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Autonomous Equipment Will Drive Row Crop Consolidation

Category: Ag Business, Ag Consulting, Technology | No Comments

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5a0f84b364e5a.image-1.jpgIf you’d like to catch up in the series discussing the major factors in row crop consolidation, check our previous articles discussing farmer age and technology as the first two of the five major contributing factors. Continuing with the second factor, technology , we will look at two facets: equipment utilizing technology and the Big Data resulting from technology. This article focuses on equipment and the next will focus on Big Data.

Autonomous equipment has the potential to be a disruptive force in crop agriculture; it certainly will cause turmoil in the major farm equipment companies. For years they have focused their efforts and money on producing bigger and bigger equipment. A change-over to small equipment would require completely making over or rebuilding and retooling their factories. It would be a lot easier for them if farmers would just keep on using their ever-larger tractors, combines, etc.

However, the future of ag is irrefutable. We are going to small equipment. Will it be swarms of tiny units or 30-50 hp equipment operating individually in smaller fields or as two or more units in large fields? Maybe it’s not either-or. Farms may find some combination of the two will provide maximum service and efficiency.

Big vs. small equipment

The first issue of autonomous equipment is big vs. small. Despite the best efforts of the large farm equipment manufacturers, theirs is a failed strategy of autonomous large equipment (which may still have a place in South America or Eastern Europe where fields can be 1000 acres) or the leader-follower concept. Just think of the logistics: You put a large tractor in an 80-100-acre field to do a task and two hours later you have to move it to another field. That move requires a person, so what have you saved? Smaller equipment is needed to work autonomously 24/7, and these small pieces can be put in a field and left to run until that field is complete, whether that means 10 or 30 hours.

What will happen to the big equipment… and those who own it?

Since the change to smaller, autonomous equipment is certain to happen, the next questions we must ask are, “What will become of all the big equipment currently out there? What value will it have?” That may depend on when a farmer converts to the smaller equipment. If the conversion is early on, those early adopters can sell their big pieces to slower adopters. Late adopters will be forced to junk out their big pieces; they will have become dinosaurs. Think of those really big IBM computers bought for millions of dollars which could be bought for pennies on the dollar after micro-technology hit.

How will U.S. farmers respond to this conversion to smaller, autonomous equipment?

Mindset will be a huge factor. To be a farmer, do you have to drive equipment? Our forefathers thought they had to drive horses to be a farmer. They learned, when they began using tractors, that their identity as farmers did not depend upon their horses. How will today’s farmers make the mental shift from driving large equipment to sitting (or having others sit) in a control room and overseeing pre-programmed equipment as it works their fields autonomously? That remains to be seen. We realize this will not be, for most, an easy mental and psychological transition because it also changes our perception of ourselves as farmers. Am I really a farmer if I don’t drive farm equipment? However, we also see a very bright side to the use of smaller equipment: Smaller farming operations will be able to afford this equipment more easily. This could be a factor that allows at least some small farms to remain in business, especially those farmers who have found their competitive “niche.”

Just a few days ago I read this press release from Fendt. I encourage you to follow the link and read this article about their MARS (mobile agricultural robot swarms).

Here's another article featuring one of our members, MBS Family Farms, using AutoCart software by Smart Ag allowing a tractor pulling a grain cart to autonomously follow a corn harvester for offloading. The picture shown above in this article features the AutoCart software being used. 

Farm more acres with less people

I consider autonomous equipment a key factor in consolidation because it allows one person to farm a lot more acres in many different locations with an entirely different approach to farming. Essentially, all I have to have is the capital to pay the costs. Control of those locations may not even be on the farm; a control room could be established somewhere remote and one person or a few people can oversee equipment on many, many acres and on different farm locations. (Think of military autonomous equipment operated in the Mideast from a remote location in California.) Locally, the job will be to service the units, put in seed and chemicals, handle repairs in the event of breakdowns, and, if needed, move the equipment from place to place. In some instances, equipment can move itself from field to field. Remember, most pieces will not have cabs or steering wheels; they will be steered electronically from miles or hundreds of miles away.

Autonomous equipment means farming operations of any size are possible

Just imagine what is possible. Autonomous equipment - along with clean GIS information, automated variable rate, weather stations, staff to manage data (CTO or CIO), electrical/battery/solar power - means the number of acres and location of acreage are no longer limiting factors. Farming operations of any size are possible. Because of their size, those larger operations will have competitive advantages that drive many operations out of business. And that, my friends, will contribute greatly to consolidation. The only contributing factor that could or will have an equal impact on consolidation is capital. BIG capital. Look for the next blog in this series for discussion of that important factor.

The next aspect of Technology is Big Data. If you are interested in how Big Data is related to consolidation in crop agriculture, watch for my next blog on that topic.

By the way, FamilyFarms’ What If? committee has been investigating autonomous equipment since 2009. We continue to aggressively investigate autonomous systems available and in development.

If you are interested in learning more about consolidation and how FamilyFarms Group can help your family preserve your farming legacy, call us at 618-372-7400. You can also click below to schedule a visit with us! 

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