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Variable-rate application: What's new? What's next?

JORGE HERAUD is the business unit manager for and director of business development for Trimble Agriculture. For the last three years, he has been involved in shaping Trimble's entry into precision agriculture, which has included acquisitions, new product development and partnerships.

FIN: What has changed about variable-rate application? Is it a reality now?

HERAUD: Yes, I believe it is. Variable rate [VR] has been out for a long time, but in the last two to three years it has become more mainstream. And the reasons are several. One is that the economics are different. Fertilizer and seed are much more expensive than they were three to four years ago. And declining commodity prices are making it even more critical for farmers to save money. So the cost equation is making VR very tangible.

The other thing that has happened is the ease with which you can use the technology. For example, two to three years ago you didn't have the large color displays in cabs. Now displays have started to appear in the cabs for reasons other than VR — guidance, for example. But once you have the display you can view maps. And once you have a map you can generate a VR map with VR software. So now, putting together a VR system is simple.

Where are we on the adoption curve?

VR application is most developed in sprayers. A lot of sprayers, both self-propelled and trailed models, are now factory equipped with VR technology. And many are still being equipped in the aftermarket.

Now planters are being equipped with VR capabilities to vary both seed and fertilizer. There are a lot of advantages to doing each one. In the case of fertilizer, it is very expensive. In the case of seed, it is also very expensive. But also there are agronomic reasons for varying seed. If you put two seeds too close to each other in corn, the roots — once they start touching each other — will signal each plant there is competition and the plants will stop growing or reduce their rate of growth. So if you are applying too much, or double applying in some areas, you will have poor yields. So you lose on wasted seed and you lose on yields. Additionally, reducing seed and fertilizer rates in poorly watered areas such as corners in pivot-irrigated fields can save significant money.

Where are VR and application control headed?

The future trend is to allow more sections to be turned on and off to allow for finer control. When we launched our EZ-Boom control system in 1996, it controlled up to 10 boom sections, and that was industry-leading. Now with our Tru Application Control system, you can control 24 sections, and we are hearing customers ask for even more than 24. This allows you to shut off sections individually for finer control. So if you are going into an area where you don't want to apply, you can shut off each section at the precise time you are crossing into the area you don't want to apply. When you had the bigger sections, you didn't have any choice but to overapply until the entire section was in the area you didn't want to apply. But if you have small sections, now you can shut off each section individually.

So planter and sprayer sections will get smaller?

Yes. The trend will be to eventually go to individual row control and individual nozzle control. Right now, most people are using two to three rows as a section in planters. That is state-of-the-art. In the future it will be two rows. And further into the future, single rows will be mainstream. So you can imagine having a 48-row planter with single-row control. I guarantee that will happen within a couple of years. The same will happen with sprayers. For example, a 90-ft. sprayer that is state-of-the-art today has seven 12-ft. sections. In the next few years the sections will go from 12 ft. to 10 ft. to 5 ft. to individual nozzles.

Is the next step single row unit shutoff and variable rate combined?

Yes. The section on/off will come first. Variable rate for every section will come next. Right now, in the case of planters, for example, we are doing very small sections of two or three rows for shutoff. But we are still varying the rate of either the entire planter or planter halves or, at the most, planter thirds. Today the state-of-the art is three drives on a planter, meaning the planter is divided into three sections. So if you have a 60-ft. planter, that planter is divided into three 20-ft. sections. In the next few years that 20-ft. section is going to go to 10 rows, two rows, single rows. It might take five to 10 years to get there.

Why will it take that long?

Because it will require more processing power, more expensive equipment, and an equal return on investment. You are already probably getting a 50% savings with 20% of cost by doing shutoff. There is another 50% of savings to be had there, but the cost is that much higher.

What will be the enabling technologies?

Faster processing and less expensive valve components. And both of those things are happening.

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