Dan Huebner read and heard about the magic of GPS automatic steering systems for several years. But a $40,000-50,000 price tag was out of his and most other growers' league.

Not anymore. For a $10,000 investment, the southwestern Nebraska grower is enjoying more efficient corn and soybean production and a more comfortable ride in the tractor and sprayer.

Huebner grows corn, beans and wheat out of Hershey, NE. And like the name of his town, “sweet” is the way to describe the addition of his GPS system to his John Deere 8300 tractor.

He doesn't use, or require, an RTK system that provides sub-inch accuracy in planting, spraying and other chores. Instead, he uses a Trimble EZ-Steer system that provides +/- 6-8 in. accuracy.

“I'm kind of a horse shoes and hand grenades guy (where close also counts),” says Huebner, whose farm includes both dryland and center pivot irrigation. “I don't need to be within half-inch accuracy.”

Bruce Erickson, director of cropping systems management at Purdue University, says more growers like Huebner are converting to GPS auto-steer because the systems are becoming easier to use and more affordable. And growers can get spoiled after just one or two trips in the field.

“Once they get one installed on their tractor, you don't see many wanting to go back,” says Erickson.

GPS GUIDANCE SYSTEMS are available in all price ranges. They go from lightbar systems that can cost less than $1,000, to sub-inch RTK systems that can surpass $25,000-30,000.

Erickson's colleagues at the Purdue department of agricultural economics survey agricultural retailers every year to help gauge the use of GPS auto-steer and other precision-ag systems. In the 2008 study, Corn Belt retailers responding to the survey reported that more than 38% of the acres in their area are farmed using either a lightbar or more advanced GPS system. Outside the Corn Belt in the U.S., about 30% of acres are farmed using some form of GPS guidance.

Those numbers are up from 25% for the Corn Belt and about 13% outside the Corn Belt in 2005. Growers like Huebner saw the cost benefits and other enhancements the still space-age products provide.

Huebner installed his system in 2007. After removing some initial bugs, he experienced its advertised benefits throughout the past year. Like other auto-steer systems, his program first started with setting the A and B lines in fields. That information was entered into the in-cab Trimble control box.

Additional information on row widths, etc., was also entered for each field. With the data, he can engage the system and not worry about keeping the tractor in line during key field functions like planting.

“I use it to plant corn, soybeans and wheat,” says Huebner. “It takes a lot of stress out of planting.”

He admits he sometimes used to start “driving in a circle” if he turned around to watch the planter in pre-autopilot days. “I do a lot better job of watching the planter because I don't have to keep my hands on the wheel,” he says. “I can catch plug-ups when they happen.”

There is also no overlapping and no skipped rows.

FOR SPRAYING, HUEBNER moves the system to his 4400 spray unit and relies on its lightbar capabilities. “The lightbar works better than my normal row markers,” says Huebner. “With the markers, I sometimes couldn't see the end (of the marker). There was sometimes overlap, which was a waste of chemical.

“I can't say how much money I'm saving using the system, but, again, I'm under a lot less stress and it's affordable to me,” he says.

Erickson says the precision-agriculture usage survey showed that the acres farmed using an auto-steer-type system with more advanced accuracy (over and above the lightbar range) topped 13.7% in the Corn Belt and in other states for 2008. That compared to less than 5% for the Corn Belt in 2005 and less than 3% in other states that year. Erickson adds that for dealers that offer custom application services, 86% say they were custom applying at least some of the fertilizer/chemicals using a GPS guidance system with manual control/lightbar, up from 82% in 2007. About 28% say they used a GPS guidance system application, about the same as in 2007.

As prices of crop production inputs increase, precision technology is showing widespread growth across the U.S., as is seen in the Purdue study. “Not only is the technology becoming easier to use, but the justification of the costs at the dealer and customer level is less difficult,” says Erickson.

He points out that even with the advances seen in GPS auto-guidance systems and other precision-ag products, growers must still weigh the benefits of the systems vs. the cost.

“It has to pay the bills,” he says. “The way it pays the bills is through either saving on inputs or increasing revenues. Those have to offset the cost of precision.”

Increased input costs that growers have seen the past two years make investing more to increase efficiency in chemical placement even more critical, Erickson adds.

“With the GPS systems out there, growers can do precision field work at night or in fog where sight limitations might have prevented it in the past,” says Erickson, adding that education and training of customers is no longer as challenging. “Once it's installed on the equipment, unlike some other precision-farming technology, the user doesn't have to go back to the office and download info and maps every day before using the system.”

The future of auto-guidance systems is bright, according to the survey. By 2011, the ag retailers predict about 87% of Corn Belt acres are expected to be farmed using at least a lightbar system. Over 33% will have GPS auto guidance.

Also, there will likely be more agronomic benefits from guidance systems. “It will allow us to do more things we couldn't do before to increase yields,” says Erickson. “Using controlled trafficking on soils will reduce compaction. A greater use of strip-tilling using RTK can enable growers who like this system to utilize fertilizer more efficiently and increase yields at the same time,” he says.

If growers have to revert back to more cultivating to control weeds, GPS can make it more precise, along with more accurate sidedress applications with fertilizer or other chemicals as needed.

FOR DETAILS:

Various companies offer GPS auto guidance systems. Farm Industry News, sister publication to Corn & Soybean Digest, listed GPS system companies, their systems and prices ranges last year. Go to http://farmindustrynews.com to learn more.

Reference these company Web sites for information on their systems and price ranges. AGCO Auto-Guide, www.agcocorp.com; AutoFarm, www.gpsfarm.com; Case IH AFS AccuGuide, www.caseih.com; Hemisphere GPS Outback, www.outbackguidance.com; and John Deere GreenStar AutoTrac, www.johndeereag.com.

Also, New Holland IntelliSteer Auto Steering, www.newholland.com; Raven Industries QuickTrax, www.ravenprecision.com; TeeJet Technologies FieldPilot, www.teejet.com; Topcon Positioning Systems, www.topconpositioning.com; and Trimble, www.ez-guide.com.