Who’s Steering Your Tractor and Why?

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Blog post by John Guelly, BSc, P.Eng
Wheat and Canola Farmer and Ag Engineer at Westlock, AB

So we just ordered a new tractor, state of the art 2011 JD 8260R, complete with all the bells and whistles. We sold our old tractor to some neighbors and I asked them if they also were interested in the GPS steering package that we used in this tractor. I got a bit of a blank stare from one of them followed by “Nope, if I can’t steer my own tractor then I better quit farming!” This seems to be a common response to the new fangled GPS steering systems by many prairie farmers these days. However, more and more farmers who have tried the steering systems would now never be without them. I know these mini-computer systems have chased a few old timers out of the tractor cabs, but many older farmers like my 68 year-old father have embraced the technology and now can’t imagine farming without the high tech gizmos. Regardless of any other benefit, I think he may just be sold on the pride in those long, straight, perfect crop rows. Whether it is a John Deere, Trimble, Outback or any one of the other numerous systems on the market these days, these steering systems have become as common on many farms as the old welder.

So what are the benefits?

The companies selling these devices try to convince you that it is a money saving device. They claim that you will save money on inputs like seed, fertilizer, chemical, fuel, etc. by reducing overlaps. My experience disagrees with this theory as a good operator can gauge his spacing fairly well after many hours in the tractor, but as the equipment gets wider it does get more difficult. My main point against this claim is that our fields are all mainly rectangular with very few odds shapes but our quarter sections are not true squares due to old, inaccurate surveys that have tree lines, fence lines and sometimes even roads that are not true north-south or east-west which creates rhombus shapes. So in order to keep fields seeded in 90 degree orientations, you end up overlapping on the starting and ending side of the field, twice as much as if you are not using GPS.

Anything Else?

So, if I am not saving money on inputs, why did I just order a tractor with integrated steering for GPS and purchase a third GPS steering system? Well, I think there are a lot of other advantages that don’t get much playtime. The biggest advantage is operator fatigue. It is really quite amazing how much more refreshed you feel at the end of the work day during seeding, spraying or harvesting using GPS and not having to continually worry about steering the implement. You can get a couple extra hours in the field each day without feeling exhausted. This not only makes your operation more efficient but also much safer. A refreshed operator is generally a much safer operator. Secondly, while the tractor, combine or swather steers itself, the operator can keep a much better view of all the engine and tranny gauges to ensure that the unit is functioning properly and avoid any costly preventable breakdowns and reduce down time. More time can also be spent watching what the machine is actually doing and how it is interacting with the soil, crop, etc. These factors can quickly more than pay for the cost of the steering system.

So what’s next?

Well, the new 30R series Deere also comes compatible with iTech Pro, a system that will turn at each headland and make that perfect turn every time. Imagine turning for the next pass and coming back in at exactly the right spot when seeding or spraying, no overlaps or missed slivers. Another new feature is JD Link that is a subscription based system that allows all of the tractor’s functions to be viewed remotely on any PC. You can be sitting in the lazy boy in your living room and check what the hydraulic temperature of the tractor is while your son or hired man is working the field. You can also have the tractor text someone to advise that the fuel level is getting low and you need to take the service truck out to the field with the tidy tank to refuel. The system also allows you to put a virtual fence around the tractor so that if the tractor should leave the virtual area such as in the middle of the night, the tractor can text your cell phone to warn you of a potential theft. What kind of discount is your insurance company gonna give you for that kind of protection!

Independent Link Suspension (ILS), Infinitely Variable Transmission (IVT), Satellite Radio with Bluetooth cell phone controls, High Intensity Discharge (HID) Lighting, remote control electric mirrors, 7” instrument display monitor, heated leather seat; where does it all end? Full remote control capability is the ultimate goal I guess. But how much fun will it be if we can do all of our tasks from seeding to harvest without leaving the comfort of our homes? I’m not sure I’ll ever see that day, but once that challenge has been figured out, I am sure there will be other tasks for Ag engineers.
So next time someone asks you who “Who is steering your tractor?” tell them “NOT ME!”
But that’s just me…


John Guelly, BSc, P.Eng
Wheat and Canola Farmer and Ag Engineer at Westlock, AB

Follow me on twitter @WheatGeerJJ

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