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Precision ag data to go wireless

Use of global positioning systems for variable-rate and yield-mapping applications really boomed with the arrival of autosteering tools on tractor, sprayer and combine cabs. But no matter how new or sophisticated your setup, someone still has to slog a flash drive or compact flash card from office to machine and back to transfer the latest A-B lines for guidance, prescription information or other data. But those days may be ending as new networking technologies come on stream.

Farm Progress recently got a look at one system — Trimble’s Connected Farm — at work on two farms. Both farmers like what they see.

Whenever Doug Chaffer finished planting an Illinois field, the FmX terminal mounted in his tractor cab packaged up the data and sent it into a queue to be uploaded to his home office. Once the tractor pulled within range of the office’s wireless network, the FmX automatically uploaded the data to Trimble’s server.

From there, he could access it via his office computer. For Chaffer, a wireless hot spot made more sense than purchasing a 3G wireless Internet network card and a monthly plan to go with it.

Key Points

• Linking farm office to field machine boosts operating efficiency.

• Communications technology makes it easy to use the system.

• Time savings can cover the cost for larger or complex operations.

Don Bennett, general manager of Hartung Brothers Farms, a Wisconsin seed corn producer uses the system to automatically handle field data from three planting tractors and a sprayer. This farm uses an RTK network tower system to port massive data — without shuffling memory sticks and compact flash cards (see sidebar).

How it works

The wireless data transfer concept being launched this year by Trimble will become common in the future. Raven Industries (with its Slingshot Field Hub) and other companies are also developing it. We’ll use the Trimble approach to describe the basic principles.

“The key advantage of these systems is the seamless deliver of data,” says Ian Harley, Trimble business unit manager for information management. The company is leveraging its Farm Works acquisition as the tech backbone for a system that links office to field machines.

The system harnesses data transfer via either a cellular modem or a Wi-Fi connection to move data back and forth between office and machine. However, you’re not sending the information directly to either point. Instead, the information moves over the Web to a server in the “middle,” and from the server to the end point.

Say you want to send an A-B line to an operator’s tractor 20 miles away that’s ready to plant. You simply select the guidance data for that field and tell the software to send it to the designated machine (each tractor, sprayer or combine is individually identified in the software).

Once the operators see the information is available to the cab’s terminal, they download it and go. The process takes only seconds.

When the field’s planted, that data can move back through the Web connection back to the main office. Raw data is preserved in the server. But any processing or map-making you do on your end resides in your office system.

“We’re able to leverage the Farm Works system with this program. All we’re talking about adding is an additional module to the software. The farmer already knows how to use the tool,” Harley says.

Paying the bills

The system’s cost comes in three parts. One is the Connected Farm, including Farm Works, which is $500 per user per year for all data storage and transfer, software support, upgrades and service.

The FmX terminal costs $50 per month, or $600 per year. Then there’s the communication tool.

For those using existing Wi-Fi Web hookups to transfer data, there’d be no charge for the service. If you use a cellular modem, that has a monthly service charge per modem. But this data transfer system will save time and offer instant access.

To learn more about the system, visit

Link office with machine for value

Trimble’s Connected Farm system gives Hartung Brothers’ general manager, Don Bennett, more time to focus on managing the Wisconsin farm’s seed operations. Early this year, the business upgraded its precision ag equipment.

“We have the new systems on three planting tractors and a new sprayer,” explains Joe Hartung, the lead on this tech venture. The farm uses an RTK network tower located on a neighbor’s farm. Hartung Brothers has long used management zones, dividing acres into 1/100th-acre blocks for soil sampling and yield mapping. Teamed with precision steering, they can manage every acre for the right hybrids and crosses.

Working the numbers

First, Hartung upgraded receivers to the Trimble FmX integrated display — making flash drives no longer necessary to move guidance data from office to machine. Instead, they port that information through the Trimble server to the tractor or sprayer, using Farm Works software and cellular modems.

“We’re spending $54 per month for modems in each machine,” Hartung says. Sounds like a lot.

But Bennett pipes up: “If you have a tractor at a field waiting for data to be driven out to it, you have two people tied up for as much as an hour or more. That’s easily more expensive in that once instance that the $54-per-month cell charge.” On a diversified operation, with several full-time employees, knowing those costs helps with the math for this new-tech investment.

Data flows from field to office easily. Hartung can make maps quickly and knows what planting is finished almost as soon as it is done.

This is not a “real-time” system. Data goes back and forth in batches — but still faster and easier than moving cards or memory sticks back and forth.

How big an operation does Hartung think it takes to see payback? “I think if you have two tractors and operators, this system pays for itself in time savings,” he estimates.


COMMAND CENTER: Joe Hartung helps manage planting and harvesting data for Hartung Brothers’ seed corn business via data flowing from the fields right into his office over a Connected Farm system.

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.