“We’re no longer just selling iron,” said Paal Haug, general manager of Haug Implement with stores at Willmar and Litchfield. “Today we’re selling precision farming products and that requires special training of both our personnel and our farm customers.”

The firm dates back to when his great-grandfather Gunder Haug started a machinery dealership in Pennock in 1918, when actual horses were the primary source of horsepower on farms.

Thanks to the advent of Global Positioning System farming, today this John Deere dealership of 52 employees has a classroom set up at their Litchfield store with specially trained personnel doing classroom training for farmers on all aspects of GPS technology. There’s also “real time” on-farm instruction on how to operate each particular system.

GPS technology breakthrough

Reflecting on the past 20 years of their implement business, Haug said it definitely was the introduction of GPS in 1994-95 that opened their dealership to the explosion of new technologies and the new machinery hitched to them.

“We could see this was generating an entirely new future for the farm equipment industry. That’s when we hired our first full-time Precision Farming Specialist. Still in its infancy in those days, a GPS system that permitted yield mapping in our combines was the first development,” said Haug, who credits his dad, Don, for having the vision to see GPS farming’s exciting potential.

What a remarkable acceptance, especially in the last few years. Today, for example, virtually every new John Deere tractor and combine is factory-equipped with the wiring and electronic harness to permit plugging in to a variety of technology capabilities, be it auto steer, yield mapping, variable seeding rate, even row command on planters.

Haug said farmers today are well-versed on what they want when they come shopping for new equipment. “They tell us what they want to accomplish with certain products and then it’s our challenge to fit these products to their needs,” he said.

As you might expect, there are farmers who aren’t up to speed on these new technologies, so education becomes a continual mission of Haug Implement employees. Younger farmers tend to have a stronger “itch” for what’s new but Haug said it’s the older farmers who better understand the value of a particular new technology.

How do you quantify the value GPS technology has brought to farming? Haug said identifying “savings” to the customer is the best-selling criteria. “With auto steer, for example, because there is no overlap you save fuel, use less input product, reduce hours on your equipment, save man hours and greatly relieve the stress of doing a particular field operation.

“One of the neatest new tools is Row Command, a system of clutches on the planter which automatically shuts off point rows thus eliminating double planting. GPS has already helped you set up your field but perfectly rectangular or square fields seldom exist which means points rows are a frequent occurrence.”

Precision farming with on-board yield monitoring information and yield mapping gives a farmer much better information for comparing tillage systems, variable planting rates, even comparisons of drainage systems within a field.

“You virtually become your own experiment station on your own farm,” said Matt Rohlik, agricultural management consultant for Haug Implement. “And that’s the most important information you can have. Being able to document information both at planting time and harvest gives a significant base for making right decisions.”

Pricey but tremendous capabilities

These new technology features cost a few bucks. The John Deere Green Star system, for example, offers three choices of auto steer capability. The SF1 package, costing about $10,000, provides 10-inch accuracy. SF2 gets accuracy down to about 4 inches and costs about $16,000. Rapidly becoming the popular choice of row-crop farmers, especially sugar beet growers, is the $20,000 RTK system with repeatable accuracy of 1-inch or less.

“Repeatability was our primary reason for going the RTK route,” said Joe Sullivan of Sullivan Farms in Renville County, which runs three RTK units on their various power units and combines plus two SF2 units on big tractors doing mostly tillage work.

“It takes only about three minutes to switch a unit from a tractor doing tillage work to a tractor doing the planting,” Sullivan said. “So the RTK guidance system lets us pre-program each machine to travel virtually the same wheel tracks each pass through a particular field. It’s like permanent row tracks regardless the particular task being done.

“Everything about production agriculture keeps getting more exact,” he said. “We now have up to 10 years of yield data on some fields. That’s enough history on those soils so we’re looking at more variable-rate planting. And that leads us into variable-rate fertilizer programs applied precisely as suggested by our yield maps.”

Sullivan said they were up to 39,000 plants per acre on certain portions of certain fields. This year working with newer hybrids and another year of crop history, they pushed to 41,000 ppa. “Despite the dry growing season yield benefit showed more at 41,000 ppa than where we cut back population on soil types suggesting lighter planting rates. So as we get more history on each field we can start adjusting planting rates, fertility inputs, perhaps even spray programs.”

