Does auto-steer pay? This is a question many of our clients ask, so I thought I would look into it.

I obtained input from two of our clients, one in Central Iowa and one in Stoneham, CO. Interestingly, the results were very similar.

“The auto-steer system costs a little under $16,000 but we already had the microprocessor, receiver and screen,” says Jon McClure of Dallas Center, IA. “We had been using this as our yield monitor. If we had to buy that equipment it would have raised the cost. We also paid for the Starfire 2 accuracy. This provides guidance with 4-in. accuracy. Starfire 1 is free, but it's good within 1-ft. accuracy. The Starfire 2 accuracy costs approximately $500.”

Both farmers indicated the terrain management option is a must, so $20,000 is a reasonable amount to expect to spend on an auto-steer system.

Jon did his own test verification this fall.

“During tillage this fall I did a little test just to see how I would do. I was operating a 9220 tractor with a 17.5 ft. wide disk ripper. I was running in quarter mile long rows at an angle. I set the original ab line (straight line the guidance follows) and then let the auto-steer run for a few rounds. Every pass was right on,” he says. “Then I took over driving and didn't watch the screen. I just drove like I did before auto-steer. After tilling 100 yards across the quarter mile rows, I was off eight feet. I had overlapped eight feet during 16 passes across the field. I was overlapping about ½ ft. per pass. I was trying to drive as straight as I could so I know after fatigue it would be worse.”

Jon and his dad Mike also use their auto-steer with the planter.

“It also helps during planting. It seems that there are less point rows when finishing fields than there were in the past,” he says. “It also allows the operator to watch the planter to make sure row cleaners and other attachments are operating correctly. This is hard to put into a money savings number. But I know that having the correct placement, depth and spacing all equate to better yield.”

Being ½ ft. off from the 17.5 wide pass of the disk ripper is a 2.85% error. That would translate to 1.7 feet on a 60-ft. drill and 2.5 feet on a 90-ft. sprayer.

For estimated costs savings I figured 2.85% of the input costs of seed, fertilizer chemicals and fuel. On 3,300 acres in Iowa the hard cost savings are estimated at $5,600 per year or 2.85%. At that rate, and considering 10% cost of capital, the payback on auto-steer would be 4.63 years. Keep in mind that if your soybeans are in rows rather than drilled you won't realize these full savings.

Nate, Dan and Joel Jaeger farm 15,000 acres in northern Colorado. (Joel Jaeger is also an associate with Russell Consulting Group.) Dan and his wife Kristie keep excellent cost accounting records. Here is the data they provided on their hard cost savings. It looks like the Jaegers would realize a 1.7-year payback considering a 10% cost of capital.

The Jaegers feel reducing overlap while spraying is a big factor.

Nate Jaeger, who does most of the spraying, indicates a reasonable assumption for someone operating a 90-ft. boom with no guidance system other than, for example, a foam marker, would be 5 feet of overlap. That doesn't include any soft cost savings.

There are also some intangible benefits to auto-steer. They include reduced operator fatigue, the ability to multi-task, straight crop rows, reduced depreciation and wear and tear on machinery and precision spraying that allows you to reduce doubling or missing of chemical applications, both of which reduce yields.

Moe Russell is president of Russell Consulting Group, Panora, IA. Russell provides risk management advice to clients in 24 states. For more risk management tips, check his Web site (www.russellconsultinggroup.net) or call toll-free 877-333-6135.