High-Tech Retrofitting of Farm
Adding sensors and computers to farm implements such as these can help farmers
run more cost-efficient and environmentally sound precision
As farming moves into the 21st century with tractors carrying satellite
navigation receivers, radar guns, and computers, one thing hasn't changed
The urge of farmers to retrofit existing equipment to save money and perhaps
do the job better is infectious. It spreads to private industry and government
representatives who work with farmers. From this interchange, new farm
equipment is born.
So it should be no surprise to see this old-fashioned ingenuity blossoming
with futuristic precision agriculture in equipment sheds at the Beltsville
(Maryland) Agricultural Research Center, or BARC, which is part of USDA's
Agricultural Research Service.
Precision agriculture means farming with on-the-go monitoring of yields and
soil types, as well as of chemical and manure applications. Global Positioning
System (GPS) satellites are used to spatially locate tractors and other farm
equipment in a field.
In the BARC equipment yard, Dan Shirley sits in the cab of a tractor towing
a liquid manure tank. He chuckles at the thought that "not for a minute
did the manufacturer of this 486 computer think it would be used to control
manure flow rates."
The tractor typifies space-age agricultural tools: It sports a roof antenna
for satellite signals, a GPS receiver in the cab, and a radar gun below the
cab's floor, to monitor ground speed. Shirley heads a team of eight who form
the land operations branch for the east section of the 7,000-acre research
farm. They are essentially the farmers who see that the crops get planted and
the machines work.
Dan Shirley, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center farm operations branch
supervisor, inspects yield-monitoring sensors his crew installed on a silage
Shirley and other crew members use the equipment to make the center's
farming more sustainable economically and environmentally. The gear is also
used in BARC's precision farming projects.
The center has a variable-rate liquid manure applicator thanks primarily to
crew member John Bouma, nicknamed "The Fabricator."
Bouma also devised one of the few silage harvesters in the world with
on-the-go yield monitoring.
Rockwell International gave Bouma a GPS receiver and computer and a pair of
light-beam sensors. The parts came with no directions, but Bouma figured them
out himself, wearing various hats including those of mechanic, welder,
engineer, and researcher. He wore his pit-stop hat, toobuilding a bracket that
not only keeps the sensors aligned, but also allows their removal and
reinstallation in 2 minutes. That's so the sensors can be cleaned between
silage loads without affecting the alignment.
This bracket sandwiches the sensors on the tube that sucks up harvested
silage. The two sensors send light beams to each other, through holes drilled
in the tube. The denser the silage stream, the less light reaching the sensors,
indicating a higher yield.
Not only did Bouma come through, but he put on an artist's hat for his
standard final touch to equipment modifications: painting the bracket the same
yellow as the New Holland silage harvester.
Bouma succeeded so well with the silage harvester that Rockwell has sold two
farmers on copying him.
Bouma also added a variable rate capability to spreaders used to apply dry
fertilizer as well as liquid manure. His next assignment: do the same with a
dry-manure spreader. By Don
Comis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Dan Shirley is with the USDA-ARS
Farm Operations Branch, Bldg. 301,
10300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2350; phone (301) 504-8448, fax
"High-Tech Retrofitting of Farm Machinery" was published in
the November 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click here to see this issue's table of