Nick Guetterman, a farmer from Bucyrus, Kan., who farms 16,000 acres, and John Fulton, a professor at Ohio State Univ. and president of the International Society of Precision Agriculture, spoke on a panel about emerging technology in ag during the EMDA & FEMA Fall Convention in Kansas City in November 2023. Following the panel, they continued their conversation about the realities they see in the field today. 

Nick Guetterman: When I think of autonomy, a drone might be the first thing we would adopt on our farm, but for us, they’re limited when it comes to fungicide applications. In my opinion, they don’t use enough water to carry the fungicide or insecticide into the canopy like our ground rig does. We’re using 20 gallons of water to penetrate the canopy, especially in non-GMO corn, to get insecticide down the silk.

I also think drones are limited as far as carrying capacity for applying cover crops. But I think that’d be the first thing we’d adopt, more so than an autonomous tractor because our field shape and size is so odd. 

“In order to make a lot of autonomy work, you need to have that upload speed…”

We have a lot of small and irregular shaped fields and a lot of terraces where we don’t do tillage, and tillage is the first task I’d put an autonomous tractor on. I’m not ready to put an autonomous tractor on a corn planter. 

John Fulton: Well, that is the important pass, right? That sets the ground for the rest of the season. It’s just too important. You can’t mess it up.

Guetterman: Yep. I’ve seen pictures, but I haven’t seen one in person, of a smaller, self-propelled, battery-powered autonomous planter. That’s got my eye more so than trying to put autonomy on the current machine, instead making a machine around autonomy lighter weight. 

Preventing compaction is near and dear to me. Having heavy things out on the field is hard on the soil. I’m a soil health person. If we could get out there a little earlier with a lighter-weight autonomous machine, I think there’s something to that. It could be potentially cheaper than a big lot of iron, but obviously you have to have a lot more of them. If they don’t have a big heavy motor and fuel tank and all that, then maybe that could save on some costs to allow for more machines.

Fulton: We’ve got a lot of growers doing 40-400 acres, and they need a tool that delivers cover crops. The latter part of the season gets them seeded in the time frame needed to get growth prior to frost these days. Drones have become an option for them to get cover crops out where they didn’t really have a tool, where they would have to get with someone who either has a plane or a high-clearance machine, and that just wasn’t working. We just didn’t have custom application opportunities for those growers. Drones have all of a sudden become an option, which I think is great.

It’s maybe not for someone like what you’re operating, Nick, but I think if we came back in 4-5 years, you’d probably say, “Well, we figured out how drones have complemented our other pieces,” especially if you have irregular-shaped fields. Could the drone do some things in those fields more efficiently than a ground machine?

I think there’ll be gains there, but we have to get to the point where they’re robust enough — and we’re getting there. You have confidence that it can perform in that manner, complementing the suite of machines you’re running out there.

The other thing I would add on autonomy, when you’re in the harvest operation, it’s a busy time of year. It’s logistics because you’ve got harvesters, grain carts and semis or wagons running. Typically, growers will have another operation they want to complete during that period, whether it’s sowing wheat or tillage. I know some of our growers in Ohio can’t do all that concurrently and sustain it because of labor challenges.

I do think — whether we’ve got OEMs coming to market here pretty quick — there’ll be some autonomy options in certain conditions. It may not be those small fields, but conditions where the autonomous tractor can be performing an operation while you have the manpower on the harvest operation. It really depends. If you talk about sowing wheat, they start to talk about having an autonomous tractor to do some tillage while they’re harvesting. Then the other thing they see is potentially automating the grain cart, if they can build that in and bring efficiencies. Those are some real decisions.

The big thing I get concerned about is whether the growers have the tractors that are ready for autonomy. We talked back in the day, was your tractor guidance ready? Remember those days?

“Do the growers have the tractors that are ready for autonomy…”

All of a sudden, if an OEM or a third party can turn it on, do you have the wiring harness and the components there to make it work without a huge investment? That’s what we’ve been trying to educate our growers on. As you look forward, if you’re thinking you might jump to that in the next 3 years as you trade even for older model tractors, is that model tractor going to be autonomous ready when it’s turned on to that in that 3 years?

Obstacles to Autonomy

Guetterman: Cost is probably the biggest obstacle to autonomy for me. And then maybe not just autonomy. 

When we talk about the smart-spraying technology, I have a real fear of it not saving the farmer any money. It’s something the farmer just has to adopt to control his weeds. I see all the benefit of that technology winding up in shareholders’ hands on Wall Street, instead of benefiting the farmer or the local community. What can we as farmers and the shortline equipment manufacturers develop mechanically to control weeds with cultural practices that doesn’t require smart-spraying technology? It could be rolling down a cover crop with a roller crimper that doesn’t require herbicides. What can we do to make ourselves more profitable to solve our problems so we don’t have to pay Big Ag to figure out for us?

Fulton: Cost is always on top of mind for any grower, right? That’s first. But if you take that off, I really think connectivity’s going to be a continuous challenge. We’re spending quite a bit of money here in the U.S. to bring rural broadband to all these communities, but it isn’t 100% coverage. It can’t just be connectivity. It’s going to have to have the bandwidth. It’s got to be 4G LTE or a 5G scenario to run some of this technology. It’s not one machine — it’s going to be 3 machines out there. 

And so if I did want to invest in and adopt autonomous machinery, is the bandwidth there? I think that’s a hurdle we are very much challenged with to give the opportunities to growers to choose. 

In the last 2 years, Ohio farmers are behind the eight ball. There’s technology out there that in some cases could provide value to the farm, but they can’t adopt because of the infrastructure. 

We are really good at talking about download speeds because we want to watch things like Netflix and Prime, which is all download speeds. But in order to make a lot of this autonomy work, you need to have that upload speed. So we talk about symmetry, meaning that I might need 50 down, 50 up in order for that technology to work, or 100 by 100, or 100 by 50 download/upload type scenarios. 

For the American farmers across this nation to be competitive in the future, we’ve got to ensure that’s there for them to be able to adopt the technology. Europe’s doing it, and they’re ahead. For my farmers in Ohio not to be able to adopt some of these technologies, that’s a concern. 

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