How & Why Do Farmers Use GPS in Farming?
By Finn McCuhil
Technology seems to have invaded every area of modern life. Farming is no exception to this rule. Just as tractors replaced draft horses as the main energy source to drive planting and harvesting equipment, global positioning systems have replaced human eyes and experienced guesswork in tractor guidance, field location, leveling and a number of other tasks.
Prior to the wide availability of GPS, tractor operators relied on visual cues to keep furrows aligned. Whether these were straight or following the contour of the field, making efficient use of the available land required constant attention when guiding the plow. GPS, along with other modern guidance technology and automatic steering systems, can place furrows in a field with millimeter precision.
On smaller farms, relying on known landmarks can be an accurate method for determining a field's boundaries. Relying on visual clues may not be accurate enough when laying out large, relatively featureless tracts of land. Challenges due to the absence of trees, roads or other recognizable landmarks are overcome with reliable GPS readings to relay boundary information to the farmer. These readings also provide reliable navigation information in low visibility conditions like fog, darkness or heavy rain, and allow operations that may otherwise be difficult or dangerous without visual feedback.
Planting and Fertilization
Once a field is plowed, GPS information can be used to control accurate seed placement within the furrows. Older methods of “broadcasting” seeds by using mechanical spreaders to toss seeds randomly over the top of the plowed field wasted almost as much seed as was planted. Using controlled methods to insert seeds directly into the furrows reduces waste and cost. Fertilization can be done using the same method. In addition to precision placement of seeds and fertilizer, soil samples can also be taken, analyzed and identified by location to test for nutrients required for successful crop growth. This allows the farmer to apply fertilizer only to the areas that need it.
As with any other business, profitable farming requires efficient use of available resources. GPS systems provide a number of cost-effective alternatives to older methods of planting, raising and harvesting crops. Lower costs mean higher potential profits. A higher profit margin can make the difference between a good year and a bad year on any farm and, for many farmers, is sufficient reason to embrace the latest technology.
Finn McCuhil is a freelance writer based in Northern Michigan. He worked as a reporter and columnist in South Florida before becoming fascinated with computers. After studying programming at University of South Florida, he spent more than 20 years heading up IT departments at three tier-one automotive suppliers. He now builds wooden boats in the north woods.