also: 7 budget GPS guidance systems on test

Tractor in a field

© Tim Scrivener

Often, you will need additional wiring looms, engine control units (ECUs) and motorised steering wheels, and unless you know what you are doing, it can be a bit of a minefield. There will usually be activation fees to pay if you want to unlock certain features, too.

Luckily, there are a few companies out there that offer these more complex systems for any brand or age of machine. They can fit them and train you to use them, too.

Three example set-ups

Farmers Weekly’s fictitious arable farm is 350ha, has one frontline tractor that is autosteer ready, one that is completely standard and an old self-propelled sprayer with manual section control.

Our farm manager wants all of these machines to operate with autosteer and record jobs so they can be uploaded to his farm management system. He also wants his sprayer to operate with auto section control, all for a budget of about £20,000.

Clearly, many farmers will take a more gradual approach to guidance than our scenario, purchasing just one system and then adding to it in the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, it is important to make sure that those going down this path invest in a system that can be upgraded. Opting for a cheap-and-cheerful system at the outset often means you can’t unlock extra features in the future.

For the purposes of this article we have approached manufacturers that offer fully integrated systems that can be fitted to any brand of machine.

The only tractor manufacturer you will spot in the list is John Deere. That is because it builds its guidance systems in-house, rather than adapting those from other manufacturers.

Here is how each provider recommends tackling the task of getting Farmers Weekly’s arable operation geared-up for guidance.

Topcon

LH Agro is based in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, and has been selling precision farming equipment since 1987. It specialises in selling, installing and training farmers on Topcon’s range of GPS equipment.

The company’s Chris Limb talks us through the options.

Accuracy

Components/subscriptions

  • AG14 receiver with RTK: £10,795
  • RTK subscription: £725/year

As one of the tractors will be drilling, the free Egnos correction signal with 10-20cm pass-to-pass accuracy just isn’t good enough.

Most medium-accuracy services will be more than accurate enough for drilling, but require a substantial activation fee (£2,500 on top of an Egnos kit for us) in addition to the annual subscription charges.

This isn’t refundable in the future either if you decide to upgrade to RTK.

Therefore, we would suggest opting for RTK, which improves accuracy to 2.5cm.

RTK correction is received from a fixed reference station on the ground, which eliminates any of the signal drift associated with satellite-based correction sources.

We can supply an AGI4 receiver only, which will function as a basic full steering system through an existing tractor-mounted Isobus terminal.  This could be fitted to the autosteer-ready tractor in the first season and when funds allow, additional upgrades or consoles can be added later.

A number of our smaller customers have started with an Egnos receiver as above and built up to a couple of full RTK kits with consoles and their own base station within a couple of years.

Our RTK systems will run on both radio fixed-base stations from our network, in-field tripod or the Topnet VRS (virtual reference station) service via SIM card.

Screen

Components/subscriptions

  • X25 console: £2,795

The best console we offer is the brand-new 30cm X35, which comes with twin processors, high-resolution graphics and fully enabled Isobus terminal and task controller.

It can also do section and rate control with an Isobus implement without having to pay an activation fee.

However, this screen combined with the RTK signal will push us way over the budget, so I’d recommend going for the X25 20cm terminal.

This has the same interface, processors and graphics, but is 30% smaller.

Autosteer-ready tractor

Components/subscriptions 

  • Additional vehicle steer-ready wiring harness price: £995

One advantage of the Topcon system is that the steering controller, modem and RTK radio are included in the AGI4 receiver.

Therefore, to get an autosteer-ready tractor up and running with our system we just need to install a roof harness to connect the receiver and a cab harness for the console.

Although straightforward with autosteer-ready machines, installation is included with all full steering kits, along with commissioning in the field to ensure we get as much from the equipment as possible.

Standard tractor

Components/subscriptions

  • AES-35 steering wheel: £3,000
  • Wiring harness price: £790
  • Additional steering adapter boss/roof brackets: £295

The cheapest option for setting up a standard tractor with no auto-guide valves is to use one of our AES-35 electric steering wheels.

This needs an adaptor boss to fit on different brands of machine, but is much simpler than adding a fully integrated autosteer system.

This can also be transferred to the sprayer or combine with the addition of another adaptor boss.

The tractor will also need a non-steer-ready wiring harness and roof bracket.

Self-propelled sprayer

Components/subscriptions

  • Sprayer ECU: £3,000
  • Wheel angle sensor: £550

We would recommend fitting our ASC10, 10 auto-section spray controller that can be used with the X25 console, AG14 receiver and AES-35 electric steering wheel already in the kit.

