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What machines will be in your fields tomorrow?

Tom J. Bechman Agco autonomous one-row planter robot
MEET XAVER: Agco rolled out this totally autonomous one-row planter in Europe several months ago and Farm Progress’ Willie Vogt reported on it. Recently, it made its U.S. debut at a Fendt event in Wisconsin.
Did you ever wonder what companies are working on behind the scenes?

Recently, we shared the story about how John Deere pulled off one of the greatest coups in ag equipment history, keeping the development of their New Generation tractors a secret for seven years before the 4010 and its teammates debuted in 1960. That column concluded with a simple question: What are machinery companies working on today for tomorrow that we might not know about?

That story came back to me while standing on the runway of the Grand Geneva Resort near Lake Geneva, Wis., in August. Fendt used the airstrip to debut its new Rogator self-propelled sprayers and other equipment new to the U.S. But Agco also took the opportunity to roll out a surprise for U.S. ag media gathered for the event.

Some 100 yards down the runway, just off to the side, a tent flap opened, and out came a small machine, operating under its own power. It was an autonomous, one-row, precision corn planter, carrying the name Xaver. Spokespersons noted it was guided by GPS and equipped with technology to talk to other Agco machines. Decked out with state-of-the-art Precision Planting technology, Xaver can plant at the exact seeding rate you select at the depth you choose — all by itself.

Where it fits

You can laugh if you want, but I wasn’t laughing. And after listening to some 20 no-till farmers and consultants talk in a roundtable discussion a few days later, my thoughts flipped back to that very small, very lightweight, one-row precision planter.

Why? Because one of the biggest challenges some consultants see remaining for all farmers, not just no-till farmers, is soil compaction. Some believe we don’t yet know the extent of the impact soil compaction can have on crops, especially in more challenging growing environments.

What’s one of the biggest causes of soil compaction today? The farmers and consultants at the roundtable discussion say it’s pulling heavy equipment, including large tillage tools and grain carts, across the field, especially if you’re not paying attention to where tire tracks go all season long.

Agco spokespersons say that while they bring out large, highly technical equipment on the one hand, they also look at projects like the one that produced Xaver. The one-row planter isn’t for sale today; it’s still in testing. And it’s unlikely anyone would buy a one-row planter today, anyway.

But what if you could buy a swarm of one-row planters that could talk to each other and operate on their own in one field at the same time? Now you’ve got minimal weight from spring operations going across your fields. Someone in a control room located on the farm would likely be responsible for monitoring this bevy of planters. At least that’s the vision Agco has in mind for this lightweight, autonomous planter, operated by electric batteries.

Some say that what goes around comes around. Your granddad or great-granddad likely planted with a two-row planter, maybe even drawn by horses. Will your grandson plant with a 48-row planter pulled by an autonomous tractor? Or will he control a swarm of one- or two-row planters to plant precisely without creating soil compaction? Don’t ever underestimate the ingenuity of ag engineers.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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