When driving, you might be familiar with using a navigation app to get you to your destination. Often, you can choose the fastest route or the most gas-efficient route.
Farmers also can use navigation apps called “tractor guidance systems.” Like your car navigation, these systems use GPS, or global positioning satellite systems. GPS can help farmers to optimize their use of fertilizer, seed, and even herbicides (often referred to collectively as “inputs”).
The tractor guidance system includes a satellite signal receiver, antennae, controller, and display that is mounted inside the tractor. This farm machinery helps with two production input-related questions: where and how much to apply?
Using tractor guidance allows growers to not overapply or underapply the inputs. And using GPS makes the tractor follow more precise routes over the field, creating more even applications within a field. When fertilizer or other inputs are applied more evenly, this helps crops and results in greater crop yields. It can also reduce the amount of fertilizers leaving the field and entering waterbodies.
Smaller farmers often associate the costs of installing tractor guidance system as too high, creating obstacles to their adoption. However, researchers at USDA-ARS identified these systems can be economical, even for small farms. They also found that tractor guidance improves farm operation efficiencies by up to 20%.
Just like your car must deal with potholes and other issues with the road surface, farm fields have irregularities. Farmers using tractors even have to navigate obstacles like trees, and ponds. And, farm fields have various slopes as well. All of these issues have been found to impact the gains from tractor guidance.
One of the studies I was recently involved with researched the impact that operator experience had on tractor efficiencies – without using a navigation system! So, could humans beat the machine? We looked at groups of tractor drivers who had 0-1 year of experience, two years, three years, and then six-plus years’ experience.
Our findings? As experience level of drivers increases, so do the efficiency gains during field operations. Operators with six-plus years of tractor driving experience reduced overlap in their driving passes across the field by more than 20% compared with drivers who had 0–1-year experience. Compared to drivers who had 2-3 years’ experience, the more experienced drivers improved efficiencies by almost 8%.
This tells us that when studies are done to evaluate environmental and economic gains of tractor guidance systems, for the non-automated comparison, the experience level of the driver should be considered.
Our work indicates that there are even more savings when tractor guidance is used – depending on operator experience. These higher efficiency gains mean:
- less labor,
- fewer greenhouse gas emissions,
- reduced non-point source pollution, and
- greater cost savings per unit area.
Considering that in the United States, 82% of total farms are small farms, tractor guidance adoption could result in vast environmental and economic savings. However, in addition to installation cost, small scale growers are not comfortable with these new set of precision agriculture tools and technologies. University extension programs can be developed to train growers on precision agriculture tools and realize these benefits.
Answered by Tulsi Kharel, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Read Dr. Kharel’s paper in Agricultural and Environmental Letters.
About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.