Strip-tilling cotton can be tedious enough. Throw in peanuts and Joe Morgan sees even greater difficulty in planting and harvesting without sub-inch accuracy. “If you get off line at all while digging you can easily lose a ton of peanuts per acre if you don't watch it,” says Morgan, who farms some 2,500 acres of peanuts and cotton in the Hattiesburg, Miss., area. “But we have installed a system that enables us to be as accurate as possible in all our field operations.”
Morgan uses the AutoSteer GPS Steering System to get the accuracy he needs. It is a GPS innovation that is being installed in more and more tractors across farming sectors from coast to coast. AutoSteer was invented and developed by AutoFarm, a division of IntegriNautics Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif. The easy-to-use system features a large color touch-screen mounted beside the steering wheel in the tractor cab.
The GPS receivers in the cab box receive data from three antennas mounted on roof of the cab. A portable AutoFarm base station antenna sends signals to the tractor, usually located within 6 miles of the field being worked. The base station, powered by a standard 12-volt marine or automobile battery, receives data from any number of more than 25 GPS satellites circling the globe. This differential data is then transmitted to the tractor, providing position correction to establish sub-inch path accuracy. The result is an automatic system that “has made life a lot easier,” says Morgan.
He raises about 1,400 acres of cotton and 830 acres of peanuts on 14 separate locations spread out over a 30-mile area. He farms on 38-inch rows and operates some center pivot irrigation to compensate for dry periods.
Morgan switched to strip-tillage in 2000 to obtain the benefits of both no-till and full-width tillage. While some growers strip-till in the fall, Morgan does it in the spring using a precision application tillage system (PATS). A coulter cuts through crop residue before a subsoiler cuts into the ground. Rear wheels fold-in dirt from the subsoiler. Additional wheels smooth up the bed and leave the residue trash on top of the ground.
However, the residue makes it more difficult to visually obtain accuracy in planting and other field activities. Markers once used by Morgan could not provide the accuracy he needed. He studied several automatic steering systems to solve his problem. He selected AutoFarm after reviewing all the system's features at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis with John Boughton, an AutoFarm representative for Delta area states.
“Joe did his homework,” says Boughton. “He asked hundreds of questions on how the system would work for him.” Boughton and other AutoFarm personnel had the right answers. Morgan installed three of the systems in three separate John Deere 8120 to 8520 series tractors in early 2003.
They were first used to plant cotton and peanuts. “You always wonder if something new like this is going work,” says Morgan, who was eager to learn the AutoSteer system. “We first used it to make our A and B points for planting and start our row pattern on the north side of a field. Halfway through the field, we jumped to the south side and worked our way back to the middle of the field. When we reached the center, the rows were lined up in perfect 38-inch spacing. The AutoSteer system definitely had the accuracy I was looking for.”
Dense vines from peanuts and thick canopies from cotton are always a challenge at harvest time. The AutoFarm system remembers where the rows are and can repeat them for harvest. Morgan was confident that digging peanuts, and eventually defoliating and picking cotton would be just as accurate as was the planting.
“With those situations, plus the challenges with strip-tillage, the AutoSteer will help us be about as accurate as we need to be,” he says. “Our peanut yields normally average about 4,400 pounds per acre. If your digger is off even the slightest amount, you can lose a lot of your crop. AutoSteer will help us prevent that.”
One initial obstacle Morgan had with the system was its ability to receive consistent data transmission in areas of rolling fields with terraces and where the space between a tractor and the base station was blocked by trees. But one thing AutoFarm customers have learned is that their individual problems can usually be solved with tweaks to the sophisticated software.
“Only about 60 percent of our fields have straight rows,” Morgan points out. “The remaining 40 percent are on curves and have terraces. We had an occasional interruption in data transmission at planting on some of those fields. I relayed the problem to John (Boughton), and he took it to AutoFarm.”
Boughton says that since AutoFarm and GPS are constantly being upgraded, software engineers can make the needed adjustments. “This is a developing technology, and we work closely with customers like Joe who have different situations,” he says. “They bring us their specific needs and we try to respond within the capability of our equipment.
“I have been in the farm equipment industry for more than 30 years and appreciate how receptive AutoFarm is to these specific problems. They can come up with solutions, like those to handle curves, that meet the customers' needs.”
Along with AutoSteer, the AutoFarm system can provide AutoLevel GPS Leveling System, used with a land scraper for leveling fields; AutoSpray, used with tractors, floaters, and sprayers for optimally spraying fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; AutoHarvest, which allows harvesters and cotton pickers and strippers to be guided through the field automatically; and Datalogger, which collects elevation and position data while performing normal farming operations and may be used with all AutoFarm products.
“It records data to a removable flash card that can later be uploaded to a personal computer to provide a precise topological map,” says Lars Leckie, AutoFarm director of product marketing. “The data may be used with other application software products.”
For further information on the AutoFarm system, visit the IntegriNautics Web site at www.gpsfarm.com.