The GPS-based-device maker has bought a tile-plow builder.

Source: DesMoinesRegister.com

March 15, 2012 — After almost two decades of making devices that link satellite Global Positioning Systems with tractors, planters, sprayers and combines, Ames-based Ag Leader is taking precision agriculture underground.

Ag Leader has purchased Soil-Max, a Brazil, Ind.-based maker of tile plows that dig lines for the farm field tiles that drain away excess water.

The crown jewel of the Soil-Max purchase is its Intellislope GPS technology, which uses the satellite’s contour measuring capabilities to guide the plow’s digging path and lay the tile at the right depths to allow water to flow properly through the tiles.

Intellislope, in the words of its Soil-Max creators, “allows growers and tiling contractors to solve water management challenges very cost effectively by greatly reducing the technical knowledge, labor and time required to install tile.”

Ag Leader’s founder, Al Myers, said Intellislope “tells the plow to calculate depth to put the tile in and asks if it will work. Assuming Intellislope says you can do what you want to do, you go back and start putting in tile.”

Mapping software, comparable to what farmers now use for planting and spraying, would enable the tile installer to use GPS to show tile size and grade, as well as mark the locations of tile for future location needs.

Myers said Ag Leader will continue to operate Soil-Max as a subsidiary, which will represent a major shift for the Ames company into heavy manufacturing. Since its founding in 1992 Ag Leader has concentrated on making GPS-run counters and directional controls for farm equipment.

“This is our first venture into heavy manufacturing, but Soil-Max has 50 percent of the tile plow business. We’ll increase Ag Leader’s size by about 25 percent,” said Myers, who counts Ag Leader’s current work force at about 270.

Myers grew up on an Illinois farm, took a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois and came to Ames in 1972 to work with Sundstrand, now Sauer-Danfoss, as an engineer.

Ag Leader got its start in 1992 when Meyers developed a usable yield calculator that could tell farmers, in real time, what their corn and soybean yields would be as they moved their combines across the field.

From that base, Ag Leader moved into development of GPS-based monitoring equipment that enables farmers to adjust or shut off planters and sprayers while working their fields.

“Farmers worry that when working a field, especially one that’s odd-shaped, that they’ll miss part of it when they’re planting or spraying,” Myers said.

“Our equipment enables them to avoid that problem. We figure we can save 10 percent of sprayer and seed costs by avoiding overplanting and overseeding.”

Estimates of precision farming use run as high as 90 percent of Iowa’s farmers, and those who have it say they wouldn’t go back to the old hand-eye system.

Pinpoint accuracy is a necessity in steering tractors and combines, as well as applying seeds and sprays. Precision agriculture is credited with keeping Iowa’s farmers, who average about 60 years of age, active and accurate in the cab.

“Certain operations, especially planting and harvesting, require a farmer to drive straight and monitor what is happening,” Myers said. “Precision farming equipment reduces that stress and enables farmers to work more years.”

Gordon Wassenaar, who farms near Prairie City and is a month shy of 76, said, “I’d probably still be farming without precision ag, but it is a lot easier and more fun.”

“With the guidance system, you don’t have to rely so much on your peripheral vision, which gets a little weaker as the years go by,” he said.

Wassenaar also lauds the money saving that comes from automatic shutoffs, which prevent overspraying or overplanting on odd-shaped parts of fields.

Ag Leader, which is still closely held by Myers and his sons, competes with Deere & Co. and other large manufacturers. It keeps busy by selling in the used equipment after-market through independent dealers.

A question directed these days at Meyers and other purveyors of GPS-based steering and shutoff equipment is how soon will driverless farm equipment be seen in fields.

Kinze Manufacturing of Williamsburg made some waves last summer with a demonstration of a driverless, dump-on-the-run system using technology from Jaybridge Technology of Massachusetts. But Kinze hasn’t announced a specific market time for its Autonomy system.

The use of pilotless drone aircraft on military missions in the Middle East has created speculation that agriculture might be the next frontier for autonomous technology.

Myers thinks that widespread use of driverless farm equipment is “farther away than people think.”

“It’s hard to put specific timetables on it, but I’d say the likelihood is that we’ll more likely see driverless equipment in 20-25 years than in five years,” Myers said.

What spooks farm equipment manufacturers, farmers and their insurance agents, is the danger of a driverless farm vehicle hitting a human, a car, a tile hole or other impediment that the farmer in the cab could spot but a satellite thousands of miles above the Earth might not.

Myers said driverless equipment also misses the most important piece of implement maintenance: The farmer who can jump out of the cab and do an on-the-spot repair or release of jammed equipment.

“If the machine tells you it’s shutting down, you still have to get out there and find out what’s wrong and fix it,” Myers said.