BY GEOFF GEDDES • PHOTO COURTESY OF AGCO
Robot vehicles and handheld crop sensors are not tomorrow’s dreams, they are agriculture’s here and now. And while such digital, high-tech innovations are available to farmers and crop researchers, agriculture is a physical pursuit that also benefits from advances in hardware engineering. The following new and improved gear represents a wide array of technological innovation on both digital and mechanical fronts.
AUTOMATIC TIME SAVER
The AGCO AutoDock header docking system is the first of its kind. Inspired by customer feedback, it automatically connects and disconnects combine headers. AGCO farmers wanted the capability to quickly hook and unhook their headers while not becoming covered in dust and chaff in the process. This is especially helpful when headers need to be changed often between fields and crops.
“This product really simplifies the entire process,” said Kevin Forth, AGCO senior tactical marketing manager for harvesting. “You approach the header with the combine, lift the header, push a button on the screen and it connects the hydraulics and drive shafts automatically in about five seconds.”
When a new user hooks the header up manually, they may not do so correctly. The AutoDock system eliminates such errors as it remembers the settings previously used for that header, which ensures 100 per cent accuracy every time.
“By reducing a two- to three-minute chore to five seconds, the system is part of a growing trend towards automated processes and vehicles. This will only accelerate in the future,” said Forth. “These are the smart solutions you need going forward. While saving a few minutes may not sound like a lot, if you change your header three to four times a day, that really adds up over the course of a season. It could save you several hours over that period and give you an extra day at the end of harvest. With the weather challenges in this business, that could make all the difference.”
The docking system is available for the Command corn header and DynaFlex draper headers. By early 2022, the company plans to offer a third-party kit that adapts the system to additional headers.
GRAIN CART EFFICIENCY BOOST
Brandt’s XT-Series carts are the latest addition to the company’s grain-handling lineup and promise better performance made possible by an updated tank design and new auger configuration.
“Our product development process starts from the ground up, with focus groups from around North America and sometimes overseas, as well,” said Sheldon Gerspacher, Brandt’s Regina, SK, vice-president of sales for agriculture. “For the XT-series GrainCart, we asked what innovations farmers would like to make the harvest process more productive. They had tremendous input on the final design. It was truly made with the farmer in mind.”
Given that harvest occurs in a tight window, farmers stressed the need for greater efficiency. The company responded with new GrainCart features such as forward and side reach for its discharge auger. As the grain cart is an intermediary between the combine and the semi, its use creates certain handling difficulties. Grain cart augers are typically orientated well behind the tractor cab, making the operator look awkwardly behind them while unloading into a trailer. The XT auger spout reaches far enough forward that it places the spout in line with the side of the tractor cab so it is easier to see while operating the tractor. The auger also reaches away from the side of the cart so that it can be placed a comfortable distance away from the semi-trailer without becoming a safety hazard.
“This product enhances productivity and reduces customer fatigue during those long days of harvest,” said Gerspacher.
When a switch between crops requires a total clean out of the cart, its tank design makes the process easy. This is done with improved grain flow to the auger sump created by greater tank slope angles and a more direct grain-flow path free of obstructions and hang-up points. The grain cart also features a ground-level access door that makes it simple and safe to perform the final clean out.
The product went on the market in fall of 2020, and sales have been strong. “Because the XT-Series GrainCart was designed by the customer, for the customer, it has gained acceptance quickly, as it addresses real issues that farmers face during the harvest season,” said Gerspacher.
PORTABLE PLANT SENSOR
Produced by Sunnyvale, California’s Trimble, the GreenSeeker Handheld Crop Sensor is a simplified version of the company’s variable rate application and mapping system. Built to aid farmers in crop-related decision-making, this lightweight, mobile, easy to use crop sensing tool measures plant health, or vigour, often difficult to assess with the naked eye. First released in 2013, it was initially used by agronomists and soil scientists, but has increasingly been used by farmers in recent years.
The device weighs about 300 grams, including battery. Its trigger-activated sensor emits brief bursts of red and infrared lights, sensing the intensity of each as it is reflected back. This generates a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) value, which is used to assess the condition of plants. On a scale of .00 to .99, the higher the number, the healthier the plant. The device can be used on individual plants or a farmer can walk an area of the field to generate an average reading. This can then be checked against a supplied chart to determine a crop’s nitrogen needs. The sensor can also be used with the Trimble Connected Farm scout app and is Bluetooth enabled.
“The user simply holds the device over its target, squeezes the trigger and receives the NDVI value on a readable LCD screen,” said Justin Prickel, Trimble product team manager, application controls. “It really provides you a snapshot in the lifecycle of a plant. You can then take that overall value back to the office and use it to make informed decisions.”
