Driving a planting rig 70 feet long and almost 43 feet wide can be quite a challenge for Wynne, Ark., farmer Rome Helton. But thanks to some new technology, most of the time his hands aren't even on the steering wheel.

Helton, who farms 3,400 acres of rice, wheat, milo and soybeans, has installed an assisted steering system on his John Deere 8520T tractor. The system, based on the Global Positioning System, lets Helton go longer without fatigue and keeps the big rig within inches of a desired path.

“We used it exclusively on one field yesterday,” Helton said. “We never put a marker down, and it planted in the straightest line you've ever seen. And on the following pass, we were always within an inch of our track. We also tried skipping a round, then coming back and planting in-between. It was right on track there, too.”

Helton has been working with his local John Deere dealer, Greenway Equipment Co. in Wynne, to fine-tune the system, which he is using for the first time this year. “We have a good local dealer and service department,” Helton said. “We went through a number of things yesterday, and it's a lot better system today.”

The guidance system, called AutoTrac, is designed exclusively for John Deere equipment and for this year is available only on John Deere track-model tractors.

The system uses Deere's Starfire (GPS position receiver) and SF2 differential corrections to automatically steer the tractor down the field. After setting the initial pass, the operator pushes a button and the AutoTrac will steer the tractor.

The operator must still turn at the end of each pass and around any obstacles in the field. But the effort to steer the tractor in a straight line is virtually eliminated.

For Helton, the system should help him get through what is already shaping up to be a hectic planting season.

He's already lost one employee and is down to two, Bennie Ferrell and Jimmy Huggins. He usually has three or four workers.

To address what has turned out to be a chronic shortage of qualified farm labor in the area, Helton is going to wider and bigger equipment where he can. He'll do all the planting on Gibbs Farming Partnership, which he owns with his mother, Bonnie Gibbs.

The planting rig for rice consists of the track tractor, an air seeder and a Deere 1900 seed cart, which holds enough seed to plant 180 acres of rice.

With the air seeder “it doesn't take five people to plant rice anymore. It's just me once the ground gets ready.”

Running longer hours is another way to stretch labor, notes Helton. The guidance system will allow him to run longer at night — if need be.

“If you can get your ends done before it's dark, to give you a reference point, it does a real good job planting at night.”

The accuracy of the system should also save Helton some money. “On a 100-acre field that's a quarter-mile wide, if you overlap two rows, which is 15 inches, multiply that by how many times you go across the field, that's quite a bit of extra seed you're putting out at $9 to $10 per bushel with all the treatments on it.”

Helton also plans to use the guidance system with his field cultivator. “If you have a 32-foot field cultivator, you're going to overlap 3-4 feet. The guidance system is going to put it right on the money.”

In addition, “If you use an air seeder and a field cultivator like we do to sow wheat, then you don't have the double-disturbance where you're overlapping. That will help you on your stand.”

To initiate the system, Helton pulls into a field and lines up in the direction he wants to travel. “You set Point A, drive 100 yards and set Point B. I'll do that without putting the implement in the ground. I'll turn around, plant the ends, line back up on the first pass and engage AutoTrac.”

A tractor icon on the GreenStar display shows an aerial view of the tractor to help the operator back to the next pass. “When I'm within a foot or two of being lined up, I hit the resume button and AutoTrac will pull the tractor on line.”

Another big test of the guidance system will come when Helton plants soybeans with a 31-row planter.

For AutoTrac, Helton must use the highest accuracy differential correction signal available, the SF2. When used with Deere's Starfire GPS receiver, it has a static accuracy of 10 inches and a pass to pass accuracy of approximately plus or minus 4 inches, according to Deere.

A shift track option allows the operator to move the position of the track to left or right in increments of one-tenth of a foot to correct for satellite drift. The feature is most helpful when you have to leave the field for more than a few days.

A mark point option stores as many as five points that you can return to at a later date. You can also save up to five fields in the system. AutoTrac is only available on track tractors, but will default to parallel tracking when used on a non-track vehicle.

The parallel tracking option offers similar pass to pass accuracy as AutoTrac when the SF2 signal is used, but the driver has control of the vehicle at all times.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.