Our advice would also be to add a wheel angle sensor on the self-propelled sprayer. With this you can achieve autosteer-ready performance even on vehicles with varying weight distribution working in unpredictable conditions.

Total cost

  • Setup: £22,220
  • Annual RTK subscription fees: £725/year

Prices are retail, include installation and driver training and are plus VAT


John Deere

JD has been in the precision farming business since 1997 and, after acquiring a guidance kit manufacturer, launched its first auto-steer system in 2002.

Here is product sales specialist Jack Howard’s suggestion for the Farmers Weekly fleet.

Accuracy

Components/subscriptions 

  • JD Starfire 6000 receiver: £2,756
  • SF3 activation fee: £1,893
  • Monthly subscription: £238/month

The Starfire 6000 is our latest guidance receiver, which has just one attachment clip and one power plug, making it easy to change between machines.

It offers three correction signals: SF1, SF3 and RTK. SF1 is our entry-level satellite-based signal that’s free to use and offers 15cm pass-to-pass accuracy.

But as the tractor needs to go drilling we would advise opting for the SF3 satellite-based signal, which offers 3cm  accuracy, repeatable for up to nine months.

This has a £1,892 activation fee and a £238 monthly subscription fee. However, buyers can opt for a three-year subscription at a cost of £1,900, or choose to pay to upgrade for selected months only.

Many of our customers like to go for the monthly option so they can use SF3 for the harvest or drilling season, then drop back to the free SF1 for the rest of the year.

Screen

Components/subscriptions

  • 2630 display: £4,267
  • 2630 Autotrac activation: £2,367

If the autosteer-ready tractor is a recent John Deere with built-in screen, that tractor probably won’t need another display.

However, we will need one for the standard tractor and the self-propelled sprayer.

The 1800 display is the more entry-level version, with no touchscreen and less specialist functionality, but it is still capable of Autotrac and section control.

However, for this budget and application I would suggest the larger and more sophisticated 2630, which is designed to perform all John Deere precision farming applications. For this to run Autotrac the buyer needs to pay for the feature to be unlocked.

Autosteer-ready tractor

Components/subscriptions

  • Autotrac activation: £950

For the purposes of this exercise we will assume the tractor is a John Deere and fitted with our Autotrac system, as it is difficult for us to tap into another manufacturer’s system.

If there is already an Autotrac-capable display in the cab, there’s no need to add the 2630 display, so you can leave that in the other tractor or sprayer.

All you need to do is pay the Autotrac activation fee, which is about £950, and put the receiver on the roof.

If you are buying a new or used John Deere tractor and you think you might want guidance in the future, it is worth checking if it is Autotrac ready. Retrofitting it is a huge job and can cost more than £12,000.

Standard tractor

Components/subscriptions 

  • Autotrac Universal steering wheel: £750
  • Autotrac Universal adaptor boss: £120

There are two ways of enabling autosteer on a standard tractor that hasn’t had anything fitted in the factory.

One is to fit our Autotrac Controller system, which requires stripping the tractor right down and rebuilding it with the system in place.

This costs about £12,000, so would push us over the budget.

Therefore, I suggest adding our Autotrac Universal motorised steering wheel, which works by force-turning the tractor’s steering column. 

The kit also comes complete with brackets and harnesses to power the unit and plug into the guidance display.

Self-propelled sprayer

To fit within the budget we will need to move the existing receiver and console into the sprayer, but we can afford to add an extra Autotrac Universal steering wheel.

To set up section control we will need to include a John Deere Greenstar rate controller, which is hard-wired into the sprayer using a specific wiring harness. The section control feature will also need to be unlocked on the 2630 screen.

Components/subscriptions 

  • Section control activation: £1,796
  • JD GreenStar rate controller: £1,037
  • JD in-cab installation kit: £410
  • JD GreenStar harness: £780
  • Autotrac Universal steering wheel: £750
  • Autotrac Universal adaptor boss: £120

 

Total cost

  • Setup: £17,996
  • Estimated fee for a John Deere dealer to install, set up and offer training on the system: £1,000
  • Subscription: £238//month (pay only for months needed)  or £1,900 for three years

Prices are retail and are plus VAT


Trimble

AS Communications is one of the main resellers of Trimble guidance equipment in the UK and has been operating from its base in Cambridgeshire for the past 25 years. It offers a full installation and training service for Trimble equipment.

Sales manager Andrew Williams talks us through the options.

Accuracy

Components/subscriptions

  • CenterPoint RTX subscription: £995/year

Before starting kitting out the fleet we need to decide how accurate the guidance needs to be.

