Whether you like it or not, automation has come to the family farm — just as it has come to almost every other money-making activity of modern life. Robotic machinery has already been developed to milk cows, pick cucumbers and sort and grade fruit. It's only a matter of time before robots find their way onto corn and soybean farms to perform various functions as well.

“Some people will have fears over automated farming, and be reluctant to use it,” says Tony Grift, University of Illinois (U of I) agricultural and biological engineer. “However, robotics is still going to happen; it's a natural progression of current technology, and farmers are going to use it whenever it can benefit them.”

The idea of robot farming isn't as far-fetched as it seems, adds Grift, who is working to develop low-cost robots that can successfully navigate corn and soybean fields without the presence of humans. After all, many Midwestern farmers are already equipped with automated irrigation, grain-drying and precision-farming systems, he points out.

Grift also points to Clay Mitchell, who farms with his father, Wade, and great-uncle, Philip, near Waterloo, IA, as among the first in the nation to begin systematically making the transition from mechanical to automated farming systems. “The Mitchells have been able to push automation to its practical limits, both with the technology currently available, and with some they've come up with themselves,” he says.

Automation on the Mitchell farm includes grain unloading and loading systems; continuous-flow grain drying and cooling systems; global positioning systems (GPS) with real-time kinematic guidance (RTK) technology on tractors, sprayers and combines; and a high-speed, wireless (radio) farm computer network. The wireless computer network, with DSL Internet access, allows the Mitchells to go online and check weather conditions, buy and sell grain, send and receive e-mails or monitor and control grain bin equipment from any remote location on the farm — even while operating a combine or tractor.

Grift says all this automation technology is helping the Mitchells become “a very transparent farm,” which allows them to track the costs and benefits of each adjustment in machinery. “If you can get enough sensors, you can be more efficient and be more environmentally sound,” he points out. “With enough sensors and a wireless network, you can see everything you do, and track anything you want.”

While tracking improvements is important after implementation, Mitchell emphasizes that it's best to prioritize needs first before investing in specific automation equipment. “The important thing about automation is to start off with things that replace activities that take up most of your time,” says Mitchell. “First, think about activities that are extremely repetitive or time consuming and replace those. Unloading grain at harvest time is one example. Machinery guidance is another.”

Starting in 2000, their operation became one of the first in the Midwest to use auto-steering technology, says Mitchell, who adds that he's seen significant benefits. “Auto-steer is one technology that reduces your own personal labor by almost half,” he says.

Of all the technology the Mitchell farm now uses, auto-steer is probably the one most attractive to other farmers, because it requires no extra knowledge to use, says Grift. “It's just like cruise control on a car,” he adds. “You turn it on and it goes until you turn it off.”

However, not everyone uses auto-steer the way the Mitchells do. “They didn't just buy auto-steer for one tractor,” says Grift. “They're using it on all their machinery so they can go towards a controlled-traffic system that reduces compaction and allows them to practice strip-intercropping, which is a very sustainable system.”

Auto-steering technology is the reason the Mitchells can plant, fertilize and harvest corn and soybeans separately in 30-ft. swaths without overlap, says Mitchell. The farm's strip-intercropping system helps prevent erosion on rolling ground by eliminating large field areas covered only with soybean crop residue, which is less capable of protecting erosion-prone soils than fields covered with crop residue from corn. The strip-intercropping system also increases corn yields by allowing more access to light, points out Mitchell, with only a minimal decrease in soybean yields due to shading.

Painstaking, row-by-row random yield checks on the Mitchell farm confirm that auto-steer is having a positive effect on yields by allowing strip-tilling, strip-intercropping and controlled traffic systems to operate with centimeter-level accuracy, says Bob Recker, division engineer at John Deere Product Engineering Center, Waterloo, IA.

“The strip-intercropping and controlled traffic patterns leverage the guidance system investment even further than it would normally,” says Recker. “Auto-steer is more efficient this way.”

Auto-guidance technology, with RTK repeatable control, is a natural lead into controlled traffic. “With the machine doing the driving, it's repeatable,” says Recker. “With a human doing the driving, it's not.”

Controlled traffic helps to limit compaction to traffic lanes, which cover only 17% of the entire field, points out Mitchell. Keeping heavy machinery off most of the field area increases water infiltration rates as much as 20 times the rate on compacted areas. It also helps to reduce soil loss. On compacted traffic lanes, says Mitchell, “compaction is beneficial, allowing a wider operating window, higher traction efficiency and lower fuel use.”

Due to controlled-traffic and strip-intercropping systems, significant yield differences have begun to show up across all 12 rows on the Mitchell farm. “The worst rows were adjacent to the traffic patterns, next to the tractor and combine wheels, which were rows four, five, eight and nine,” says Recker. “The best yields were on the outside edges of both sides — rows one and 12 — in a north-south oriented field.”

