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Regulations send farmers searching at World Ag Expo

If it is big, shiny, drivable and as a bonus goes very fast, count on a horde to encircle it.

The biggest tractors and harvesters, race cars, drag boats and new pickups, and SUVs will always have crowds around at a farm show. It was no different at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., where three chamber of commerce, sunny, February days filled the one-time alfalfa field with what show organizers estimated to be 100,000 visitors.

Even the most serious farmers have fantasies that draw them to adult mechanical toys, but the business of farming brings them back to reality and in search of equipment and services to not just improve efficiencies and darken the bottom line, but to meet the growing gaggle of regulations.

New, onerous air pollution regulations has boiled to the top of the California regulatory cauldron and that drew many farmers to Jackrabbit’s latest generation of in-orchard field chippers. Jackrabbit, Ripon, Calif., manufactures nut harvesting equipment as well as the chippers.

The "Duo Chipper" was cleaned up for the show, but it was not sporting a fresh paint job as most of the other machinery at what is called the largest farm show in the world. It was working up until setup day at the show, according to company salesman Stephen Heinrichs, and there was no time for a fresh paint job.

Orchard prunings are typically bucked and burned, but new air regulations are making that wintertime practice more doubtful each year. Growers can still burn, but the number of burn days is getting increasingly fewer. Growers are becoming convinced burning will eventually be banned altogether.

That will leave stationary chippers or in-field motorized chippers the only way to get rid of orchard waste.

Jackrabbit’s "Duo Chipper" scoops up pruned wood up to nine-inches in diameter and after shredding either blows it back onto the orchard floor or into a trailing hopper wagon for transport to composting piles or co-generation plants.

Heinrichs said leaving it in the orchard requires adding an in-chipper screen that recycles larger material back through the chipper to get the pieces small enough to decompose before the next harvest.

The largest piece from the in-field mulch is a slightly larger than postage stamp.

Grower concerns

"Growers are concerned that the larger pieces could get into the nuts in the following year’s harvest and wind up at the almond huller," Heinrichs says. It is not a problem, says the salesman. "The larger pieces dry out over the year and when it is time to harvest the following season, the harvester blowers take them out of the nut piles like leaves."

There are only three of the $250,000 Duo Chippers in California, but there will be more as air pollution control regulations throttle field burning.

"People who are looking at these machines know that the day will come when that burning will no longer be allowed," said Heinrichs. Already growers are a telling Heinrichs they are having difficulty getting custom chippers to take care of prunings now.

"The only decision growers will make in the future is whether to buy a machine like this or to hire a custom operator who has one," said Heinrichs. The economic payback in buying starts at 3,000 acres.

"That why most growers will hire custom chippers," he said.

One-pass tillage

Those same air pollution regulations also attracted farmers to a 50,000-pound tillage tool called the "Optimizer" from a Turlock, Calif., company, Tillage International.

Kevin McDonald, company founder and "Optimizer" designer said hanging beneath the 45x18-foot steel superstructure are gangs of disks, coulters, chisels, rollers and other tillage tools that can reduce to one pass what normally would require three to seven tillage trips for farmers. That would make a big difference in meeting impending dust reduction regulations.

"It truly is one-pass land preparation," said McDonald. It takes 450 horsepower or more to make that one pass with the behemoth in tow.

"These are the kind of things we need in farming today," said Kenneth Jelacich, ranch operations manager for Joseph Gallo Farms in Atwater, Calif., who stopped to look at the implement.

It was not so much reducing dust as it was reducing tillage passes that made Jelacich a good customer for the huge tillage tool. Tillage is expensive and farmers like Jelacich want to cut costs by reducing passes.

McDonald said growers spend $17 to $25 per acre each time they put a tractor in the field for disking or chiseling. The $160,000 Optimizer raises that cost to about $25 to $35 per acre per trip, but now there are only one or perhaps two trips between crops vs. as many as seven single passes.

The Optimizer will not do everything. For cotton farmers, they would have to still shred stalks and producers who farm on beds would still have to pull new beds.

"We like to call what we have developed conventional tillage for conservation farming," McDonald said.

There are only three working models now in the field. They work seedbeds up to 12 inches wide. He plans to make a smaller model that weighs half as much and costs less. It would be only 41 feet long and work seedbeds up to 9 inches wide.

Both units hydraulically fold to 8-feet, 6-inches.

"These units can also be used to prep ground for orchards and vineyards," added McDonald.

The designer of the one-pass tillage tool told producers at the farm show that money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation farming programs would help pay for his tillage invention because it reduces dust and tractor emissions.

Winches, hoists

Anyone who has owned a winch-equipped four-wheel-drive pickup or ATV knows the name Warn. At Tulare this year Warn introduced a new line of portable power winches and hoists to the agricultural market.

