American farmers: Far a field with automation

You think process engineers are in the forefront of automation? Senior Tech Editor Rich Merritt says that when it comes to improving process efficiency, you ain't seen nothin' 'til you been down on the farm!

By Rich Merritt

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Rich MerritBy Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

QUESTION: WHY DOES a tractor need a human driver? Answer: To turn it around at the end of the row. Turning at the end of the row is one of the few tasks not automated in a modern tractor, because they haven’t quite figured out how to program the computer to do it yet. Today, a “precision farmer” is just along for the ride. GPS and auto-steering guide the tractor with accuracy to one inch, while soil sensors and computers plant and fertilize individual seeds automatically.

“Producers are able to reduce overlap, and therefore reduce the number of passes through the field, saving fuel and time,” explains Barry Nelson, manager, public relations for John Deere, Topeka, Kansas. “Operator fatigue decreases because they don’t have to make constant steering adjustments to stay on the row. This technology provides great value to the operators of the equipment.”

But the farmer isn’t goofing off in the cab. He’s using his laptop computer and a wireless link to monitor HVAC equipment controlling environments in barns and silos, automated milking equipment, the weather, agricultural prices, and other tasks that keep farmers busy. The tractor has become a mobile office.

You think process engineers are in the forefront of automation? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. After all, we install automation to improve efficiency of our processes; farmers do it to survive.

Farmers were using the Internet while the rest of us were still wondering if it was just a fad. RFID? Farmers have been tagging animals with chips for years. Motes and mesh networks? Farmers have been monitoring fields with wireless motes since 2001. Wireless machine monitoring and computerized maintenance? Farmers are already doing it, thank you.

Here’s the problem: There is no such thing as a “family farm” any more, at least not the way you remember it. Giant corporate farms now dominate agriculture and the competition is fierce.

My wife, Linda, is a bankruptcy lawyer here in Iowa, so she sees failed farmers every day. “It is hard for a farmer with fewer than 1,000 acres to survive,” she says. “If a small farm is operating, either the husband or the wife–sometimes both–has a full-time job, and they work the farm at night and on weekends. That’s why they put headlights on tractors.”

Family farms that prosper often have 2,000-5,000 acres. You think you have an asset management problem? Imagine keeping track of all the seed, fertilizer, pesticides, weed killers, animals, feed and equipment needed to run a giant farm, and then optimizing its use on a square-inch or per-animal basis.
Precision farmers map their fields, analyze the soil and moisture content of every square inch of ground, and plug all the data into an asset management program. They analyze price trends, the current idiotic policies of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture, and the soil content to determine what to plant, where to plant it, and how much pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer is needed for each seed.

Life is certainly changing down on the farm. It’s hard to find good help, so automation helps eliminate manual jobs. They don’t slop the hogs any more. A computer in the barn controls the pigs’ food, water, and temperature. They don’t get up to milk the cows at 5 a.m. any more. Robotic milking machines do the milking now, and high-tech sensors check the milk for diseases. Ma doesn’t have to call the cows home. Chip-equipped cows can be identified and diverted automatically into holding pens in the middle of the night.

Farmers have always been known as inventors and tinkerers, and they have come up with many of these developments on their own, and with the help of friendly agricultural equipment makers. John Deere first got into GPS to help growers map fields 10 years ago, says Nelson.

“The accuracy was one to six feet, depending on the system used,” he says. “Now we are offering guidance systems such as parallel tracking and AutoTrac, and our accuracy has improved to less than an inch.”

Agricultural equipment suppliers like Deere drive down the cost of technology, because they know that the lower the cost, the more products they will sell. Software, for example, is dirt cheap compared to the prices we have to pay for similar asset management, ERP, scheduling and analysis software.

When you come to Iowa to build your bioreactors and bioengineered chemical plants (see Sounds Corny, But Biomass May Save America, Control Report, January p31), you’ll find plenty of employees who are already familiar with automation and control technology. Shucks, they were probably using our level of technology 10 years ago.
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