GPS technology is an upfront cost needing justification but, once equipped, adds to future resale value.

“You don’t recapture all of that initial investment but remember you’ve enjoyed the ‘stress-free’ benefits plus enough savings in just one or two years to cover the extra cost,” Rohlik said. He said that generally in the resale of two similar used tractors, the one equipped with GPS technology sells first — and for more bucks.

Despite the complexity of these electronic packages, Sullivan said John Deere’s Green Star system is user-friendly, “as long as you put it together correctly.” For example, they have the row command technology on their planters plus a row sensor on their combine headers that automatically does the same shut-off of row units in point-row situations. They’re down to 2 1/2 acre grid analyses on their fields so precise inputs are even more practical.

Haug cautioned that glitches do occur, hence the special training of GPS technicians “so we can handle these problems rapidly. Often the glitch can even be corrected over the phone. Most farmers carry cell phones so may not even leave their combine cab or tractor cab to correct a particular electronic issue.”

Going forward he sees even more of this specialized instruction to farmers about new and specialized electronic systems, all geared to making production agriculture safer, easier, more efficient and more profitable.

Not bigger, but better equipment

Haug doesn’t visualize farm equipment getting much bigger, simply because the footprint eventually gets too large for road movement, but he does see more power being designed into the engines of future John Deere tractors. Because of precision farming he sees future improvements centering around how to better manage farm equipment.

A good example: the continual improvements and engineering versatility of John Deere planters such as row command, which permits on-the-go, in-the-row adjustments of planting rates, and the “central commodity” system that gives growers tremendous improvements in the ease and efficiency of handling seed.

Regarding future auto-steer packages, Rohlik said the RTK system is hot. “It’s becoming more popular every year, especially for the farmer looking for repeatability in everything he’s doing in his cropping program. You could spray in the same exact row tracks; run your combine in the same exact row tracks. It’s popular for guys getting into strip tillage.” If/when carbon credits become an important “trading commodity” GPS farming could take on even further dimensions.

To make RTK accuracy work regardless of what fields you are doing, Haug Implement has developed their own RTK network — a series of nine, 100-foot tall towers — which permits overlapping GPS accuracy regardless of where your rig is running within the five-county area of their Willmar and Litchfield stores. Other implement dealers across Minnesota are doing similar RTK network building to better serve their GPS farming world.

Farmers pay into the system to get the benefits. Rohlik said it’s a one-time upfront cost of $3,900 into their RTK network plus yearly fees of $200 per “rover unit” on your equipment. Each tower in the Haug RTK system provides electronic accuracy within a 25-mile radius.

Sullivan likely speaks for many farmers in GPS farming when he said, “perhaps the biggest benefit is simply less stress on the operator. We all know that during the planting and harvesting crunch time, 16- to 18-hour days can happen. With GPS and auto steer, we can now do that schedule and stay both more relaxed and alert.”

He also now has 10 years of yield data on selected fields and that’s a world of useful information when they chart planting rates, fertility programs, spray issues, etc.

GPS might even make harvesting easier. Relating to the harvest challenges this fall, if a combine was working a field with down corn, Sullivan said the RTK system showed the operator exactly where the rows should be and guided the combine accordingly.

Sullivan, 28, and a real student of GPS technology, said further improvements will be coming such as multiple RTK units in the same field being able to “talk to each other.” Right now with two planters working the same field only one of the RTK units is going to work citing that if one planter unit did the headlands, only the auto shut-off system on that particular planter will work. The same challenge occurs with two combines harvesting the same field — automatic shut-off at rows end will be working only on one of the combines.

So stay tuned. As helpful as GPS systems already have become, they will get better.

Kevin Paap, Minnesota Farm Bureau president and a GPS farmer, said “it’s saving fuel. It’s making us more efficient on every acre. And it’s certainly less stressful. I think if you would have told me even 10 years ago that I would be in the field with a tractor that’s steering itself. And while that’s happening I’m on my Blackberry twittering a message to some elected official, I would have said ‘you’re nuts’. But that’s the amazing technology at our fingertips today.”