Scott Salmon, Warn business and product development manager, said the new line represents a new category of DC- and AC-powered tools. Warn calls the line "Warn Works."

"These new tools can be used for tasks that until now required extra labor or the use of conventional tools like a come-along," said Salmon. He said uses for these new tools could be fence stretching, hay bale buddy winching, raising and lowering augers and portable elevators, lifting machinery and engines and loading and unloading trailers and flat beds.

Initial models in the DC line are Warn Works 1700, 3700 and 4700. They will mount just about anywhere and can handle loads of 1,700 to 4,700 pounds.

The AC line also has three models, 1 500AC, 3200AC and 3000 ACI. They can handle loads up to 1,500 to 3,000 pounds. They are designed for use inside shops and barns.

The first hoist in the new line is the Warn Works H1000AC. It has a 1,000 pound lifting capacity. It come with a pro-style control and incorporates safety features like load limiter, travel limit switch and emergency stop capacity.

Salmon said Warn will market its new product line through retailers like Power Equipment Co., Warn’s distributor for California and Arizona and Tractor Supply Co.

Fully automatic 4x4

Rough-terrain utility vehicle models have become more numerous than pickup trucks in agriculture. Club Car premiered its latest model, a fully automatic 4x4 rough terrain model called the XRT 1500.

"You will notice that there are no levers, buttons or switches on the dashboard for 4x4 engagement," Club Car design engineer Steve Huston pointed out at the show. It’s all automatic.

Huston said the XRT 1500’s IntelliTrak system senses driving conditions and automatically engages and disengages four wheel drive without the driver shifting gears or locking differentials.

Power is automatically transferred to the wheel or wheels where traction is needed. The automated system also eliminates steering feedback and reduces tire wear.

It is available in either a 20 horsepower Honda gas or Kubota diesel engine.

The frame is box tube aluminum with independent double A-arm front suspension; swing arm rear suspension; four wheel hydraulic disk brakes; tilt steering; adjustable driver’s side bucket seat and retractable seat belts.

It comes with either an 800-pound or 1,000-pound bed load capacity and will be available in April.

Auto guidance

The first company to meld GPS technology to the steering system of a tractor, AutoFarm of Menlo Park, Calif., has become the first of a growing list of GPS companies to introduce a curved path steering option.

AutoFarm successfully incorporated GPS guidance to tractor steering system in 1994 when the company was in its infancy with four employees. Today there are 70 employees and a continually growing market, according to Matthew Rossow, product applications engineer for AutoFarm.

The new curve path system was on display at the flat, square ride-and drive areas of the World Ag Expo, but it will be the in the Midwest and South where Rossow expects the curved path to gain quick adoption like the straight line version has in the West.

"Until now the West has been the biggest market for this technology for a couple of reasons," said Rossow. One is that the initial GPS-guidance systems were set up for square fields. Secondly, Western producers put more hours on tractors and therefore achieve a quicker return on an investment that can run from $25,000 to $50,000, depending on the options.

The new curved path system introduced into the Midwest and South about four weeks ago will increase interest in the technology in areas outside the West, said Rossow.

"Where there is contour farming, many irregular shaped fields and such things as strip tillage is where the new system will fit," he said.

However, AutoFarm faces another learning curve with its new product. Just as Western growers were skeptical a tractor could be satellite-guided in a sub-inch straight line in the West, farmers in other areas must be convinced it will follow curves.

"Farmers do not believe you when you tell them that the same strip-till seed row where fertilizer was shanked in the fall can be followed exactly for spring planting," said Rossow. Or that a satellite can guide a tractor through a field contour.

It brings to mind early days of auto-guided tractors where at field demonstrations company drivers would raise their hands in the air in the tractor cab to demonstrate truly no-hands steering.

The technology in the West has progressed beyond the novelty stage. It now touches almost ever phase of field operations.

Rossow is not surprised that GPS-tractor guidance systems have become the foundation for emerging precision ag technology. These tractor guidance systems have been readily connected to computers that meter out various rates of inputs based on aerial field mapping.

Universal fittings

"It is not like the old days when tractor couplings were different for each manufacturer. With universal ISO fittings on computers, you can hook up just about everything to a tractor guidance system computer," he said

While the technology has quickly gone from infancy to wide acceptance, Rossow said the job of educating farmers on what GPS can do on the farm will never stop.

Rossow said farmers still want to know how much it costs and how costs will be recovered.

"If we did anything wrong, we were not aggressive enough in the beginning to get the word out about what this new technology could offer. Funds were limited in the beginning, but we could have been more aggressive," he said.

AutoFarm is a division of IntegriNautics Corp. in Menlo Park, Calif., which also developed automatic aircraft and other aerospace technology.

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