Guidance Goes Small

Ag technology companies seek to bring high-end GPS auto-steering to sub-1,000-acre farms.

The Wheelman Pro replaces a machine’s steering wheel and can be ready in an hour, Image provided by the manufacturer

The latest and greatest technology may pop the eyes and open the wallets of large-acreage farmers with promises of ease and efficiency, but tech often has to trickle down before getting in the hands of small-farm operators.Farmers with fewer than 1,000 acres hang on to older equipment longer and buy brand-new tech-laden equipment less frequently. The advantages bestowed by a new gadget’s added per-acre efficiency isn’t as pronounced, and the time necessary to pay off a hefty price tag can be daunting.

RATE OF ADOPTION

Terry Griffin, associate professor at Kansas State University’s (KSU) Department of Agricultural Economics, has been studying the rate at which farms in Kansas adopt technology.

Few innovations necessarily are adopted quickly, but nothing’s been picked up like precision automated guidance. Griffin and Elizabeth Yeager, also an associate professor in the same department at KSU, found data collected from 621 Kansas farms showed this to be the case. In 2005, about 12% of surveyed farmers used it. That shot up to nearly 40 percent by 2010 and was approaching 70 percent by 2018.

“It’s the most adopted technology, but there are still lots of opportunity for it to be used,” Griffin says. “It’s still growing.”

MARKET SCALE

Some ag tech companies see opportunity in that margin of farmers who have yet to dive in, and that was behind a new auto-steering product rolled out late last summer by Ag Junction.

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“Everyone’s focused on about 200,000 farms above 1,000 acres. That’s the market that’s saturated. It’s about 80 percent penetrated today,” says Jeff Morris, vice president and chief marketing officer for the company, which introduced several auto-guidance products under the Wheelman brand name. “The market just below 1,000 acres, 1,000 to 10 acres, there are 10,000,000 farms that people aren’t going after.”

There are two Wheelman products, both of which are designed to strip out the basic core functionality from more complex and expensive auto-guidance systems.

Wheelman Pro, retailing at $3,995, replaces a machine’s steering wheel, whereas Wheelman Flex, priced at $4,495, can be moved between machines. Each is engineered to be installed with as little pain as possible, meaning the system can be ready in an hour and calibrated in roughly 10 minutes, all without visiting a dealer or having to call for help.

“Calibrations on the older technology had somewhere between 15 and 20 calibration steps. We got it down to two for Wheelman,” Morris says. “The challenge was telling engineers not to find the edge cases anymore with these little problem sets they like to solve and say, ‘I need you to take all of that, make it simple and make it affordable.’”

Such market-driven initiatives are one way for tech to get into the hands of workers on smaller farms, Griffin says. Another is via the resale market.

What was hot five or 10 years ago when one farmer could justify buying a tractor with built-in tech becomes a new treat for someone buying that used equipment.

“You don’t have a choice. Small farms will buy used equipment two to five years after people who bought the new equipment. It’s just a matter of time until it trickles down,” he says.

PRECISION ADOPTION

Other precision ag trends haven’t caught on quite as much, though they also continue to grow.

Automated section control was at 47.8% of the survey of Kansas farmers, combine yield monitors at 41.1% and combine yield mapping at 39.1%. Variable-rate seeding was used by just 16.4%.

Only one technology had started to slide in the survey, lightbar guidance, which has been replaced largely by automated guidance. Lightbar guidance was the most-adopted tech for nearly 15 years starting in 1995. Now, it’s the tech farmers have most often given up. Of the 362 in the survey who used it, more than a third have stopped.

“Farmers who had that technology for the most part when they disadopted, within one year they had adopted automated guidance. They didn’t really give anything up, they just upgraded,” Griffin says.

There are still corners of the agriculture market automatic guidance isn’t ready to crack. It’s not suited to orchards or canopy crops where a view to satellites may be blocked. It also can’t add nearly the same value to a cattle ranch that it can a row-crop operation. No question, though, the percentage of farmers who’ve yet to adopt the technology will continue to shrink.

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