A lightbar just wasn't accurate enough for Ashley, OH, farmer David McCreary. And he was real tired of dreaming of those three green lights at night.

So he decided to write the check for the top auto-steer technology available, using an RTK receiver to get within ½" accuracy for his tractor.

When he bought the Trimble auto-steer equipment for his tractor, he knew it would end up in his combine, too. “I decided the technology is out there, why not use it?

“The only way I could justify the cost of the Trimble unit was to use the auto steer for combining as well as planting, spraying and sidedressing,” McCreary says.

The ½" accuracy came with a price tag of $50,000, plus another $5,000 to make the conversions necessary to use it with his John Deere 9650 STS combine. “I used to worry about the $100 bills. Then it was the $1,000 bills and now it's the $10,000 bills,” he says. “But I decided to spend my money in the place it will do the most good.”

Because the Trimble auto-steer unit isn't designed for a combine, the company considers that use “off platform.” So, McCreary and his Trimble dealer, John Dignan, Auto-Steering Technologies, Spencerville, OH, proceed with their project through trial and error.

Dignan admits it was only through McCreary's insistence that the world's first auto-steer combine became a reality. “We've survived the learning curve,” he says.

To make the auto-steer operate properly, the two men had to figure out how to trick the combine into thinking it was a tractor, and operating in reverse. Then they had to figure out the parts they needed and how to install them in the green machine.

Completed, the combine operates like an auto-steer tractor. Once a line is established across the field, auto-steer controls repeat the swath across the field, maintaining an accuracy of ½" or less. McCreary takes control on turns at the end of the field, then returns the combine to automatic with a touch of a button.

“For a combine to run efficiently, you have to keep the head full at all times. That's the way they're built to run,” he says. “With auto-steer, I figure I can increase my yields because it lets me concentrate on adjusting the combine to run at maximum efficiency and run faster.”

The more McCreary uses his auto-steer technology, the more potential he sees. “When I first got it, my attitude was, ‘Okay, steer me.’ But, it can create computer field maps, lay out grids for sampling, and is compatible with variable-rate applications,” he says. “One of my downstream goals is to move toward controlled traffic patterns. That's the best improvement I can make to control traffic. I started experimenting with strip-tillage this fall and the auto-steer will keep me right on those strips next spring.”

The two men's work also has caught the eye of Matt Sullivan, precision farming specialist at Ohio State University. “When they get the bugs worked out, this technology is going to run straight up the pole,” he says. “Some people laugh when I tell them you can make a system like this pay on 1,500 acres. I don't know how you can't afford it.”

With 1,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, McCreary feels the same way. “I farm by myself and need to be as efficient as I can be.” He's convinced the system improves his efficiency and is effective.

“I get so used to it in the cab that I have to remind myself to grab the steering wheel when I get in my truck at the end of the day,” he says. “As a bonus, my wife says I'm not as grouchy after the long hours in the field.”