Auto-steer technology now provides ease of a downhill bike ride. The cost, however, may keep you pedaling.

Farmers with GPS technology have had to look hard for proof that precision farming puts dollars back in their pockets. The advent of auto-steer tractors may soon provide the validation.

There are at least three companies that now sell add-on units which can steer your tractor through the field with 1" accuracy or narrower. That means you can do more work, more efficiently, with less operator fatigue, according to farmers who have used them.

With more than 4,000 acres worth of fieldwork driven with an auto-steer tractor, Onawa, IA, farmer Tom Niewohner is one who has fallen in love with the technology. "It’s probably the biggest thing that has come along in agriculture since the tractor cab and rubber tires," Niewohner says.

"I’ve used it for every operation, including tillage, planting, rotary hoeing, cultivating and side-dressing," he says. "This fall I’m going to experiment with strip-tillage using the auto-steer. It’s the first time I’ll have a way to get the equipment to stay exactly where it needs to be."

Salinas, CA, vegetable grower Don Ostini has tested a number of auto-steer units and believes the technology will be the standard within five years or less. "Guys are skeptical until they see it work, then they fall in love with it.

"And lot of guys are looking at leasing or renting because it’s new technology," he says. "But of all the different new technology in ag, this is the one guys are talking about."

Like all new technology, however, auto-steer units carry a stiff price. Depending on how accurate you want your unit to be, you’ll spend somewhere between $27,000 and $55,000.

"That sounds high, but there’s a lot of things in agriculture that cost more than $50,000," Niewohner says. "It’s a lot of money. But, I never thought I’d pay $125,000 for a combine either."

While there are differences in the auto-steer units available on the market, all three use a GPS-based guidance system that is plumbed into the steering mechanism of the tractor.

After the first pass through a field, an on-board computer automatically calculates where each pass needs to be to match up perfectly with implement width. After turnaround, once the computer locks onto the next path, the auto-steer takes over the tractor’s steering. Anytime you take the steering wheel and turn it, you over-ride the auto-steer system and it once again becomes manual.

"It’s just as natural to run as cruise control on your car," says Niewohner, who farms 1,300 acres and also is a Trimble dealer. "And there are no guess rows with auto-steer. I can plant corn with a 12-row planter and harvest with an 8-row head."

Through his own testing, Ostini has found comparable results among manufacturers. He examined an IntegriNautics Corporation auto-steer unit last summer, used a unit from Beeline Technologies this year and also has tested a tractor equipped with Trimble’s auto-steer equipment. "They all seem similar," says Ostini. "Using the different units is like jumping from a Ford pickup to a Chevy to a Dodge."

All three units work where accuracy is critical, according to Ostini, especially in vegetable production. "I do a lot of custom work, building seed beds for vegetables. The beds usually are 12" tall and 40" wide," he says. "If auto-steer can do that successfully, it can do anything else."

One of the most dramatic examples of auto-steer’s accuracy occurred when Niewohner replanted a field of corn this spring that had poor emergence due to cold, wet weather. Rather than till the field, he just re-planted then killed the existing corn with a post-emerge herbicide.

"I replanted over the same rows. And as I went across the field, the double-disk openers on the planter went right over the top of the corn plants that had come up from the first planting," he says. "It’s way beyond anything else that has come out in agriculture for quite awhile."

Both farmers see a number of advantages for auto-steer. The first is efficiency and compaction control. "If you apply $20 of chemical per acre on a 2500 acre farm using a 34' field cultivator and average 2 feet of overlap you will end up with about 145 total acres of overlap. That ads up to 2920 in extra chemical costs. Add another 600 for the extra labor fuel and equipment expense. You also will totally compact an additional 13 acres of soil " Niewohner says. "With auto-steer you can reduce your overlap to almost nothing."

"It’s definitely on par or better than our best drivers," adds Ostini. "The difference is the computer doesn’t get sick, everything is uniform and there are no guess rows.

"For us, it’s getting to the point that good drivers are really hard to keep. They tend to drift off into construction, or other better paying jobs," he says. "Auto-steer allows you to put a less-trained person in the cab."

Auto-steer technology also adds hours to your days, according to Niewohner. "You don’t have to worry about following a mark when you plant. So there’s a lot let stress and I could plant an extra couple of hours each day after it got dark. I gained a full two-days of planting time that way and got my crops in on a more timely basis."

For more information, contact the following companies:

Beeline Technologies, 3325 W. Figarden Dr., Fresno, CA 93711; 559-256-2333. Units sell from $27,000 to $40,000.

IntegriNautics Corporation, 1505 Adams Dr., Menlo Park, CA 94025; 650-833-5600. Units sell for about $45,000.

Precision Agricultural Systems (Trimble), 9290 Bond St., Suite 102, Overland Park, KS 66214; 800-865-7438. Units cost about $54,900.

On the Internet, you can research each company at: www.beelinenavigator.com;www.gpsfarm.com; and www.trimble.com.