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Technology turns Brooks’ tractor cab into mobile office

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 30 September 2016
Ron Brooks

If you are looking for dairyman and crop farmer Ron Brooks, there is a good chance you will find him in his “office.”

“I’ve got a great view from my office,” Brooks says. “It changes with every pass.”

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His office has it all: Internet access, climate control, ergonomic seating and 1,600 acres of incredible scenery.

A fourth-generation farmer, Brooks recalls the days of his youth, spent on the bumping seat of a Farmall, traversing the flat, fertile fields of Waupaca, Wisconsin. “They never used to let me cultivate because I couldn’t drive straight,” he jokes.

Keeping it between the fencerows is no longer something he has to worry about, thanks to hands-free guidance and advanced location and data technology. Brooks’ tractors practically drive themselves.

Hands-free farming

The freedom to operate his tractor without manually steering, stopping or shifting is thanks to real-time kinematics (RTK), according to Brooks. “RTK is based on fixed-base antennas and satellites, so we track 16 satellites and we triangulate to a fixed antenna,” he explains. “It’s easier on equipment because there’s no clutching or stopping.”

More advanced than the satellite-based GPS in a cellphone, RTK takes position data to the next level to pinpoint locations. “We are within a quarter-inch of accuracy on any of our farms,” he adds.

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This gives him the ability to perform precise tasks with ease, like planting a cover crop of crimson clover and annual ryegrass between rows of wheat stubble that are only 7.5 inches apart. And he can do that without his hands on the wheel.

“The tractors have the ability now to guide themselves,” Brooks says.

Managing from the field

Though he no longer needs to spend every second in the tractor seat lining up rows, Brooks’ days in the tractor are far from idle time. In fact, the cab really has become his farm office.

“I see it as my mobile office,” he says, noting that as his tractor drives across the field, he is making phone calls and answering emails. “I’m able to get a lot of the stuff done that I would have had to come home and do in the office for two hours after I was done planting.”

An added time-saving benefit of Brooks’ tractor technology is automatic data storage. “When I plant, spray or harvest, all of my data is going to the cloud,” Brooks says. There is no need to manually log numbers into a computer at the end of the day because the information has already uploaded to a shared site. From there, the same information can be accessed from his other technology-savvy equipment. “My tractors talk to each other,” he adds.

What’s even more exciting for Brooks is the option to manage his growing dairy herd from a handheld device, all from the comfort of his tractor. A construction project is currently underway to grow the dairy from 250 cows to 1,200 cows. The plans include a programmable, automatic sorting gate in the milking parlor.

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Instead of relying on employees to manually catch cows, he will be able to go through his phone to request which cows need to be partitioned for events like pregnancy checking. Because Brooks does the palpation himself, this efficiency will allow him to have the cows already sorted and waiting for him when he returns from the field.

“If I was driving my tractor, I couldn’t get on my phone and sort cows,” he adds.

Saving soil, seed, time and money

Operating tractors that guide themselves is not something previous generations could have imagined, like Brooks’ ancestors who homesteaded the farm’s original 160 acres in 1855; yet he believes these advancements in technology like RTK are what will preserve and conserve his farm for the next generations to come.

The integrated data system knows the specific soil needs on a per-acre basis and delivers them. This has successfully reduced inputs like phosphorus and nitrogen without a negative impact on yield. In fact, he is able to harvest 9 tons of dry matter per acre of alfalfa.

“It’s rewarding,” Brooks says. “We have a smaller footprint than my great-grandfather. Precision ag allows us to do that.”

In addition to fertilizer, he has seen major savings in other areas too. When planting on headlands, no longer does he have to stop his tractor, raise the marker and turn around; the tractor is programmed to automatically adjust the planter to turn off at just the right time, thus avoiding overplanting.

“We knew there would be seed and fertilizer savings, but we didn’t anticipate the time savings,” Brooks notes. “There is about a 28 percent savings in time planting because the tractor doesn’t stop.”

He says the investment of the guidance system paid for itself in about two years.

The tractor of the future

Brooks foresees fully automated tractors as the norm in the not-so-distant future.

“We have to get to autonomous tractors because of labor and the cost of equipment,” he states. He believes these tractors will be smaller than what we see today, thus reducing soil compaction, and they may even offer some cost-savings as there will be no need for creature comforts in the cab.

But until then, Brooks will be enjoying the view from his “office.”  end mark

PHOTO: Thanks to a guidance system that allows his tractors to guide themselves across the field, crop farmer and dairyman Ron Brooks can use the cab as his office, fielding phone calls and answering emails while working the land. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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