Technology is great, but it can be frustrating to know what to by and when, so that you don’t feel it’s already obsolete when you walk out the door.  

 For example, while farmers recognize the benefits of GPS-related tools such as lightbars, yield monitors and auto guidance, it’s hard to sink lots of money into equipment without knowing when they’ll recoup the investment, says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, a Purdue University agricultural economist.

 Farmers should not expect site-specific tools to remain viable any longer than their home computers, he notes. That’s about three years. “A three-year-old computer is almost worthless, so if you can make the technology pay off in three years then it’s probably a good investment,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. “If you use it longer than that or you can sell it for something at the end of those three years, it’s a bonus.”

Site-specific technology does not come cheap. Lightbars, which help guide equipment in straight rows without skip or overlap, cost $2,000 to $4,000. Yield-monitor units that track harvested bushels per acre, range from $6,000 to $10,000. A GPS auto-guidance system can cost as much as $60,000.

“The faster the payoff, the better off you are purchasing the technology,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. That’s one reason why GPS lightbars sold well when they were introduced. The cost was relatively low; farmers did some calculating and determined it could pay off in a year.

Today, about 75 percent of custom operators in the Midwest will use lightbars, compared with 5 percent in 1999. “That’s an enormously rapid adoption, and the quick payoff was a key reason,” he adds. 

 Not all site-specific equipment is obsolete in a few years but, like computers, you will need to update older systems. “Sometimes it’s possible to make improvements through software upgrades or by putting in a new chip,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. He points to the yield monitor as an example. Some of the first ones introduced in 1992/1993 are still in use. The company put in a new chip with the new algorithms, and the monitors were good to go.

Here are some points to consider for site-specific purchases.

  • What problem does the equipment solve? For example, auto guidance is popular with older farmers with physical limitations. The technology allows those producers to extend their farming careers.
  • Compatibility between equipment and farm machinery. Compatibility has improved, says Lowenberg-DeBoer. “Many companies have moved to an open architecture-type arrangement, where it’s easier to share or mix and match equipment and software.” There are some companies that still keep proprietary software and hardware. “They can get away with it, in part, because of brand loyalty,” he adds.
  • Tech support. Original equipment manufacturers are often less qualified or able to provide service on factory-installed, site-specific equipment than after-market companies who sell the products. “Farm-equipment manufacturers are in the business of selling iron, not electronics; whereas the precision-agriculture, after-market companies are selling electronics,” notes Lowenberg-DeBoer.

He advises doing your own analysis of what will work on your farm. What works for your neighbor may not work for you. “Some manufacturers offer information about what you can do with a particular kind of equipment. Also, some universities have studied how real people use equipment when they take it out to the field, how well it works and how likely it is to pay off,” he says.

Purdue’s Site-Specific Management Center offers additional information on agricultural technology at its Web site, located at http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/ssmc/.