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Technologies transforming agriculture

Adopting new technology is a necessary part of farming. But with so many new products and systems to consider, picking the right upgrades out of the techno-jumble can be a challenge.

Successful adopters pick their targets wisely, getting in just before everyone else realizes how good the new thing is. We've identified five products and two technologies that appear to be at or near that tipping point now.

Stepless transmissions

Precisely control engine speed, ground speed and engine output without shifting

Stepless transmissions draw on the best of electronic engine controls and hydrostatic and planetary transmission technologies. The engine and transmission stay in constant communication, resulting in smoother use of power, increased fuel efficiency and less strain on the human operator who no longer needs to shift or clutch.

The system combines a hydrostatic module with infinitely variable speeds and a planetary transmission with several ratios. Power flow is divided between the hydrostatic and planetary portions of the transmission. The hydro module provides seamless speed changes without gaps. The mechanical portion of the transmission extends the speed capability of the hydro module to cover the entire range needed for a modern tractor — from ultra-slow “creeper” speeds to high-speed highway driving — without requiring the driver to stop, clutch or shift.

Tipping points

John Deere and Fendt/AGCO have introduced their own stepless transmissions in Europe and here in the U.S under the names John Deere Infinitely Variable Transmission (IVT) and the AGCO/Fendt Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Case IH/New Holland offers its own version of stepless transmission in its AFX rotary combine in the U.S. and its CVT tractor transmission in Europe.

Sticking points

Powershift-type transmissions on new tractors are already quite advanced, offering push-button control and fast range changes without the expense of CVT or IVT. Price-sensitive farmers may decide it's not worth an additional $4,000 for the added convenience and performance of CVT or IVT.

Virtual terminals

A single screen monitors and controls tractors and implements and enables map-based precision agriculture.

The generic industry term is “virtual terminal,” or VT. In the rapidly growing precision ag industry, this man-to-machine interface might be specialized and have a brand name such as the Trimble AgGPS170, Mid-Tech Legacy 6000, Beeline Arro or Raven Viper. Whatever you call it, this device provides an innovative and efficient way to monitor, record and control many complex field operations at the same time.

The VT can serve as the centerpiece and versatile central control system for a wide range of tractor, implement and precision agriculture functions. Some VTs can be swapped from tractor to sprayer to harvesting machine to make full-season use of the control interface as well as stored precision agriculture data.

Tipping point

With a VT in the cab, a farmer can more easily tap into and control the full potential of today's modern machines.

Some of the most exciting applications of the VT come with variable-rate precision agriculture systems. The same companies that sell VT-controlled aftermarket precision ag systems can install the cables necessary to make their systems work. To reduce the bird's nest factor, some parts of these systems can be controlled by wireless radio signal or via the tractor's internal Controller Area Network (CANbus).

Sticking points

Some of the first VTs were difficult to read in bright sunlight. Even worse, they used arcane symbols and logic that were hard for many farmers to understand. Fortunately, both of these problems are being eliminated by better designs and software.

Farmers who want to increase their yields or reduce input costs with variable-rate inputs must be prepared to evaluate multiple sets of data as they try to figure out what really caused those spikes and dips in yield across each field.

Autosteer with GPS

GPS guides tractors down near-perfect straight lines with less driver fatigue.

Driving today's 90-ft.-wide implements across the field without wasting fertilizer or chemicals by overlapping on each pass is tricky business. Autosteer uses GPS to handle the job with no problem. It allows faster ground speeds and gives the farmer an opportunity to catch up on other tasks such as phone calls, computer laptop work, or lunch. Also, the ability to drive straighter lines with less effort is encouraging some farmers to consider the advantages of switching to ridge till, which requires driving over precisely the same line with each field operation.

Tipping points

Although autosteer still isn't cheap, competition between companies such as John Deere, Trimble and Beeline is bringing the price of systems down. Basic systems that would have been priced between $40,000 and $50,000 just three years ago are now going for $15,000 to $25,000. Also, some aftermarket guidance system controllers and components are becoming easier to swap from one machine to another, allowing the farmer to turn autosteer into a season-long technology with minimal extra investment.

Sticking points

Despite the benefits of autosteer, a lot of farmers simply like driving their tractors and won't easily give up control of the steering wheel, especially if they have to pay a lot of money to do so. Those who still want to improve accuracy can opt for significantly cheaper GPS-guided lightbars that point the way while the farmer steers.

Another issue is accuracy. There's a question about how much precision a row-crop farmer really needs — submeter? a foot? 3-inch? sub-inch? Plus, competition between many companies can breed confusion as each company makes performance and accuracy claims based on inconsistent criteria and conditions. As of yet, there is no good industry standard procedure with which the increasing number of different autosteer products can be compared fairly.

YieldGard corn rootworm seed

Traits that fight corn rootworm

It appears that Monsanto's corn rootworm (CRW) trait for corn has come just in time to address an increasing threat from the “billion dollar bug.” Some variations of corn rootworm are expanding their territories, including “extended diapause” populations that can remain dormant in soil to wait out yearly rotations, and “soybean variant” rootworms that have adapted to traditional corn-soybean rotation by flying to adjacent soybean fields to lay their eggs.

