Letter from Langdon: Space Cowboy

With GPS technology, today's farmers are monitoring yields better, spreading fertilizer more efficiently, and eating lunch on the job.

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Ever since the Steve Miller Band released an album in 1969, we’ve known the Space Cowboy in song lyrics– and on the silver screen with stars like Clint Eastwood.

I’m here to tell you that the real space cowboys aren’t spaced out rockers, astronauts, or “make my day” Hollywood stars. Nope, we’re authentic, down to Earth tractor jockeys.

I first earned my wings as a space cowboy in 1995. That’s when I started using Global Position Satellites on my farm. Now GPS mapping and guidance is as common to me as country music and tractor pulls.

GPS started out as a military app, but that’s the way a lot of technology begins. When private citizens learned about the advantages of global positioning, they started to dream up ways to make money with it. Now we have GPS in our phones, our cars, our boats, airplanes, and even on the farm.

At first some folks thought I was putting on airs when I’d talk about using satellites to keep track of where I was and what I was doing. It was tough to get the point across. But while I drive the combine, the combine is using an onboard computer to keep track of the yield of my corn and soybeans in such a way that later on, after harvest, I can make a color coded map of the field that shows the best and worst crops on every acre.

Courtesy of Richard Oswald
Using GPS, Richard Oswald can tracks the soybean yields on every acre (yellow blocks had highest yields, orange lowest)

So now all you cowboy wannabes out there are asking yourselves, “What good is that?”Well, a good yield mapping program can make a liar out of any seed company with unrealistic claims about its hybrids. I no longer have to count exclusively on what they tell me, because I can see the results of every harvest with my own eyes, and I can compare the way every plant variety performs with every other one, on my own farm.

I can tell if tillage or no-till works best for me. I can prove that fertilizer makes my crop more profitable, or maybe that applying too much of a good thing actually cost me money.

Richard Oswald
View from the tractor cab, looking back — Without tractor guidance I’d be all over the place and the lines left by the fertilizer applicator would be zigzaggy, because I’d be looking the wrong way!

I can see the effect on yield of different soil types or rainfall.

I can also see on the map where I forgot to shut that little door on the combine that lets the crop run out on the ground before it gets into the grain tank.

My bad.

About the time we got the GPS yield monitor, our ag supplier, MO Valley Ag, (on the hill at Rock Port) became interested in GPS technology and started applying fertilizer that way. Our farm was the first in the area to have lime (a source of calcium for plants that neutralizes soil acidity) applied selectively only to areas of the field that need it. Not only were we saving money by not broadcasting a set amount over the entire acreage, we were conserving a natural resource, because limestone is mined from the ground. Now we apply most of our fertilizer that way.

Richard Oswald
Little white thing on top of the tractor cab is the GPS antenna

It works like this; a technician drives a GPS equipped vehicle like a pickup truck or ATV into a field and creates a map of the field divided into squares or  grids. The grids may be as large or small as the operator wants. Most grids are 2.5 acres. In Euro-terms that’s about one hectare. More precise application requires smaller grids. (I prefer one acre grids for our maps.) A soil sample is taken from each grid, bagged, marked with the grid number where it was taken, and analyzed in a laboratory. The results are entered into a computer program that creates the software needed to control application through a specialized fertilizer applicator.

We also use GPS for more accurate pesticide application, and some neighbors are using it now to control the planter to eliminate waste from overseeding.

I know it sounds complicated. At first it was, but now it’s so familiar it seems ordinary.

Richard Oswald
This is light bar that shows if I’m on track or not. Amber lights are good. Red lights are very, very bad.
GPS technology on the farm hasn’t stopped here. We have GPS guidance that actually drives the tractor in a straight line, or along a curved course. We started doing that on our farm two years ago. Now, when I plant crops, apply fertilizer, or till the soil, all I have to do is monitor the operation of the machine and turn it at each end of the field. I can surf the net on my Blackberry, talk on the phone, or eat my lunch while GPS does the work of guiding the tractor.

Implement companies like John Deere are working on robot tractors with no onboard operator at all. My first thought was that this would be bad for small farms because big farms would adopt the technology to operate even more acres. On the other hand, if a small farmer has limited capability due to constraints on his time, then a robotic tractor could free him to do more work and be competitive with larger farms. It could make his work more precise, while saving money and time in the long run.

This is a far cry from the day when Dad drove a team of mules to do the same work we do today with electronics and modern machinery. (Mules don’t need GPS to find the barn.)

 

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