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

3 thoughts on “Who’s Steering Your Tractor and Why?

  1. I am afraid Iam not completely sold on the GPS steering systems, mainly because the fields in my area are really not that GPS friendly. I run into 3 major problems. Firstly hills, I have noticed that whenever I go along the side of the hill, the GPS (because it is mounted on the roof of the tractor) shifts down the hill, I also find it cannot compensate for cultivator slide as gravity also pulls the cultivator down the hill as I go along it. The second big issue I am finding is errors in the gps, the big one is that whenever I am near water I am getting a difference of up to 10 feet from my last pass. I later learned (after I went to become a surveyor and learned about the different GPS errors and how they occur) that what was happening was the signal bounces off the water and makes the GPS think it is 1-10 feet closer/farther away from the water. If you are going up along a tall tree line it will also give you bad Satelite coverage and give you bad results as well. The third problem is that if there are any ditches, sloughs, rock piles etc. in the middle of the field you can’t expect the gps steering to avoid it. Lastly even though I am a only 24, I am a big believer of the kiss principle (keep it simple stupid) and with the sheer amount of sensors now on the equipment I just don’t want to imagine how hard it is going to be to keep that thing running when I am looking for the one loose wire in the rats nest of electronics.

  2. Hey Adam,
    Sorry for not replying sooner but I’ve watching the GPS drive my tractors around the field for a couple of weeks.
    New technology always has its quirks and is sometimes a scary thing.
    In response to your first concern about sidedrafts on hills, in hilly situations the receiver for the GPS can actually be placed on the tillage implement to get the implement going straight up the hill rather than the tractor going straight and the tillage tool lagging to the bottom side of the hill. Your second concern has now been addressed by JD, not sure about the other mftrs. There is a feature called “shading” that, when enabled, will eliminate the error due to reflection of water as well as the shading from trees close to your line of travel. I am sure that all of the mftrs have responded to these problems and come out with their own fix. As with anything, the problem can’t be resolved until the problem is found and is relayed back to the mftr.
    GPS systems can follow a curved track, but I do sympathize with you that some fields are not conducive to GPS straight tracks. I am fortunate enough to have mostly wide open, rectangular quarter sections but I have heard from a few this year that the wet slough situations has reduced the usefulness of their steering system.
    I like the KISS method too, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet for progress. Where would we be now without new fangled things like anti-lock brakes? The new tractors have these new systems wired in at the factory and are there whether you use them or not.
    I was advised by our dealer last week that the new software for the JD hardware will soon auto download thru the 3000 receivers so that systems will always have the most current version without any operator effort.
    Everybody has their opinion, I am just saying I wouldn’t be without my AutoSteer! Try a demo some day and let me know how it goes.
    But that’s just me …

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