20 Technologies Changing Agriculture


Mobile computing

Portable computers and smartphones are destined to widely populate farm tractor cabs, pickups and offices in the future. Apple's iPhone (which now is available through Verizon as well as AT&T) and smartphones using Google's Android operating system are becoming the cellular communicators of choice for many farmers. That's despite the reality that few of the tens of thousands of phone applications are specific to agriculture.

Sales of tablet computers, like Apple's iPad, are expected to grow dramatically. Sales will be fueled by a raft of new touch-screen tablets introduced in early 2011 that run a customized version of Google's Android operating system. In coming weeks and months, you can expect to see new Android tablets from Dell, Acer, Asus, LG, Motorola, MSI, Samsung, Sharp, ZTE and others.

Ag-specific mobile computers continue to be based on the Windows operating system. This allows them to run Windows-based software that dominates the agriculture market. Ag Leader, Farm Works and SST have recently introduced new Windows Mobile rugged handhelds with enhanced features, including more powerful processors, GPS, high-resolution cameras and built-in wireless and cellular communications capabilities. For even more computing horsepower, Farm Works also offers the Yuma ruggedized tablet computer, which runs the full Windows 7 operating system. - David Hest


4G networks

Farmers frustrated by lack of access to higher-speed Internet services could find themselves in the Internet fast lane in the next couple of years, because of 4G (fourth generation) cellular communications networks.

Although a variety of technologies will be harnessed, the new 4G networks will be the most important in deploying high-speed Internet services in rural areas, according to a network communications analyst.

"Four G is the most promising technology for a ubiquitous high-speed Internet experience at a reasonable price point," says Ken Rehbehn, an analyst for the Boston-based Yankee Group, which tracks global connectivity trends. Typically, 4G systems provide download speeds of 5 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to 1.5 Mbps, at most, for 3G systems.

The build-out of 4G networks by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and others is just getting under way. The early 4G introductions have been in urban areas. But coverage will move out into rural areas as more aggressive cellular providers seek a seamless coverage umbrella coast to coast.

Although it took years for 3G networks to proliferate in rural areas, the growth of the 4G system will be faster, Rehbehn says. That's because many cellular providers for 4G services will use the 700-megahertz (MHz) radio spectrum, which was formerly used to broadcast analog television signals. It has roughly twice the reach of the radio spectrum used by earlier cellular communications networks. This reduces deployment costs and speeds the build-out.

Verizon will lead the way in developing rural coverge, Rehbehn predicts. "In order to get a comprehensive roaming footprint across the U.S., Verizon will move very quickly," he says. "It may take into 2012 to get every nook and cranny built out."

Fiber optic cable and higher-speed fixed wireless systems also will contribute to higher speed Internet access in some rural areas, Reh-behn says. Satellite-based Internet services are likely to be left behind.

"It's expensive to launch a satellite, so costs to provide extra bandwidth are high," Rehbehn says. "That is a major impediment." - David Hest



Imagine pulling up on your mobile computer a map that shows where all your vehicles are operating and their fuel levels, how much product has been applied or how much crop harvested, and even if a piece of equipment is ready to break down.

This type of Big Brother look is now possible with telematic products that allow navigation, prescription application, location and other data to be transferred easily to and from farm machinery. These systems help farmers improve efficiencies on high-priced equipment.

Early this year, Trimble introduced Farm Works Dispatch, asset tracking software and the new DCM-300 modem. Together with Farm Works Dispatch, the modem provides access to real-time kinematic (RTK) corrections from its VRS Now network and enables wireless transfer of information.

Raven's new software development platform will allow software companies to integrate their software into the Slingshot suite of wireless products and services, which includes RTK correction, data transfer, remote support and high-speed Internet access. Several software providers have already signed up.

These introductions join new and updated telematics products by AGCO (AgCommand and AgCommand Advanced), and John Deere (JDLink Select and JDLink Ultimate). - David Hest


Nitrogen utilization

The extreme price fluctuations of nitrogen fertilizer have not been lost on seed companies. They currently are developing corn hybrids with the ability to better use available nitrogen.

