The continually rising costs of farming inputs are driving more and more growers to the use of precision agriculture guidance systems, says Amy Winstead, Auburn University regional Extension agent for precision agriculture.

“In the last year or two, we’ve seen large increases in first-time buyers of precision agriculture technology. These have included livestock producers, forage producers and row-crop producers.

“The increasing cost of inputs has caused everyone to think about how they can save money, and precision agriculture figures into that.”

A starting point for entry into the world of precision agriculture usually involves the purchase of a guidance system.

“With this system, a producer first drives a pass in the field, and the system provides navigation aid to the driver,” Winstead says. “The navigation is always based on the width of the vehicle or implement.”

After the grower drives the initial pass in the field, the guidance system will automatically generate subsequent passes based on the original pass.

Entry-level guidance systems utilize the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a free correction service that provides a 6- to 12-inch pass-to-pass accuracy for guidance systems.

“There are many things growers can do with a guidance system,” Winstead says. “They can apply agronomic inputs such as fertilizer, spray chemicals, and spread litter. They can also use it for planting and mowing hay. A lot of the systems will do acreage and boundaries.”

Winstead says she had not originally considered hay mowing as an application for guidance systems.

“We have a demonstration program for producers interested in this technology, and we let them try out the equipment. A producer who got the equipment for litter application told us he had used it more for hay than anything else. Whenever he rakes hay, it helps him keep straight paths, and he can do it at night, which is beneficial for him.”

The benefits of using guidance systems are numerous, she says.

“It decreases skips and overlaps — that’s one of the biggest advantages. It also minimizes driver error and eliminates guess rows. In row crop situations, we’ve seen up to an 8½ percent decrease in overlapping. In a pasture situation, we would expect that to be much higher because you obviously would have no rows to go by.”

A guidance system increases efficiency, allowing the grower to operate at faster field speeds. “You can cover more area with fewer hours of operation, and you’re able to reduce per-acre fuel consumption because you reduce overlaps in the field,” says Winstead.

There also are many non-cash benefits.

“You can extend operational hours, and work more at night, which can prove very beneficial. Guidance systems also help to improve labor management and reduce driver fatigue.

“Producers say they’re not sure how to put a cost value on the fatigue factor, but they say they feel much better when they go home at night — they’re less exhausted, and maybe they can play with their kids. They’re not so stressed when they’re on the tractor, and they don’t have to continuously look behind them.”

On her own family’s farm, Winstead says, she has seen an improvement in labor management. “My husband feels more comfortable allowing others to use the sprayer because the guidance system minimizes mistakes.”

The systems also are helping growers get more accurate placement of their inputs, she says.

They can result in a savings of about 12 percent overall. If you add implement guidance, variable-rate application, and auto-swath, total savings could amount to 27 percent, she says.

Guidance system features have been vastly improved in recent years, she says.

“When I first started working with precision agriculture a few years ago, guidance systems consisted of a light bar — a piece of equipment with LED lights in it. Each light represented a certain distance. Newer systems have nice color screens, and they have previous pass features.

“We used to have to set A and B lines, and subsequent passes were then based on that initial pass. Most of the time, they had to be parallel. Previous pass allows you to drive an initial pass in the field — whether it is a straight row, curves, or circles — and every guidance pass is based on the one you just drove. So, if you need to change direction in the middle of a field, go around a pond, or go around a tree, you’re able to do that.”

There are several guidance patterns from which to choose, says Winstead. “It’s individual to each farmer and each farmer’s fields.”

There’s also a nudge function that allows farmers to make adjustments on the go.

Guidance systems, she says, are extremely user-friendly and easy to install.

“As-applied mapping and coverage logging are also new features with some systems. You can download maps, and most systems will generate a coverage map so you can literally see where you’ve been in a field. They can provide a lot of detail — the more information you enter into a unit, the more you get out of it.”

Boom control and assisted steering are add-ons that are popular with guidance systems, says Winstead.

Entry-level guidance systems run from about $1,800 to $3,500, depending on the features. If a grower adds a subscription correction service to improve accuracy along with assisted steering, it’s about $8,500. There’s also an annual subscription service or fee of $600 to $800 per year. And, a system with subscription correction service, assisted steering and auto boom will run about $10,500.

As accuracy increases, cost increases, says Winstead.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com