Tractors Are Already Driving Themselves

  • Article
  • July 18, 2016

Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of attention lately, with major tech and automobile companies actively developing technology to enable so-called “autonomous driving.” There are various approaches but all have the goal to improve safety and remove some of the stress of a commute.

What many people don’t realize is that there’s a good chance that the tractor or harvester you see on farms across the country may also be self-driving – and very precisely, too. So precisely, in fact, that crop rows are planted within an inch of where they are supposed to be, and fertilizer is applied to the exact spots on the field that need it, and nowhere else.

Just like some self-driving cars, the tractor still has a driver, but his primary responsibility is to program and monitor the tractor’s computer and GPS. .

Technology advancements like this have been rapidly adopted on farms in recent years, particularly with the wider availability of high-speed internet service and smart phones. A recent study by Purdue University found that over 50 percent of farms use auto-steer technology with that number predicted to rise to 64 percent by 2018.

The use of data management and computer-controlled machinery is collectively known as “precision agriculture.” This technique increases a farmer’s yield and ensures that resources like fertilizer and water are being used exactly as needed, no more and no less.

Louie Kazemier, who runs Rickreall Dairy in Rickreall, Oregon, grows crops and cow feed on approximately 1,100 acres of land. He is like many dairy farmers who not only care for and milk their cows but also grow some if not all of the crops to feed the herd.  

Kazemier decided to invest in precision equipment about five years ago because he saw that the most successful farmers were those who were expertly managing their land. For him, keeping the farm efficient and profitable so that his son can keep the dairy in the family is a key to sustainability.

So far, Rickreall Dairy has purchased three new GPS-guided tractors and an assortment of precision implements, such as a fertilizer spreader, to be pulled behind them. The fields are regularly tested by an agronomist who helps to design a detailed nutrient plan for the soil. Data is loaded into digital maps of the fields so that as the tractors move across fields, fertilizer rates can be varied to match the soil’s need.

New smart phone apps enable constant fine-tuning. If, for example, he encounters a problem spot in the field – a place that needs irrigation or an extra dose of fertilizer – the farmer can use the GPS on his smart phone to geotag the spot, take notes and photos and upload the data into his software management system.

The tractor’s automatic steering has other benefits, too. By using the GPS to find the most efficient path across many acres, it saves fuel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention Louie’s time.

This effort is also paying off economically. This year, Kazemier’s goal is to harvest 49 tons of silage  (crops prepared for use as animal feed) per acre, which is practically unheard of in his area. This puts Rickreall Dairy on stable footing, both financially and environmentally, while they fulfill the family’s mission to provide nutritious milk that is affordable and responsibly produced.