"With nitrogen costs at the level of seed costs for corn producers, nitrogen utilization will get the market's attention," says Bob Nielsen, professor of agronomy, Purdue University. "Much will depend on how the trait is expressed - producing the same amount of corn with less applied nitrogen or improved yield with the same amount of nitrogen."

Major seed companies including Monsanto are now conducting research on nitrogen utilization. "We are working to collect the data and develop the understanding of the mechanism of how we can increase corn yield at existing nitrogen levels or maintain corn yield with reduced nitrogen levels," says Steve Padgette, vice president of biotechnology, Monsanto. "Our team is working to identify products to take to the next level of our development pipeline and ultimately to regulatory testing." - Mark Moore


Herbicide-tolerance traits

Herbicide-tolerance trait technology will be a big player in corn and soybean production for many years, especially with the appearance of two new traits coming to the market soon. Dicamba- and 2,4-D-tolerant traits are in the final stages of development and will offer producers an alternative to Roundup Ready and Liberty Link.

How rapidly these new technologies will be adopted will depend on the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

But the linchpin for these new products may not be in the technology, but the chemical formulations in development. Companies are working to develop new formulations that tackle spray drift and volatilization, both concerns with current dicamba and 2,4-D products. "We know these herbicides are more active at rates associated with drift than most other products; thus they pose a bigger risk to non-target crops and other plants on the landscape," says Bob Hartzler, extension weed management specialist at Iowa State University.

Assuming that both technologies gain approval at the same time, the battle to capture acres quickly may determine which products get a leg up.

"A majority of dealers will likely not want to deal with the logistics of handling both dicamba and 2,4-D products," Hartzler says. "That would mean separate sprayers, more products to handle, and more paperwork to ensure fields are properly tracked. The marketing battle on the ground will be interesting." - Mark Moore


Mini-chromosome technology

Corn trait technology could be in for a revolution, and it's coming in a small package. Mini-chromosome technology promises to deliver multiple stacked traits in a single corn hybrid faster and more efficiently than today's stacking technologies. The technology, developed by Syngenta and Chromatin, constructs in the lab a new mini-chromosome that contains a given trait or traits.

Stacking could involve not just three, five or eight traits in a single corn hybrid, but dozens, if not hundreds, of specific traits. And because the corn plant's original chromosomes are not being altered, regulatory approval could be sped up by two years over current technology.

"As we start to look at the complex traits like drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency, there are additional traits that must be added," says Roger Kemble, Syngenta Biotechnology. "This technology allows us to add these traits faster and more precisely than we can now."

While the technology is still in its early stages, field trials have already been conducted with corn hybrids developed with this technology. "And by the end of the decade, I see mini-chromosome technology as the primary trait transfer technology used in corn," Kemble says. - Mark Moore


Highly efficient ethanol production

"Ethanol biorefineries operate in a constant state of change," states the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). With technologies such as fractionation and biomass gasification, ethanol producers have greatly reduced the amount of fossil fuel energy needed to produce ethanol and distillers grains.

When ethanol was first produced in the 1970s, the production process was highly inefficient. More energy was used to produce ethanol than ethanol produced when used. This negative energy factor has changed drastically so that, today, it is now positive. According to POET's Erin Heupel, the ratio of energy produced by ethanol compared to energy needed to make ethanol is 2.3 to 1.

Many ethanol plants also have cut their use of fresh water. The plants use pretreated water from water treatment facilities or more efficient water technologies. The RFA reports that, since 2001, ethanol producers have reduced water requirements by 26%. Many plants use less than 3 gal. of water to produce 1 gal. of ethanol as well as distillers grains. POET is working to further reduce water consumption to 2.33 gal./1 gal. of ethanol produced. - Lynn Grooms


Drought-resistance traits

The decades of work to develop drought-resistant plants are finally producing results. The first corn hybrids marketed for drought conditions are now being sold. These hybrids use natural gene selection and are targeted to the western Corn Belt where water is a key limiting factor. Companies promise yields will be more stable with these hybrids.

The next round of drought hybrids will include genetically modified traits and should appear in the middle of the decade. Scientists are using biotechnology to alter one of the many different factors involved in a plant's growth under water-restricted and high-heat conditions.

