GPS: Coming to a farm near you

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PLAIN CITY, Ohio – Think Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is only for farmers with thousands of acres, farmers further west in the Corn Belt, or farmers with millions of dollars to finance their operations? Or even strictly for crop farmers?
If you said yes, you’d better think again.
GPS technology is spreading in popularity in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and for good reason.
Despite high start-up costs, recent economic analyses indicate the tool can be a serious farm cost-cutter.
Real-life. Rob Joslin, who serves on the American Soybean Association executive committee, shared his real-life experience with GPS on the farm during a summer precision agriculture meeting in Plain City, Ohio.
Joslin, of Sidney, Ohio, first brought GPS to his farm in 1994.
“First we used a yield map, then lightbar, and now we’re using it to pinpoint varieties [during planting], nitrogen application, and autoguide when we spray,” he said.
“If we get time, we’ll put it on the combine, too.”
For Joslin, simply having the information about his crop fields and drainage and growth patterns is the first step to becoming a more profitable farmer.
“Say you have a wet area of a field. GPS lets you quantify the losses in that wet spot, and the information helps you ask yourself, ‘should I solve this problem?'” Joslin said.
“Getting information is the first step.”
Which to choose? Matt Darr, an Ohio State ag engineer, said precision agriculture methods offer a lot of potential for Ohio farmers, but they must be willing to invest time and energy into the products. After all, they’re not magical and won’t operate themselves.
Darr said GPS receivers, which must be installed on tractors or implements they control, can cost anywhere from about $800 to more than $25,000. And you get what you pay for.
The receivers vary in quality, he said, but sometimes, a lower-end receiver may be all that’s needed. For instance, a DGPS-based receiver, which isn’t as powerful as others, may be appropriate for tillage or spraying, since those two practices have leeway for overlap.
More expensive receivers, such as , or RTK, can ensure you come back to one spot in a specific field year after year within an inch.Real-Time Kinematic
The drawback with RTK systems, Darr said, is that the farmer must pay and subscribe to a RTK network to use it, much like a cell phone owner must subscribe to a local carrier to use its cell towers.
The RTK network in Ohio, particularly the northern and western parts of the state, is well developed with about 70 network towers in operation, Darr said.
“Very few states have a coverage map like this. We’re a real leader,” he said.
Applications. Darr said GPS isn’t in its infancy anymore. In fact, GPS and precision agriculture aren’t even seen as bells and whistles anymore. They’re becoming ‘the thing’ with farmers using modern equipment.
Opportunities exist to use GPS applications like lightbars, yield monitors, autosteer technology, soil sampling and charting, variable rate application guides and more.
Even the most basic application, the lightbar, can benefit farmers, Darr said.
“You just need to figure out what type of guidance you really need. Lightbars can benefit any farmer by decreasing chemical and fertilizer waste and upping efficiency,” Darr said.
No matter what kind of technology you choose for your farm, one thing remains the same.
“The technology won’t pay for itself if you don’t use it to do something a little better,” Darr said. “Save money on seed, chemicals, something. Make it work for you.”
Feeling good. GPS technology gives farmers other immeasurable benefits, too, according to one farmer.
“With GPS helping and something like autosteer, you spend less time operating equipment. You can watch boom height [on a sprayer] instead of worrying about where you are in the field,” Rob Joslin said.
And at the end of that day, that means less fatigue, a less wrenched back and neck from turning in the seat all day, and maybe even a better attitude about getting all that work done.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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