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Modern farm technology comes with a price tag

mock cab of RoGator sprayer
LIGHTS GALORE: This mock cab of a new-model RoGator sprayer features banks of controls and lights galore on the control panels.
The cab of new sprayers looks like something out of “Star Wars.” The price is out of this world, too.

My recent trip to the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky., included a quest to learn about the latest technology on today’s self-propelled sprayers. After inspecting eight different brands, I concluded that today’s evolving technology for spraying is amazing.

Sitting in the display cab of Agco’s RoGator, for example, reminded me of something out of “Star Wars.” Lights of different colors flashed on control panels. I could see an as-applied map, which could be sent wirelessly to the farm office.

You’ll get a look at this amazing technology soon. Right now, however, I’m flashing back to my early days on the farm with more crude spraying technology. The price of that early technology was peanuts compared to what modern sprayers equipped with this technology cost today. Have ag engineers outstripped our ability to afford technology?

Early days
My brother rose at 5 a.m. to spray Banvel with dicamba in young corn. He pulled a Continental sprayer with a 300-gallon tank, simple nozzles and flimsy booms you folded by hand with a 45- horsepower John Deere 620 tractor. The sprayer was basically a 300-gallon drum on wheels.

This was the early 1970s. Ironically, my dad thought the Continental sprayer, which cost well under $1,000, was a step up. The first broadcast sprayers literally were metal drums equipped with crude spray booms.

Corn was $1.20 per bushel, headed above $2 later in the ’70s. Yields were 130 to 160 bushels per acre. And why did he get up so early to spray? Because cornfields were next to soybean fields, and he wanted to spray dicamba while winds were calm. Dicamba cooked weeds, but it could also ding soybeans — yes, we knew that nearly 50 years ago.

Today’s technology
One sprayer I found at the National Farm Machinery Show could spray at 20 miles per hour, although you can only top out at 15 miles per hour spraying new dicamba herbicides. The old Deere 620 would only go 11 miles per hour, tops.

Every sprayer I saw featured section control, and several offered individual nozzle control. Autosteering was an option, with accuracy measured in inches — if you want to pay for it.

Ah, there’s the rub. Price for the new, self-propelled sprayers ranged from $225,000 for the smallest one to nearly $500,000 for the largest, equipped with all the bells and whistles engineers can pile on.

Corn today is around $3.50 per bushel. That’s about double what it was in the early ’70s. Yet even at $350,000 for a well-equipped, middle-of-the-line sprayer today, that’s 350 times what that old sprayer cost.

They both kill weeds. They both could spray dicamba. Sure, corn yields are much higher today, and you can cover many times more acres than with the old sprayers.

But when you crunch the numbers, there’s a cost for the extra horsepower, ability to cover many acres quickly, cab comfort and “Star Wars”-type technology. Are we going back to sprayers that look like drums on wheels? Do I want to go back? Of course not.

Can farmers afford state-of-the-art technology unless there’s a change in commodity prices? That’s the $300,000 question.

More technology is coming. Bring it on — it’s mind-boggling and awesome. Perhaps the biggest question is this: Can farmers afford the technology that engineers can develop in the ag economy of today and the foreseeable future?   

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