Today’s global positioning system (GPS) technology may look like adult toys for the bells and whistles segment of agriculture.

Recent economic analyses indicate, however, that GPS-based machinery can be a serious farm cost-cutter. It may not be cheap, but the technology in some cases can pay for itself with a single crop.

Kansas State University Research and Extension agricultural economists Kevin Dhuyvetter and Terry Kastens reported these results during the 2007 Risk and Profit Conference Aug. 9-10 in Manhattan.

The economists were secure in saying the technology can pay, even though they hadn’t studied all possible uses. They measured the efficiencies that GPS autoguidance adds to reducing overlap, as well as the benefits of boom (section) controls. They found that reducing overlap cuts costs. But, the big benefits are what individual boom/section controls can bring to field headlands – those acreage edges where tractors turn to head in the opposite direction.

"By definition, overlap is more common there than anywhere else, and overlap means covering the same area more than once," Dhuyvetter said. "You end up farming more acres than you actually have in the field. That increases both machinery and input costs. It also can reduce the yields there."

In earlier research, the economists found that costs are the biggest factor in deciding whether producers fall into the highest or lowest one-third on farm profits. The lion’s share of farm costs is machinery, making that an obvious area in which to try to improve efficiencies.

In analyzing whether autoguidance and boom controls could cut headland costs, the researchers quickly found that an array of farm-specific factors can affect the results. So, they studied and compared such factors as field size and shape, as well as total farm size and farmer efficiency in manually operating a seeder’s section

"We found that for many farms – particularly those with big cropping machinery that’s farming oddly shaped fields – GPS technologies could yield extremely high returns," Kastens said. "Often, it was just a matter of how quickly the new GPS machinery would pay for itself."

The team has developed a computer program to help farmers assess the technology’s potential for their own operations. It’s available on the Web at www.agmanager.info (search for KSU-GPSguidance.xls).

The instructional visuals from their Risk and Profit Conference session are also on the Web. They’re No. 14 at www.agmanager.info.