To check yields, Recker harvests one row at a time, going all the way across fields, which are sometimes a ½-mile long. Then he tests the grain for moisture and weighs it on a weigh wagon.

“With a StarFire GPS receiver on board the combine I can get yield monitor data every several feet from each particular row,” he says. “However, having a weigh scale adds credibility; it's a good second check.”

Results from Recker's research on the Mitchell farm show that corn rows may vary as much as 100 bu./acre in yields between the 12 different rows, he says. In cases with extreme yield variation between rows, Recker says factors beyond compaction and strip-intercropping may be causing yields to vary.

Extreme yield variations between rows point to possible mistakes in field applications, says Mitchell. “Every field that Bob has been in — both ours and others — has shown that most farmers are really doing a bad job at the very basic things,” he says. “Even in fields that have high yield and look good, farmers are leaving a huge potential untapped. We're trying to find specifically in our operation what we can do to increase the yield of rows that are systematically yielding poorly because we made a mistake somewhere.”

Gathering data is just the first step, notes Recker. “The next step is changing how inputs are applied and varied in the row,” he says. “Everything is on the table for analysis — seed varieties, plant populations, fertility levels — to decide what you might want to change on a row-by-row, or even on a plant-by-plant, basis.”

Automated, precision ag machinery is already enabling more precise inputs for each row, says Mitchell. “In all our applications — planting, fertilizing and spraying — we are controlling each section automatically down to the row level with RTK precision.”

For example, the Mitchells use RTK GPS, coupled with a 30-section KEE controller to precisely turn on and off spray nozzles in milliseconds. There are 49 nozzles on their self-propelled sprayer, but 30 sections, explains Wade Mitchell, Clay's father, who often operates the sprayer.

“Some of the sections control two nozzles and some control one,” he points out. “Most sprayers are divided into three sections: left, middle and right, but ours has 30. So that gives us plus or minus 15-in. accuracy for each section.”

Having the automated spray controls helps make life easier on the farm. “It's just no stress at all and it saves about a third of the time,” says Wade. “Even on our modest-sized farm, waterway and field boundaries amount to more than 70 miles. Before, we had to outline the waterways and the uneven boundaries each time we sprayed a field, but now we don't.”

Auto-steering also guides the sprayer through the field with accuracy that isn't possible when operating manually. “Auto-steer will hold you on the line a lot better than you can drive it yourself, especially at higher speeds,” says Wade. “Plus, it doesn't spray where it's not supposed to spray. It starts and stops spraying by itself, and it sprays everything one time and one time only.”

Automated spraying also reduces the cost and quantity of product applied. “There is no spray overlap,” emphasizes Wade. “It's precise to the nozzle so we're saving anywhere from 10% to 30% in chemicals, depending on the configuration of the field.”

Clay agrees that spray accuracy is significantly improved with automated controls and GPS mapping. “If the boom should swing over a non-spray area, or a previously sprayed area, the intruding nozzles instantly shut off,” he says. “The sprayer knows the field boundaries, the areas which are not to be sprayed, like waterways and headlands, and remembers where it sprays so it doesn't spray there again.”

Besides providing savings in time, fuel, and crop protection products, fields benefit from the automated sprayer by eliminating any yield drag that might otherwise result from being sprayed twice by unintended overlap, notes Wade. “Before, the end rows had a lot more spray overlap,” he says. “We don't have that any more and the yields are better. It shows that spraying double the chemical rates with overlap can really affect the crop.”

However, the advantages from automation also come with a price. Clay says a similar auto-steering system costs about $30,000, a 30-section sprayer controller costs about $8,500 and nozzle bodies cost about $120 each. Although the investment costs are high, adds Clay, the dividends are proving to be well worth the cost.

Automation Proving Ground

Not all precision-farming automation equipment will turn out to be a good investment, says Tony Grift, University of Illinois agricultural and biological engineer. Certain types of automation will be worth the money, while others won't, he cautions.

“Automation will continue to get into everything we do, including agriculture, but no one knows quite yet what aspects of it will pay off,” he says. “We need to look at the economics that drive this better.”

Still, Grift adds that there are several automated practices that Clay Mitchell and his father are doing right now that other farmers might want to consider looking at as well. Those practices include:

  • Their spraying system, which reduces spray overlap and avoids applications on waterways.

  • Their strip-intercropping system, which relies on guidance systems that provide enough accuracy to operate each crop exactly in-between the other one.

  • Their controlled-traffic system, so that all their equipment only runs on 17% of their acreage, almost like tram lines in Europe.

Grift also predicts that the benefits from automation will progress in row-crop fields so that robots will eventually perform many operations that farmers routinely do now, which will further help save farmers time, money and headaches.

“In 1995, precision agriculture came along to allow better management on a field-by-field basis,” he says. “With robotics, you can almost go to a plant-by-plant management system to increase farming efficiencies.”