DES MOINES – John Deere representatives say that for the first day or so farmers operating the company’s GreenStar AutoTrac Assisted-Steering System on their combines watch the rows closely to make sure they aren’t veering off course.

After that first day or two, growers who have been testing the guidance system start catching up on their reading or even doing their correspondence while waiting for the machines to reach the end of the rows to make another turn.

That’s not the official company line on the system, of course. In their press materials, John Deere spokesmen talk about how the system allows operators to focus their attention on watching the grain or soybeans feeding into the combine or the crop conditions up ahead.

“The machine is also easier to operate in poor visibility or dusty conditions because the machine stays on track, guided by satellite technology,” says Ron Moron, product information manager, John Deere Harvester Works.

Editors who operated the AutoTrac System during a John Deere media event at Living History Farms just outside Des Moines, Iowa, were impressed by the way the combine moved over to a prescribed line and then followed the line down a 200-yard course without deviating an inch.

Most of the editors were unable to stay nearly as close to the line while manually steering the combine.

Less Overlap

A recent study conducted at Purdue University shows that the GreenStar AutoTrac system can improve operator efficiency by ensuring the combine cuts the full width of the platform in small grains and soybeans and by reducing passes in the field.

“DGPS guidance systems offer the opportunity to get more work done in a day by reducing overlap and allowing operators to run at faster speeds over longer periods of time without losing efficiency due to darkness or physical stress,” said Michael Boehlje, professor of ag economics at Purdue, who spoke at the media event.

“If you capitalize on these values to their full extent, you can substantially increase the capacity of your existing equipment by adding more acres to your operation. The pay off on a DGPS guidance system can be as little as a year to a year-and-a-half.”

The AutoTrac System for John Deere’s 50 and 60 Series combines, which can be factory or field installed starting Sept. 1, uses three components – the GreenStar display, mobile processor and the StarFire satellite positioning receiver – that are already available on John Deere assisted-steering system tractors or sprayers.

AutoTrac for combines also employs the same AutoTrac keycard software that is currently used on AutoTrac for self-propelled sprayers and tractors.

“You can take the three common components that we’ve had for several years now and take it from the tractor to the combine,” said Mitch Hobby, senior sales and service representative with John Deere.

“We don’t necessarily need the combine be the driving force for selling the AutoTrac. It’s probably going to be the tractors and the sprayers. Then you can take it to one more vehicle to reduce the overall investment and get more use out of it.”

Electrohydraulic valve

Besides the three common components that can be moved from machine to machine, the AutoTrac steering system requires a Steering System Unit, which is located under the cab. The SSU takes information from the GreenStar components and provides signals to an electrohydraulic valve to guide the combine.

The steering control valve meters out oil flow to the steering cylinders to maintain the desired travel direction. The valve does electronically what the operator does manually. But the operator can reclaim control of the combine simply by turning the steering wheel.

While John Deere representatives note that AutoTrac will free operators to spend more time monitoring the crop flow into the combine, they are also unveiling a new system that will automate that aspect of the harvesting procedure.

Deere’s new HarvestSmart Feedrate Control System will monitor the crop flow and automatically vary the ground speed according to field and crop conditions, according to Hobby.

During normal operation, an operator must manually change the ground speed with a hydrostatic control handle to keep from choking up the combine with heavier crops or wasting time at slow speeds in lower yielding areas.

With the HarvestSmart Feedrate system, the combine calculates which speed is optimal for the given condition and adjusts ground speed automatically, on the go, to maintain a consistent crop load on the combine.

“When we start through the field with this system, the controller is going to start looking for input from three different areas,” says Hobby. “No. 1 is a VisionTrak loss monitor that tells how much grain we’re losing. No. 2, it’s going to start looking for rotor load to see what kind of crop you have coming through.

“The next thing it looks for is input from the engine controller to tell you how much engine load do you have. It will take those three inputs and send a signal to the vehicle control module, telling it how fast your combine can go and get the maximum performance without too much loss.”

Fatigue sets in

“What happens after you’ve been driving a combine for several hours?” asked Jena Benge, a Deere representative. “You get tired, you don’t react as well and you don’t push the combine as hard as you did when you started. This system makes those adjustments for you while helping with operator fatigue.”

“This system can also see things you don’t see in the field such as subtle variations in yield,” said Hobby. “It will compensate for heavier crops but not for weeds you can see. The operator may need to take over when you see weeds coming up.”

Deere says the HarvestSmart Feedrate control system will be available as a factory-installed option on 60 Series STS combines starting Sept. 1. It will also be available as a field-installed attachment for 60 Series combines.

Using common components, including the AutoTrac keycard software, also enables growers to take precision farming a step further by allowing them to till, plant, spray and harvest their crops in almost exactly the same position in the field each year.

That can be beneficial for growers who are trying to use controlled traffic patterns in their fields to reduce the amount of soil compaction or for those trying to cover more ground with the same amount of equipment.

“As you can see, we are making the GreenStar AutoTrac automatic guidance system available on many, many different vehicle platforms,” said Than Hartsock, marketing representative with John Deere’s Ag Management Solutions staff.

“Farmers are telling us they need AutoTrac throughout the growing season. They’re saying ‘I don’t need it just on my planter. I don’t need it just on my combine. I need it every time I make a trip across that field.’”

Covering more acres

Making the equipment do more in the same amount of hours is possible because of the increased productivity of machines equipped with AutoTrac, he said.

“If you’re used to an overlap of a couple of feet and now you overlap a couple of inches, and you can do that day or night, dust or fog, you have a solution for covering more acres in a given day. Increased speed is another way to cover more ground with that implement.

John Deere AMS has a productivity calculator software program that can help growers figure out how much they can improve productivity by reducing overlap or operating at faster speeds, Hartsock noted. It can be found at http://www.deere.com.

“The other area is longer hours. It isn’t as easy to quantify, but when you have an AutoTrac steering system and you get out of the cab of that tractor or sprayer or combine at the end of the day, you’re going to feel much better and be able to run longer than if you don’t have it.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com