As research continues, scientists will find new keys to improving yields under drought. For example, researchers at Purdue University recently discovered a genetic mutation that allows a plant to better endure drought without losing biomass. This discovery may help reduce the amount of water required for growing plants. - Mark Moore, Karen McMahon



Expect to see more biological pest control and growth enhancements as farmers look for more environmentally friendly and cost-efficient crop inputs. Advanced technologies, such as high-throughput screening, are also helping companies to quickly multiply beneficial organisms, thus driving development of new biologicals.

Products like Bayer CropScience's biological nematicide Votivo, and the Harpin Alpha Beta protein for early plant growth in Monsanto's Acceleron, seed treatment are examples of biologicals being promoted by large crop protection companies. Advanced Biological Marketing is integrating its Induced Gene Expression Triggers (iGET) technology into several of its products (such as SabrEx, root inoculant for corn).

Biofungicides such as Becker Underwood's Vault HP, and AgraQuest's Ballad Plus, are used to protect soybeans. Becker Underwood introduced Polymer 1172-O, a water soluble seed polymer designed to bind biological performance enhancers and seed protectants onto seed in organic production systems.

Novozymes BioAg has focused on biofertility products but plans to expand into biopesticides. Moreover, Novozymes recently announced that it agreed to acquire EMD/Merck Crop BioScience, which has a long history of biofertility product development. - Lynn Grooms


RFID technology

Radio frequency identification, or RFID, has been widely used in livestock to identify animals. But global futurist Jack Uldrich says use of the tagging technology will expand to crops as the technology gets exponentially better, faster and cheaper.

"These are really small computer chips that will allow consumers to track individual products from cradle to grave," he says. The futurist added that consumers will want to know how farmers grow their corn and soybeans and what inputs they are using to determine whether they are environmental stewards. "Consumers are going to have access to all of this information," Aldrich says.

Iowa State's Matt Darr says the hay-baling market has entered this arena. "AGCO, Case IH, and New Holland already promote the use of RFID tag technology for their large square balers, both as a way to track bales and also as a way to understand their physical properties such as weight and moisture level." He says the same concept could be applied to grains once the infrastructure is established. - Jodie Wehrspann


Soil and crop sensors

More farm equipment today is being outfitted with smart sensors that can read everything from plant health and water needs in the crop to nitrogen levels in the soil. The sensors then enable on-the-go application of inputs based on real-time field conditions.

The newest area of sensor use is in irrigation where the sensors measure water needs. Sensors help optimize water use and avoid yield loss, according to Viacheslav Adamchuk, ag engineer, McGill University.

New optical-sensing technologies for determining crop health include Trimble's GreenSeeker, Topcon's CropSpec, and Ag Leader's Opt-Rx. These intelligent systems measure light reflectance from the crop that translates into nitrogen levels. Electronic controllers connected to the sensors then signal application systems to apply the correct amount of nitrogen the crop needs.

Sensor technology also is available to measure soil features like soil electrical conductivity, ground elevation, organic matter content and even pH. For example, Veris Technologies, Geonics and Dualem all make different types of soil sensors.

Another type of sensing system is satellite or aerial imaging, called remote sensing. These satellites shoot images of key agricultural areas every three to four days to note differences in crop health. Growers can then apply nutrients based on a prescription from the satellite images.

Experts in this area expect an explosion in use of sensor technology in the next five years once costs come down and farmers realize a return on investment. - Jodie Wehrspann and Karen McMahon


Electric drive systems

Someday farmers will see tractors, sprayers and other farm vehicles generate electric power to run auxiliaries and attachments. This move will occur as farm vehicles become larger and more complex. It takes extra engine power to operate all these extra features.

Electrification should start appearing after Tier 4 engines are fully developed and introduced. Equipment manufacturers have invested large portions of research and development budgets to meet the stringent EPA emissions guidelines. That money will open up in a few years.

A few manufacturers already have completed work on electrification. AGCO displayed a concept electric drive package on a RoGator last year at a farm show. The 311-hp vehicle was equipped with a 650v electric generator that sent power to electric wheel motors.

AGCO reports the prototype RoGator produces 30% more power to the ground and a 20% savings in fuel with the electric generator and motors. Disadvantages include extra weight from the generator and motors along with cost of the components.

