The Autonomous Wizard of Oz blog Part 3: Why farm equipment still isn’t keeping up with technology

Kurstjens
Gerrit Kurstjens Arable farmer, Australia
Photo: Yanmar
Photo: Yanmar

Gerrit Kurstjens, is a pioneering farmer who has already clocked up 40,000ha of autonomous operations on 13,000ha of cropping area at Beefwood Farms, Moree in New South Wales, Australia. In this exclusive series of blogs he explains more about these remarkable developments.

Automation has existed for many years in the aircraft and mining industries. In the container and warehouse industry, moving goods autonomously is completely normal. So, why then is this not the case with farm equipment?

Not suitable or economical for crop farms

It seems that every day somewhere in the world, a new futuristic autonomous farm machine is being developed that is “coming to the market soon”. But in practice, they are often not suitable or economical for crop farms. The arable farming industry is still waiting for full-scale autonomous machines to make sense financially.

For instance, Australian farmers are not interested in replacing their 24 meter wide planter with two 12 meter wide planters pulled by two separate tractors controlled by one operator. And does it make sense for a farmer to replace his 48 meter wide sprayer with a swarm of four spot sprayers, that are controlled from the edge of the field with a tablet? If this turns out to be more expensive, the answer obviously is ‘no’.

What farmers do need, is an “autonomous add-on” for their existing tractors

Do farmers need a tractor without a cab – just to show it is indeed an autonomous tractor? Of course not, they want to “feel” the machine when they have to test the field for areas that may be too wet and too soft to work on, or whilst making sure the implement is working correctly in different areas of the field. What farmers do need, is an “autonomous add-on” for their existing tractors.

Millions of dollars are spent on the development of autonomous systems. That is all very exciting stuff, but if the result is not economical for farmers, why should they bother to invest in it?

Less chemicals and less labour

Farmers want to be able to perform repetitive tasks like weed control using less chemicals and less labour. If they are happy with the adjustment of the machine for a new task, they’d like to switch on the autonomous control and go home. They are struggling to find workers who are prepared to sit – like a sack of potatoes – the whole day and night on the tractor doing nothing. Broadacre crop farmers in Australia must cover twice as many ha to produce the same amount of crops as their colleagues in areas that receive more rainfall.

Controlled Traffic Farming

One way to do this is with economies of scale. It is no wonder that most farms in our area cover over 5,000 ha. The adoption of Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) solves the problem of compaction caused by heavy machinery. No-Till and spot spraying are already standard practice.

Autonomous systems could very well become standard practice, as long as those systems meet the practical requirements of farmers and an investment makes financial sense. It seems we haven’t reached that point yet.