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Thursday, March 19, 2015

#TBT Tractor Guidance

Just as with everything in our world, farms change.  Here is part two of a series I am calling #TBT.  Each Thursday we will throwback to the way things used to be and how our farm has changed over the years. 

Tractor drivers over the years sure have changed.  The Farmer's Uncle talks about being 8 years old and plowing a field all day long.  I would never dream of sending my 9 or even 12 year old to the field to plow.  For one thing, we don't plow, but that's a whole different post.  Maybe we are overprotective compared to those who came before us, but driving a tractor can be dangerous and they are much much bigger than 50 years ago.  The things we use to guide our tractors has sure changed since my Grandpa's day!

Driving By Sight

Back in the day of single or two row implements it was easy to see where you had been on the last past.  Driving straight through the field was done by lining up with a landmark at the far end of the field, often a tree, or post in our area.  Have you ever noticed the silver "arrow" on the nose of a John Deere tractor?  It is not there for looks, but is actually used by farmers to line up with that landmark.  This is a great test for someone with ADHD.

 Equipment Markers

The length of a planter marker is one half of the width of the planter.  The markers on the planter above are those two arms sticking up (round plate looking thing on the end).   It has a disc blade that leaves a mark to line up the "arrow".  These markers switch from side to side each time the planter is raised and lowered.  They are only as accurate as the tractor driver's eyesight and attention span.

Counting Rows

When spraying in growing crops or planting into standing stubble (No Till), my dad would often count rows knowing how wide their implement was and taking the number of rows times the width of the rows.  This method was as accurate as the driver counting combined with the accuracy of the driver the year before.

Light Bar

When we first got married 16 years ago, I was introduced to the Light Bar.  I no longer had to keep looking back to see if I was driving too close or too far from my last pass.  We had a cool bar of lights on the hood of the tractor.   It actually used GPS technology just like your Garmin or cell phone to navigate the implement through the field usually in a straight line.  The lights would tell me which way I needed to steer to be in line with the last pass through the field.  It only worked effectively on straight lines and the driver often got frustrated trying to guess where it was taking them.  These light bars were only guaranteed to be accurate to 1 meter.  Often trees at the edge of our fields would block the signal just like driving in a parking garage blocks a Garmin's signal in your car.


My dad says even a monkey could drive our tractor and combine today compared to even when he farmed in the 1980's and 1990's.  We have this awesome feature called Autosteer.    We still have to turn at the end of the field and line it back up, press a button and sit back and post to Facebook....err...I mean watch the equipment work and look for ways to improve what we are doing.  We watch for things that may cause problems easier.  The Farmer and I firmly believe we are not nearly as tired at the end of the day after driving one of the tractors with Autosteer.  Some older farmers actually compare it to the first time they got to drive an air conditioned tractor.  The fatigue and stress on the driver is so much less that I think it makes farming safer for the farmer and those on the road with the farmer when he is driving home after a long day in the field. Our system still uses the same satellites as the light bar, but I have noticed with the combine that it is probably within 6 inches, but as the day goes on and satellites orbit the earth, you have to adjust your path.

Kicked Up Autosteer

RTK or Real Time Kinetics is the Mercedes of guidance systems today.  Farmers have base stations located around the area they farm that allows them greater accuracy with their Autosteer.  When I mean great accuracy, I mean they can go back to the same spot (within 2-3 inches) year after year. 

Why would farmers use GPS to guide their tractors?

Why do we continue to try to fine tune our accuracy in driving?  Efficiency.  The less overlap we have means less chemicals, less seed, less fertilizer, less fuel and less labor to produce of bushel of wheat or corn.  It also means we need to spend less time in the field and we can spend more time where we really want to.

Did you know tractors can drive themselves?

I know farmers today that still use all of the above methods of tractor guidance.  Farms evolve at different levels and each farmer decides what is best for his farm at the place it is in.

-A Kansas Farm Mom

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