At a European farm show in 2007, John Deere showed a prototype tractor that produced electricity. The 7530 E-Premium featured a crankshaft-driven electric generator, which replaced the standard alternator. The generator was attached to the engine flywheel to produce 20 kW of electricity. A few of the features operated with electricity were air conditioning, engine cooling and air brakes. - Karen McMahon


High-flex tires

Farm equipment is getting larger so farmers can cover more acres faster. But this means more weight on the vehicles, which leads to soil compaction. Soil compaction robs crop yields.

To tackle this problem, tire makers are developing new tire technologies to transfer the weight across a larger area. As a result, tires today are up to 7.5 ft. tall, 4 ft. wide and have more flexible sidewalls that can withstand heavier weights than standard radials. The bigger the footprint, the tighter the pressure applied to the ground. A good analogy of this concept is that a 100-lb. woman in high-heeled shoes exerts more weight per square inch than a 200-lb. man in work boots.

New tire technologies include increased flexion (IF), very high flexion (VF), and radial plus (R+). Tires with these technologies can be run at 20 to 40% lower air pressures than standard radial tires, which creates a longer footprint. - Jodie Wehrspann


Pervasive automation

Reid Hamre, AGCO, uses the phrase "pervasive automation" to explain all the new product features that reduce operator workload. Growers should expect these types of automation to largely take over operation of equipment in the future. The new automated features allow operators to do more jobs with less strain and more accuracy because human error is eliminated.

Some of the features, according to Hamre, include GPS steering, GPS headlands turning, conventional headlands programmable automation, automatic balers, automation of operator control of combines and forage harvesters, and automation of tractor operator functions like intelligent power management.

"ISOBUS-ready tractors, balers, combines and implements that plug-and-play with each other could be viewed as part of this," Hamre adds.

Barry Nelson with John Deere agrees: "As new technology continues to move forward in the ag industry, there will be more efforts to improve precision guidance systems, telematics, digital information for operators in combines and tractors, and an increase in overall digital management tools for large producers such as JDLink." - Jodie Wehrspann and Karen McMahon


Hyper precision

Precision agriculture technologies are becoming more robust and more precise, ushering in an era of hyper precision.

The widespread adoption of RTK navigation systems is driving the hyper precision era. This has occurred as the cost of RTK navigation systems continues to fall and radio- and/or cellular-based correction networks have come online practically everywhere in the Corn Belt.

With RTK navigation in hand, precise seeding and fertilizer applications have become a reality. Manufacturers are introducing controllers, drives and shutoff systems with ever-finer resolution and the ability to apply multiple products at variable rates.

Controlled traffic systems, such as strip till, also become a reality. The same goes for on-the-fly installation of drainage tile, and more.

"Accuracy is addictive," says Matt Darr, Iowa State University precision ag specialist. "It unlocks a lot of new potential - things that really add value back to the farm." - David Hest


SCR/EGR engines

Tractors and other farm vehicles are well on their way to becoming smokeless. Engine manufacturers have had to redesign the diesel engine to comply with the government's Interim Tier 4 (iT4) emissions regulations. The rules call for drastic cuts in particulate matter, also known as soot, and oxides of nitrogen or "smog," which can lead to acid rain.

As a result, manufacturers have invested substantial engineering time and money into engine design. Farmers are now seeing some impressive benefits from these Tier 4 engines, such as reduced maintenance intervals, better fuel efficiencies, and more efficient use of power, on top of pristine exhaust. The drawback is a higher cost - from 4 to 9% more than the price of Tier 3 engines. In addition, farmers will see the tractors and other diesel-powered vehicles change in design to allow for the additional components, such as a jumbo muffler and an extra tank for blue liquid.

One of two new engine technologies is used to meet the iT4 rules: Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) or Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR). Both technologies will likely be needed to meet the near-zero emission levels called for in 2014, when Tier 4 Final goes into effect. - Jodie Wehrspann


BUS technology

Ten years ago, it wasn't uncommon to have up to five displays in a tractor cab with a stream of wires hanging out the back window connecting the tractor to the implements it controlled. Today, those monitors have morphed into one screen called a virtual terminal. The wires have combined to form one big cable called a binary unit system (BUS) that plugs into any brand of implement.

