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Bigger, Smarter Farm Machines Increase Productivity, Reduce Errors

5 min read

S.J. Bornhoft pulled into the field with a planter full of soybeans, ready to begin planting for the day. He dropped the planter onto the freshly tilled soil and nudged his tractor into gear.

“Unit 7 to Unit 1,” I called on the two-way radio.

“Come on,” S.J. answered.

“Jay, are you gonna eyeball it today?”

“What? What are you talkin’ about, Junior?”

“Well, you didn’t drop your marker, so I figured you were just gonna eyeball your way across the field.”

The tractor stopped, and S.J. looked out to his left, where the marker, which would dig a small furrow to allow him to line up his next pass through the field, was dangling from the air, and dropped his head.

He pulled a lever to unfold the marker and proceeded toward the far end of the field.

Forgetting to deploy the marker wasn’t a huge problem. Not paying attention and dropping it onto the hood of his truck, as I’d also seen him do, was a bigger one.

If S.J. had lived long enough to use the tractors of today, he might have avoided some of those pitfalls, as the current crop of earth-tilling machinery eliminates many types of human error and waste.

Most tractors crisscrossing fields in the Arkansas Delta and elsewhere use technology that nearly renders a driver obsolete. Global Positioning System programs allow farmers to set up their tractors, combines and other vehicles to drive themselves across fields.

There is no need for a marker, as the GPS equipment lines up where the tractor or combine should go. Perfectly. Every time.

The only time a driver needs to touch the controls is to turn around at the end of each field.

Even crop dusters employ GPS, applying fertilizer and chemicals to fields without any waste and without anyone standing on the edge of the field waving a flag to show them where to fly next.

The technology eliminates overlaps and wasted time, fuel, seed and chemicals.

“I would say we save 10 percent overall a day,” said Anthony Bracy, who farms 3,600 acres near Otwell in northeast Arkansas. “Some days, like when we’re pulling landplanes, I think we pick up 20 percent a day simply because everything comes out perfect. You never have to waste time going back and fixing skips.”

Bracy is one of many Arkansas farmers investing in many of the advances equipment manufacturers have produced.

All of his tractors have GPS units in them, and he also has outfitted a truck with a unit to allow his employees to survey the fields prior to putting up levees.

Surveying levees is a task many farmers used to hire someone to do, much like spraying fields with pre-emergent herbicides and fertilizers. However, Bracy and other farmers have bought such specialized equipment on their own, performing these tasks on their timeframe. One of Bracy’s rigs is a relatively small utility tractor fitted with a 40-foot-wide spraying apparatus.

Attached to a smaller utility tractor on Bracy’s shop lot is a simple machine borne out of necessity — a poly-pipe placement and recall tool. The sturdy angle-iron frame features a furrow-digger, spooler, guide wheel and chain.

When deployed with a roll of the plastic pipe, the digger cuts a furrow, while the spool and wheel coordinate to lay the pipe in the ditch. The chain drags behind to cover the pipe, holding it in place until water flows through it. On the other side of the frame is another spool that collects the pipe at the end of the season.

The simple tool allows one person to lay the pipe out and retrieve it, as opposed to having one or more people manually do the job.

“We are farming twice as many acres with the same amount of people. You can get a lot more done with fewer people. That’s the name of the game,” Bracy said.

And size really does matter.

A generation ago, the workhorse tractors were two-wheel drive machines that produced 175 horsepower. They could pull a 20-foot-wide disk 4-5 miles per hour across a field.

Today, a medium-sized tractor has at least 250 horsepower, but the behemoths that many farmers use often have the power of more than 300 horses. They pull equipment twice as large 50 percent faster.

Bracy plants most of his rice and soybeans with a John Deere air-powered drill that holds 270 bushels of seed and is 36 feet wide. Speeding across a field at nearly 8 miles per hour, Bracy can plant 350 acres in a day. For his corn crop, he uses a planter 30 feet wide that plants 12 rows at a time, compared to the historically typical eight-row planter.

The huge John Deere combine sitting in Bracy’s shop features a header 35 feet wide and is capable of cutting 100 acres of rice in a day. Set aside a lunch break to fill up with diesel, though. The fuel tank holds about 300 gallons. Inside the cab are several monitor screens that show the operator all of the machine’s functions, allowing for even greater efficiency.

Of course, these marvels of machinery don’t come cheap. The air drill costs about $150,000; the large tractor that pulls it, $300,000. The combine? North of $400,000.

But the jewel of Bracy’s equipment list is a Kelly Diamond Harrow. This Australian take on a disk has exchanged the straight-axle gangs of disk blades for a chain-like system that allows the blades to bend with contours and turns. At 45 feet wide, the harrow has taken the place of a disk, cultivator and other pieces.

“We rely on that thing. There’s no telling how many acres it’s been over,” Bracy said with a touch of pride.

Tony Schwarz of Weiner put into perspective how much more productive modern equipment is.

“We cut 60 acres per day per combine. Back in the day, we would cut 20 acres per day. We can cut three times what we used to be able to cut,” he said.

Today’s combines are monsters compared to their ancestors.

New Holland’s CR Series combines feature headers up to 45 feet wide, compared to 20-foot headers of yesteryear. They can hold up to 350 bushels at a time and unload grain at about 4 bushels per second. Five-hundred horsepower is the norm. Cost? In the neighborhood of $370,000.

CASE IH combines and tractors are similar in horsepower and size. CASE has outpaced some other brands, though, in the track market. Instead of rolling on wheels, these tractors and combines operate on tracks, like a dozer. This type of vehicle has become popular for large-scale dirt-moving operations, which have boomed as precision leveling has grown more routine.

(Read more from the latest digital issue of Arkansas AgBusiness.)

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