This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Farm Equipment's Sourcebook.

While industry visionaries see speed playing an increasingly important role in farm field operations, they say true productivity improvements will come from advanced technologies, like autonomous machinery and robotics that, they say, are already visible on the horizon. Each agrees that in no way, shape or form is agriculture anywhere close to hitting the wall when it comes to productivity.

“There’s no question you can lose efficiency with larger equipment. The only thing you generally gain is labor efficiency...”

“We can always get better, no question,” says Kansas States’ Kastens. “The question is which way will it go.” For one thing, he says, farmers will need to more closely consider some of the basics. For example, the industry could see significant productivity gains by “thinking more carefully about the types of fields they farm and what is the optimal machine complement for those fields.”

When they were asked where will the gains in agricultural productivity come from in the future, Agri-Trends’ Robert Saik, Purdue’s Dennis Buckmaster and Auburn Univ.’s John Fulton have similar visions, but differing thought on how things will progress.

Robert Saik: Ag’s Future is in Guidance & Computing Power: “I believe that as you fold in guidance and computing power and start to bring in robotics and autonomous equipment, machine size will come down and I think speed will also come down.

“Autonomous vehicles are very interesting. For example, Google has driver-less cars operating autonomously for over half a million miles in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with zero accidents. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that maybe we could eliminate the cab and the driver and everything and have the machinery go autonomously in which case speed starts to drop a little bit out of the equation because you can have more of them working in the field without constraints of the labor as being part of the equation.

“I think we’re still in the big and fast stage, but as we move toward these other advancements, the trend will be toward smaller and slower, but we’ll have more pieces of equipment operating on our farms.

“For example, instead of having one 120 foot sprayer going across fields at 18 mph, we may have 120 one-foot sprayers. And looking forward to where technology is going, maybe we won’t need 120 foot sprayers because, without the need for a human operator, we could spray a greater number of hours. Or, we could run 3 or 4 30 foot machines in the field at the same time.”

Dennis Buckmaster: Leader-Follower Technology is Next Big Step: “The next advance in harvesting productivity will come via so-called ‘leader-follower’ technology, in which a driverless combine — or perhaps a driverless tractor pulling a grain cart — is programmed to follow a manually operated combine, all at the same speed but in different swaths.

“It’s a way for one person to operate two machines. Manufacturers have already developed such systems, but they haven’t yet received widespread commercial acceptance, partially because of liability and insurance issues. Why wouldn’t it also be feasible for a tractor operating a planter to operate another tractor operating a planter?

“With leader-follower technology, it makes more sense to use smaller equipment — two 300 horsepower tractors, for example, rather than one 600 horsepower tractor — to overcome the throughput inefficiencies posed by using larger machines. These larger machines are already reaching structural limits in terms of width and weight anyway. Moreover, smaller machines would decrease soil compaction caused by larger machines, and if one machine breaks down, a farmer still can keep working, albeit at a 50% reduction in productivity.

“Another advantage is the ‘follower’ machines would be less expensive because they wouldn’t require costly creature comforts, such as heating, air conditioning and ergonomically designed seats, or normal amenities like foot pedals, dashboard controls and the like.

“You don’t need a really nice operator station, just something bare bones. Consider an autonomously driven car and think about all the things you wouldn’t need inside of it. It’s the same thing for a tractor. You might need a crude level of controls in order to drive it to a field, but you wouldn’t need all those controls at your fingertips in a well-designed, ergonomic environment.

“It used to be that we had to have someone in the operator’s seat that could watch, listen to noises, monitor gauges and so on,” Buckmaster says. “Now we have technologies that can do all that.

“Also, small, garden-size robots offer great potential for increasing farming productivity in a cost-effective manner, but not likely for harvesting. You might use just one robot to plant corn in a field the size of a football field. It might be slow, but if it only needs to cover one football field and has 10 days to do it, it doesn’t need to move very fast, especially if it’s accurate. Later, you could reconfigure the same robot to give the field a nice dose of fertilizer.

“Robots would be way less expensive and relatively light. You could throw it in a car and take it somewhere, and there’d be virtually no soil-compaction problems, either.”

John Fulton: Precision & Autonomy Key to Productivity: “While farmers could potentially run multiple smaller machines at higher speeds, that’s not necessarily going to increase capacity. The solution to improving short term efficiency will be breaking down larger equipment into independently managed sections, row units or nozzles, with precision farming technology.

“For example, electric drive systems on planter row units and nozzle shut-offs on sprayers are allowing farmers to more accurately implement variable-rate seeding and fertilization prescriptions. In other words, the industry is moving toward viewing each row unit on a planter or nozzle on a sprayer as an individual machine and not part of a larger piece of equipment.

“It becomes scalable at that point, because I can achieve the same level of efficiency on an 8-row planter as well as on a 48-row planter. It’s the same thing in the spraying. Manufacturers are getting down to control individual nozzles to deliver product at a much higher resolution.”

“Another contributing factor to increasing efficiency will be machine automation. Companies like Kinze have been publicly demonstrating autonomous grain cart systems, which operate in sync with combines to reduce downtime. As the grain carts fill, operators aren’t looking back or missing it.

“If I’m a farmer, that’s attractive because I can’t afford to have grain on the ground because it’s costing me money. Plus, machines are getting so big, weight and compaction will be a concern as a limiting yield factor. We’ll start to see farmers more conscious of minimizing the percentage of acres trafficked year-to-year.

“One of the challenges for farmers is that even the largest combines have 400 bushel tanks and they’re not building them any bigger. Manufacturers are building more horsepower and more capacity through the header and threshing.

“The big issue now, is keeping grain away from the combine. A way to capture additional efficiency is to not allow grain carts to run across the field, because there is a yield gain if I can manage that better. It’s not so much speed, but reducing downtime. Farmers aren’t harvesting any faster, but keeping that harvester running, with limited or no downtime. It’s too expensive of a machine to let it sit.”