SAC CITY, Iowa (DTN) -- The yellow-and-black tractor pulling a planter across a soybean field near Sac City, Iowa, on Friday didn't stop traffic.
Livestock semis and cars just drove by as the 235-horsepower tractor worked. A common springtime sight, so it seemed.
But if people had taken a closer look at the machine, they would have noticed something missing in the cab that might have created the first traffic jam on 190th Street, a road leading to Bellcock Farms: the driver.
"This is just awesome," Justin Bellcock recalled as he watched the tractor -- a JCB Fastrac 4220 owned by Sabanto -- in action for the first time.
Sabanto, based in Ames, Iowa, and Rensselaer, Indiana, is autonomously planting 500 acres of soybeans -- except the end rows and headlands, which will be done without a driver in the future -- for Larry Bellcock and his sons, Justin and Josh. It's one of 10 farms in the U.S. and Canada scheduled to serve as test sites for Sabanto.
The company has an ambitious goal of farming 10,000 acres to perfect its technology and equipment. Most will be planting, with some tillage. Owners Craig Rupp and Kyler Laird are finding out what it takes to provide autonomous farm services to growers next year.
"We're at the proof-of-concept stage," Rupp said. "We're learning what challenges are out there and gaining experience.
"Autonomous planting for farmers is a reality ... it's happening today (May 3) near Sac City," he added. "This is really exciting."
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Rupp and Laird are learning valuable lessons about equipment set-up, software, connectivity and the weather.
"The opportunities are great, but there's a learning curve," Rupp said. "We're working through the bugs, GPS positioning, networking and equipment issues that crop up. We'll get it worked out."
Laird controlled the tractor and planter on his laptop from his motorhome next to the field. He has a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's degree in ag systems management from Purdue University.
Rupp, an electrical engineer and Iowa State University (ISU) graduate, observed from the tractor seat or from the ground nearby as it planted. A stickler for detail, the northwest Iowa farm kid often checked row spacing and seed depth.
Sabanto partners with Climate FieldView to collect, store, visualize and use field data. It also works with DigiFarm to provide cellular RTK correction services, which are compatible with all brands of GPS receivers. It creates a virtual base station in close proximity to where farmers work.
The planter and tractor have the latest Precision Planting technology like DeltaForce, vSet and the SeedSense 20/20 display.
All are connected to the tractor's computer to control steering, speed, engine power and planter functions -- everything needed to plant. Computer software monitors malfunctions and can shut down the equipment when needed.
"This is so cool, Kyler is in control," Rupp said as the tractor powered up and accelerated as he was turned around in his seat watching the planter. "But there's been headaches."
Downtime due to connectivity issues and planter adjustments occurred. But when working seamlessly, an autonomous tractor and 18-row planter can click off more than 500 acres a day, Laird said.
Customers will likely farm 10,000 or more acres, but could be smaller operators too, according to Laird.
"This is an option for anyone trying to be more efficient and make more money," he said.
Satellite guidance isn't new. The Bellcocks utilize the technology when planting, but someone has to be in the tractor to turn at the end of the row and perform other functions.
Justin was amazed by the driverless JCB. He watched it come to the end of a row, shut down the row units of the Harvest International planter, lift the implement, turn, line up straight for another pass, lower, re-engage the row units and continue.
"I wanted to see what it was all about, and now I have," Justin said.
It got the young farmer thinking about the advantages of autonomous planting and other farm operations. Less labor and time to plant a crop are two big ones, Justin said.
This year is a perfect example, he continued. Many Midwest growers have been struggling to get soybeans and corn planted in a timely manner due to persistent rain and wet conditions.
The Bellcocks farm more than 5,000 acres. The business' two planters recently sat idle for most of last week. Another 1.5 inches of rain is in the forecast, according to DTN meteorologists.
"We like new technology and we're always looking for the next big thing," Justin said. "If they (Sabanto) are capable of going 24/7 to beat the rain, that's a big benefit.
"I could see hiring them to help us plant," he added. "If we can plant now or in April, that can be a 10-bushel-per-acre advantage compared to planting at the end of May. Some farmers with one planter may not want to invest hundreds of thousands for another or have help available, so there's opportunities."
Rupp and Kyler Laird met at the agBOT Challenge in 2017.
Laird, a pioneer in using autonomous equipment on his Indiana farm, won the seeding category. Rupp was an agBOT judge.
Rupp is named on 13 patents specializing in embedded system design, precision farming, power systems, etc. He brought the ag industry the StarFire receiver, the Greenstar display, and was a co-founder at 640 Labs, the creator of the FieldView Drive.
The technology gurus hit it off. They agreed autonomous farming is the future. Rupp and Laird decided to join forces to take it beyond the development and test stage and make it available to farmers.
Sabanto is a "farming-as-a-service company performing row-crop operations using advance autonomous equipment," according to its website, www.sabantoag.com. The vision is to have teams scattered throughout the country and Canada -- possibly worldwide -- to plant, spray and harvest crops and till ground.
Equipment will be operated and monitored from a central location, Rupp said. One person or a two-person team will transport, maintain and fill equipment with seed, fuel, etc.
"We're creating a system that you can put in the field and it just takes off and will go 24/7," Rupp said. "This is a reality, and we're under the belief it will happen sooner rather than later."
Laird added, "I see the potential to help keep people farming in a competitive environment. Not everyone can afford a new planter ... they will just hire it done like my dad did with spraying."
Rupp said Sabanto's custom rates will be "competitive." This year's goal is to break even, he said.
"I think we can compete with standard contractors for price," Rupp said.
The average custom planting rate in Iowa is $21.80 per acre with fertilizer and insecticide attachments, according to the ISU 2019 Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey. The high end of the range is $31. Add up to another $15 for seed shut-offs, variable-rate seeding and GPS/analytics.
Bellcock Farms also does custom work and typically is in line with ISU average rates, Justin said. The family also has a turkey operation and seed and chemical business.
"(Sabanto's) planter has all the bells and whistles and capable of no-till," Justin said. "They deserve the higher end of the range to get seed in the ground right and fast."
Contact Matthew Wilde at firstname.lastname@example.org
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