For tasks such as fertiliser spreading and spraying there are free signals available with a pass-to-pass accuracy of 15-30cm.

But as one of the tractors in this fleet is going to be drilling, it needs to have a more accurate satellite-based or real-time kinematic (RTK) system that uses base stations on the ground to improve accuracy.

Going for RTK requires more expensive hardware and subscription fees, so for this budget we would suggest using our Trimble CenterPoint RTX signal. This offers 4cm pass-to-pass accuracy, which is more than adequate for most arable operations.

Our receiver is integrated into the display, so there is no need for an additional receiver on the roof. Instead, there is just a simple antenna.

Screen

Components/subscriptions

  • TMX-2050 display: £6,795, including the first year’s subscription to Centrepoint RTX

For this budget it is not possible to have more than one display, so we need to pick one and move it between machines.

However, we can wire up each vehicle so that the components can be moved between them quickly – you just need to plug in a couple of connectors.

Extra screens can then be added at a later date if required.

As we are not splashing out on RTK, we can include our top-end TMX-2050 display with the Precision-IQ app.

This is our latest display running on an Android operating system and gives you plenty of opportunity to add other features in the future.

Autosteer-ready tractor

Components/subscriptions

  • Autopilot system: £4,686.95 including installation, calibration and driver training.

If you have a tractor that is autosteer-ready it means the manufacturer has already fitted it with the hardware needed for it to steer itself.

Our Autopilot full autosteer system taps into these components and means that when you attach a display and navigation controller, the tractor will be capable of autosteer guidance.

The systems vary in complexity between brands, but to give you a rough idea we’ve quoted the price to install our system on an autosteer-ready JCB Fastrac.

Standard tractor

Components/subscriptions

  • EZ-Pilot assisted steering wheel: £4,800
  • Cable kit for use with TMX-2050 display: £323.36

A standard tractor does not have any of the internal components to perform autosteer, so these will need to be added.

It is possible to convert any machine to the same standard as an autosteer-ready one, but this involves stripping it down and installing several expensive components. This would push us well over the budget.

Therefore, I would recommend our EZ-Pilot assisted steering, which fits on to the steering column in place of the standard steering wheel.

This has an integrated electric motor to steer the tractor and can be adapted to fit almost any vehicle. It can also be transferred into the sprayer at a later date.

Self-propelled sprayer

Components/subscriptions

  • Field-IQ rate and section control system: £3,795
  • Cable kit for use with existing TMX-2050 display: £323.36

To get the self-propelled sprayer set up with autosteer we just need to fit a wiring loom that allows the EZ-Pilot steering wheel and TMX-2050 display to be moved in from one of the other tractors.

However, to give this auto section control, we will also need to wire in a rate and section control system.

The set-up of this varies hugely depending on the sprayer, but for this scenario we will assume the sprayer has manually controlled sections (up to 12), but nothing else.

In this case we would recommend adding our Field-IQ Basic rate and section control system.  This works well with the Precision-IQ operating system on the TMX display to give full GPS-based, auto section and rate control. Prices can vary between sprayers, but the price below gives you a rough idea.

Which is the best?

John Deere, Topcon and Trimble all offer similar setups, albeit with slightly different components, configurations and price structures.

The main autosteer-ready tractor was kitted out with a fully integrated system that worked with either the tractor’s own screen or one of the manufacturer’s bolt-on versions.

If we assumed this tractor was green, then John Deere had a distinct advantage, as most of the components for its system are already in place.

That’s the main reason JD came in under budget, as converting another brand to its system would have added about £12,000.

As for the standard tractor and sprayer, all decided to use a motorised steering wheel, because adding a hard-wired system would have been too expensive.

They also all managed to offer an automatic rate and section controller for the sprayer included in the price.

As John Deere’s motorised steering wheel is a considerably cheaper unit than some of the others, it could include separate versions for both the tractor and the sprayer.

In the signal department, Trimble and John Deere suggested going for a mid-range satellite signal that offers accuracy of about 3-4cm.

This comes in slightly cheaper than RTK, meaning both could offer a higher-spec screen.

Topcon opted for an ultra-accurate RTK setup with a slightly smaller screen, which meant it came in slightly more expensive.

However, it does have a mid-range offering that it could have specced with a top-end screen too.

So which should you go for? If you already have a John Deere tractor that is Autotrac ready then it is a fairly big decision to move to Trimble or Topcon.

That’s one of the reasons Deere has done so well with its systems.

However, if you have a mixed fleet and you want the ultimate flexibility, it’s a toss-up between Trimble and Topcon, both of which come in fairly similar on price.