Tipping points

As with corn borer-resistant Bt trait predecessors, CRW-resistant seed saves time, preserves yield, and substantially reduces toxicity hazards to farmers and the environment by reducing the need for soil-applied insecticide. Numerous university tests indicate that the CRW trait outperforms soil insecticides in preventing rootworm damage. (See “A new era for corn rootworm control,” page 32.)

Sticking points

CRW-resistant traits promise to substantially reduce, but not eliminate, the need for soil-applied insecticide. Some pests aren't controlled by the traits, and there are refuge requirements that dictate a percentage of adjacent fields be planted to non-trait corn to reduce the chances of insects developing resistance to the traits.

Marketing the grain also is a concern, although seed companies are pursuing regulatory approval for the grain in world markets.

“Smart” polymers for seed and fertilizer

Coatings dissolve on cue to widen planting and application windows.

Specialized polymer coatings widen the planting window by protecting the seed until soil temperature and moisture reach the right level for seed germination and crop growth. (See “Seed coatings get serious,” page 46.) A similar concept is showing promise for granular fertilizer that releases nitrogen only when crops are growing.

Tipping points

In 2002, Fielder's Choice introduced a seed coating that expands the planting window for corn by two to four weeks. The Intellicoat Early Plant coating prevents premature seed germination until soil temperatures reach 55∞. If the soil cools down, the coating reverses and germination halts until temperatures warm up again. The coating also protects the seed from damage that occurs when the seed is left sitting for days in cold, wet soils. The coating, a polymer made from natural fatty acids, restricts water absorption in cool temperatures. The polymer changes when temperatures rise and lets the seed absorb water. Landec Ag, which owns Fielder's Choice, is working with several other seed companies to provide the coating in 2004.

Agrium, North America's largest producer of nitrogen, has taken the idea of smart polymer coatings to granular fertilizer. The company is rolling out a controlled-release nitrogen product formulated especially for corn. The polymer, called ESN, allows water to diffuse into a fertilizer granule, dissolving the urea within. As soil temperatures rise, the urea solution moves through the membrane, matching the nitrogen demand curve of the crop more closely than other forms of nitrogen fertilizer do.

ESN will be available on a limited basis in 2004 in the Midwest. The company says that, on average, using 70% of the nitrogen rate with ESN produces the same yield as using the full rate of other nitrogen sources.

Sticking points

Working polymer coatings into the seed and fertilizer supply chain is going to take time. At least in the near term, factories that produce the polymers won't have sufficient capacity to have a large impact on the Corn Belt. Once the coatings are more widely available, they will add cost to seed and fertilizer. Estimated price of Intellicoat for seed is $11/acre. ESN urea fertilizer is expected to price at a premium of $0.12 to $0.15/lb. of nitrogen above regular urea.

3-D product development

Kinematics shaves years off R&D time.

Machinery blueprints used to be drafted in two dimensions on a flat piece of paper.

Enter 3-D design. New computer programs such as IBM's Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) add depth, width and volume to machinery blueprints.

With a few computer commands, product developers can spin and rotate a 3-D image of a virtual machine on their screens. They can look inside the virtual machine, even watch it perform virtual tasks. Before any physical model is produced, designers can explore more design options and see potential design problems, such as whether a mechanic will be able to reach a sparkplug. This ability to virtually test how a design performs is called kinematics.

Kinematics can be much more efficient than the old way of designing machines, where engineers and designers had to spend a lot of time building models out of clay and wood, only eventually building prototype machines from “real” materials.

Computer hardware was a huge barrier to 3-D design. The software requires a lot of computing power that used to require big budgets. But as computer processors become smaller and faster, hardware costs drop significantly. Now 3-D design is affordable even for smaller businesses.

In agriculture, IBM CATIA customers include Italian-based ag machinery giant Maschio, John Deere, Claas and Renault Agriculture. In one example, when Machio upgraded from 2-D to 3-D, the company reduced the product development time for its Gaspardo tillage products from 18 months to just eight months.

High-throughput screening

100,000 tests per year may yield one or two pesticide candidates.

Syngenta, the world's largest producer of crop protection products, recently invited Farm Industry News and a handful of international ag journalists to tour the company's Stein Biological Research Center. The company uses this facility near Basel, Switzerland, to discover new herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.

Building entrances have air-lock biocontainment systems to secure the greenhouses, laboratories and incubation chambers. In addition to conventional plant research, the complex houses perhaps the world's largest high-throughput screening (HTS) facility.

HTS uses robotic systems to crank out thousands of tests of different compounds very quickly. This “machine gun” approach uses the power of automation to test many more compounds than would be possible with human researchers alone.

Each HTS unit takes up only a few square feet of space. A robotic arm grabs small containers with 96 wells, each containing a droplet of a test compound, and transfers them to the application site. For herbicide tests, miniature spray nozzles apply experimental chemicals to samples of confetti-sized “leaf disks” that have been punched out from living leaves. Tests for insecticides and fungicides use other media.

Syngenta says its HTS facility will test 100,000 compounds each year. The few promising compounds that result from the screening will be further tested in greenhouse and field trials. If the company can find just one blockbuster chemistry, the process can pay for itself many times over.

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