The enabling technology is called ISOBUS, a communication protocol based on the agricultural electronics standards ISO 11783 and Controller Area Network or CANBUS technology.

"CANBUS provides a medium for everything to connect together," explains David Kuhnel, engineer with Dickey-john. "ISOBUS provides the language and protocols for information to be exchanged on the BUS so that you have connectivity between tractor and implement."

Farm machinery makers agreed to implement this protocol in 2001.

"ISOBUS has been quite successful in achieving its initial goals," states Matt Darr, ag engineer, Iowa State University. "The virtual terminal is available from many manufacturers and has enhanced tractor and implement compatibility. For example, you can hook a Deere air cart to a Case IH tractor, or a TeeJet spray controller to a Deere tractor.

"For producers, this is a huge step forward," he continues. "You're not going to get charged an extra $5,000 for a display when it is likely that you have everything you already need." - Jodie Wehrspann


Autonomous vehicles

"Guidance assistance and autosteer have had a major impact on the agricultural industry," states Ian Yule, Massey University, New Zealand. "Within 15 years, we have gone from a simple lightbar indicator to fully automated control of tractors and implements."

Autonomous or robotic vehicles could be the next big change in controlled steering technology. Gradually, ag equipment manufacturers are showing peeks at their work on robotic equipment.

For example, several years ago, John Deere released a photo of its robotic prototype tractor. This past summer, Deere demonstrated a robotic utility vehicle designed for the U.S. military. The robotic UV is equipped with Deere's off-the-shelf ag guidance components. It can be controlled remotely or operated autonomously through software that helps it detect obstacles and either move around them or go another way.

Recently, AGCO and Topcon announced they are working together on technology for autonomous vehicles. At Ag Connect Expo, the companies discussed their early research and displayed a device called LiDar that can be used with an autonomous farm vehicle. See video at Farm Industry News .

Other ag engineers at universities and manufacturers have worked for years on technology to operate equipment without a human operator. Although many problems (like cost) currently prevent this technology from reaching a farmer's field, breakthroughs in design are bound to happen. - Karen McMahon


Automated grain off-loading

Navigation systems that automatically guide grain carts alongside combines to improve on-the-go cart filling may be just around the corner. The same concept also could soon be in play with forage-harvesting systems.

"These systems will make it easier to fill a grain cart or wagon automatically," says John Fulton, a precision agriculture specialist at Auburn University. "I think a 10 to 15% improvement in harvest efficiency through improved off-loading is achievable. It may be even higher for some folks. Improved efficiency on that scale could have a tremendous impact financially."

Fulton says tethered systems probably will be driven by the controller and navigation system on the combine or forage harvester. The systems are likely to use GPS/GNSS navigation to align the cart and control its ground speed relative to the harvester. Integrated sonic and/or visual sensors would be used to monitor the cart or wagon to assure efficient filling.

"It can be hard for an operator to both drive and watch the entire loading process of the cart or wagon," Fulton says. "Remote video camera systems can definitely help out, but the operator must still drive and make decisions. With an automated system, the operator doesn't have to make all those judgments." As a result, it's more likely that cart or wagon capacity will be fully used and that slowdowns during off-loading will be minimized.

It's unclear when these integrated harvest navigation systems will be introduced, but Fulton says that research is well under way. "I would suspect most every large self-propelled forage-harvesting equipment and combine manufacturer is working on this type of automated solution," says Fulton, who has seen prototypes at European farm shows. - David Hest


Controlled traffic

In some parts of the world, running vehicles on the same path in a field is standard practice. "In the U.S., it hasn't taken off yet but is part of a potential solution for reducing soil compaction and promoting more minimum-till practices," reports Matt Darr, Iowa State University ag engineer.

The key to a successful controlled traffic program is synchronizing equipment so it all works on the same track. In addition, RTK and automatic steering technology have furthered the possibility of controlled traffic. "Now we have the technology to drive all equipment on the same track lines over and over without the skill of an operator," says Viacheslav Adamchuk, engineer at McGill University. "Fields are now in a digital format. - Jodie Wehrspann