DRONE ON WHEELS
Agricultural robots have gone from fantasy to fruition in the blink of an eye. Distributed Autonomous Systems Laboratory (Daslab) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been a leader in robotic farm equipment development. Daslab designers have created a number of small robot vehicles that prowl fields to monitor crop health. Their latest innovation is the TerraSentia robot farm vehicle developed by Girish Chowdhary, associate professor, agricultural and biological engineering, computer science, and his colleagues.
The robot is designed to examine crops and research plots from ground level to record information about plants that is not visible to overhead drones and airplanes. The robot’s camera sensors located on its front, top and side capture a 360-degree view of the greenery. This “drone on the ground” enables farmers and breeders to determine plant traits such as stem width and leaf area and assesses the presence and extent of leaf and stem diseases with ease and accuracy.
“The companies who are breeding these seeds need data on the physiology of the plant,” said Chowdhary. Scientists must typically make these measurements by hand, which does not work at field scale and is subject to human error. “The robot is the system’s front-end, while the back-end is a cloud infrastructure where data is analyzed,” said Chowdhary. “It provides breeders with accurate, consistent, high-quality data regarding what they are trying to measure, and does it on a large scale.”
An additional aspect of the robot’s appeal is its size and portability. It is just 33 cm wide and 36 cm long and weighs less than 14 kg. “You can easily pick it up, and it fits well between rows of plants to collect data,” said Chowdhary. “There is a lot of interest in agricultural robotics today. We have created a robust and reliable technology, allowing our robots to navigate at length in an under-canopy environment, and their compact size contributes to this ability.”
The robot is publicly available for purchase, and though it may appeal to agricultural researchers and farmers, it is primarily geared to plant breeders.
Is it possible to simultaneously think outside the box yet inside the bin? If you ask Jeremy Hartsook, owner of HES Manufacturing of Eston, SK, the answer is a resounding yes. His company, which makes hopper bottoms, aeration systems, steel floors and additional bin products, recently received a patent for its cube-shaped aeration product, the Air Cube.
“I wanted to make something better than what was out there already, so decided to focus on creating a hopper bottom that was retrofittable,” said Hartsook. “In a hopper cone, everything flows to one point, so when you are emptying a grain bin above that point, you don’t want to obstruct the flow. For the longest time I thought a pyramid shape would be best as triangles are strong, but then I had an ‘out of the box’ moment and decided on a cube shape.”
The main strength of the Air Cube’s lightweight design is it can be installed in an existing bin and maintains steady grain flow. As well, by not concentrating the entire flow to one area, it ensures even drying capacity and prevents the overdrying that occurs within certain systems.
“That ability to insert it in your current bin makes it much cheaper than other systems where you might have to lift the bin off the cone and put it back on afterwards,” said Hartsook.
The impact on the bottom line can be significant. “Often, when growing canola, for example, you must wait for the pods to dry out to be threshed, but if you wait too long, they will shatter. With our design, farmers can avoid leaving their crop out there to overripen and shell out, thereby avoiding lost revenue and reducing wasted crops at the same time.”
A BETTER BUNCHER
Successful farmers always look to improve the efficiency of their operations and the quality of their product. This is the case for Larry Woolliams, owner and operator of Woolliams Farms near Airdrie. When he used a borrowed straw buncher to collect straw and chaff to feed cows and calves, Woolliams found the process drastically reduced his harvest efficiency. After making some modifications, he discovered that the buncher was patented. Fortunately, Allan Jones, who produced the buncher, liked the changes so much that he made Woolliams co-owner and president of his company, AJ Manufacturing. Based on Woolliams’s changes, they produced a prototype of the modified straw buncher in 2019 and took it to market in 2020.
“The new version is fully automated with a more streamlined design,” said Woolliams. “This leads to more consistent bunches, greater efficiency at combining time and more cow days per acre. By not running the tractor out to feed your cows with a silage wagon or bale processor, you lessen your carbon footprint and save money, as you don’t have to pay someone to make that run. You also gain soil organic matter as all the original product is left on the field after it moves through the cow. The straw bunches also help by raising moisture levels in the field as they collect snow.”
Though Woolliams doesn’t conduct formal customer satisfaction surveys, he is encouraged by what he hears through word of mouth. “There are quite a few guys around me using our Whole Buncher,” he said. “One said it reduces costs and makes it more conducive to maintain or expand the cow herd. Another farmer reported that he is getting almost as many cow days off straw bunches as he does off grass, and that his cows are in good shape. One fellow even told me that he could pay for a fence in a year with the savings he sees from the bunches, so I guess we’re on the right track.”