One of the battles being waged on farms across the country is the technical obsolescence of precision equipment vs. the mechanical life of heavy machinery.
This is a concerning dilemma, especially as farm machinery continues to increase in size, says Scott Shearer, chair of Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering.
“We have technology being substituted for iron today,” he says. “When a farmer buys a John Deere R tractor, it can last about 20,000 hours, assuming about 500 hours of use each year on a Midwest farm. That tractor could be on a farm for 40 years, but the technical value will be obsolete long before the mechanical life expires.”
The widening gap between the lifespan of technology, and the increasing size of equipment it controls, can have a dramatic impact on prolonged machinery performance, soil structure and yields, Shearer says.
One potential change in the future is a move to smaller, semi- or fully autonomous vehicles that will extend the life of technology and increase overall farm productivity.
Maintaining soil structure is a priority for no-tillers, but since the advent of diesel engines in 1960, the ag industry has seen a sustained maximum increase of about 900 pounds of ballasted tractor mass per year, according to research conducted by the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab.
Shearer correlates the escalation in ballasted gross vehicle weight to the switch from spark-ignition to diesel engines as manufacturers produce larger, higher-horsepower tractors.
“We began to see that steady increase about 50 years ago and we’re finding that the cost of diesel engine technology over the life of the machine is quickly approaching the value of the diesel engine itself,” he says. “One manufacturer is offering a 685-horsepower tractor, and figuring in the fact that you need 110-120 pounds of ballasted tractor mass per engine horsepower, that tractor is going to be in the 70,000-80,000 pound category.
“I can’t help but wonder what type of compaction penalty producers are paying.”
This concern also translates to the footprint that larger grain carts are leaving on fields. Compaction research done by Shearer looked at the impact a 2,000-bushel grain cart can have on no-till corn yields.
Working off a field average of 196 bushels per acre, compaction generated by grain cart traffic resulted in a decrease of 21 bushels per acre in normal field conditions, he says. The decrease was more significant in wet conditions, where the field average of 193 bushels per acre dropped by 45 bushels.
Losing close to 25% in yield due to compaction is one motivating factor to explore the possibility of advancing automated farm machinery technology, says Shearer.
“If we can get gross vehicle weight down to about 10,000 pounds. we could increase production about 7% by alleviating compaction…” — Scott Shearer
While he acknowledges that today’s equipment is largely high quality and built to last, there could be a gradual downsizing trend on the horizon to machinery designed to only last 6-7 cropping years. The upside would be that the smaller equipment would help to better preserve soil structure and increase productivity.
“A lot of people perhaps thought of automation as a way to replace labor, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Shearer says. “I think a driving factor is going to be reducing the compaction penalty by moving to multiple lighter, fully autonomous vehicles rather than having one or two high-horsepower tractors and heavy implements in the field.”
Looking at the possible tractor of the future, Shearer envisions farmers operating multiple high-clearance, 60-70 horsepower machines with adjustable height and width capabilities, along with a return to the spark ignition engine.
“With smaller vehicles, emissions don’t create near the cost structure that we have right now in terms of off-road equipment,” Shearer says. “We’re less concerned about efficiency of the tractor engine, because if we can get gross vehicle weight down to about 10,000 pounds, we could increase production about 7% by alleviating compaction.”
The cropping system of the future could include a dozen or more small, autonomous tractors, with adjustable ground clearance, armed with sensing technology and able to work 24 hours, 7 days a week. Smaller planters, perhaps 4-row models, are also possible, Shearer says, with the ability to cover more acres collectively in less time.
But Shearer says the timing of when more automated equipment begins to take hold in the industry will depend on machinery manufacturers willingness to embrace the technology.
“I think we’ll probably see some start-up companies coming into the mix and gaining some market share,” he says. “Then we’ll start to see some of the other manufacturers begin to look at automation in a different light.”