Technology grows affordable

11/01/2007 02:00:00 AM

Low-cost, entry-level GPS systems help producers boost efficiency

By Marni Katz

High-end global positioning auto-pilot steering systems cost half the $50,000 they once did and have become commonplace in many large-scale vegetable operations. Yet for many growers, GPS technology may still feel like a luxury that is economically out of reach.

Several manufacturers now offer entry-level GPS guidance options that will allow smaller-scale growers to get their feet wet.

“They’ve got GPS guidance systems down now that will keep you within 8 to 10 inches of accuracy that you can put on your tractor or spray rig for $1,200 or $1,500,” says Gary Prill, an Ohio State University agronomist in Van Wert and program manager for the Farm Focus farm show.

These entry-level systems may not be able to place drip tape or seed with pinpoint accuracy or allow growers to return precisely to a spot in the field days or months later. But they can help to make tillage and other operations more efficient and accurate by reducing overlaps and gaps.

“They’ve got these low-end units down in cost now to where you can’t even put a foam marker system on your sprayer for what you can buy a low-end GPS system,” Prill says. “Just in the past year or two, the price has come down enough that it is making it affordable for just about any size farmer to consider buying it.”

Prill says the systems not only help eliminate skips or overlapping, but can reduce operator fatigue because the driver follows a cab-mounted light bar screen rather than a guide row to accurately travel down the field.

Taking the GPS plunge

When grower Jerry Heilig, who farms about 1,000 acres of potatoes, sweet corn, beans and other crops near Moses Lake, Wash., purchased two new tractors this spring, he decided to take the plunge into GPS technology. He installed two steering-assisted GPS systems on his tractors for about $20,000.

On his large Case 275 tractor, Heilig installed the $3,000 EZ-Guide 500 guidance system from Trimble Navigation Ltd. of Sunnyvale, Calif., with a plug-and-play EZ-Steer steering-assistance unit. The system provides a cab-mounted road map showing where the tractor should travel. It also allows growers to map and log locations so they know where they have sprayed or disked and how many acres they’ve already covered.

Information can be downloaded to a memory stick and stored for later use. For another few thousand dollars, EZ-Steer hooks into the tractor’s steering column and provides steering assistance for traveling straight down the row once the operator has turned the rig around and lined it up at the end of each pass.

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