The tractor goes high tech

By Emilie Eaton

January 28, 2014 - 12:21 pm
Today's machinery can adjust fertilizer needs in different parts of a field using GPS coordinates. Submitted

Second in a four-part series on the business of agriculture in Maricopa

Farmers have used tractors for a long time.

There’s debate about when the first tractor was invented — some trace it back as early as 1769, others say 1892, and some say 1904. Regardless, tractors have been around for a while.

And today, engineers and specialists at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center are improving and building on already-established technology to make farming tools like the tractor even better and more efficient.

For example, engineers show growers how to use automatic steering on tractors, they experiment with technology that allows farmers to fertilize a field at different levels, and they create algorithms to help crops grow healthy and robust.

But it’s not all about technology and engineering. Pedro Andrade, a precision ag specialist who created the center’s precision agriculture program, said one of the most important parts of his job is working with the community.

“There’s an element of research that we do and there’s another big chunk of our time being used for extension, for education outreach,” he said. “We want our growers to advance technologically.”

Bob Roth, the center’s interim resident director, said the precision agriculture program is one of many programs in the center that works within the community.

“It’s a way of taking that technology and having people learn it, use it and adapt to it,” he said.

The University of Arizona is a land-grant university, a designation the federal government gives to one university in each state to promote agriculture. Instead of focusing solely on research and teaching, the university also focuses on extension, Roth said. Maricopa’s Agricultural Center is one of many centers the University of Arizona has throughout the state.

“The extension part is rather unique,” he said.

The university’s focus on extension and engagement within the community is an important resource to growers, Andrade said.

“Our job is to provide them with unbiased, specific information about technology and how that applies to Arizona,” he said.

That information comes in many forms. Andrade and his team will provide growers with reviews of different products and brands, show them how to use new technology, and demonstrate how to implement technology and tools.

“There’re tricks to using the equipment that goes beyond what a manufacturer puts in a pamphlet when they’re trying to sell that equipment,” said John Heun, a research specialist working with Andrade. “They’re saying what it can do, but they’re not necessarily telling you how to go about doing it.”

Getting that information to farmers and workers benefits farmers, Andrade said.

“At the end of the day he makes more acres because it’s easier for that operator to cover more ground,” he said. “It’s one less thing that he needs to worry about. Driving a tractor, at the end of the day, you get tired. Eight hours holding that steering wheel, it’s very physical.”

Automatic steering is just the beginning of new farming technology. For example, farmers can now use machinery that surveys a crop and determines if it’s healthy or not. Then, engineers at Maricopa’s Agricultural Center can create an algorithm to determine what needs to be done to help those crops.

There’s also technology allowing farmers to automatically prescribe fertilizer at different levels. For example, if one part of the field needs more fertilizer than another, the machinery can detect what area needs more using GPS coordinates. Then the technology will apply it accordingly.

The specialists at the extension work with all of these technologies, and sometimes integrate them, or make changes to the technology.

This type of information technology will continue to grow, Andrade said. And one day, a lot of the technologies will be integrated so a tractor, for instance, can automatically steer, detect what’s needed in the soil, and prescribe it — all at the same time.

Farmers have used tractors for a long time and it looks like they’ll continue to.

“Tractors themselves, the power unit, will be around for, maybe, forever,” Andrade said. 

Day One – It’s a Miracle: Scotts plant turns waste into products for yards
Day Two – The tractor goes high tech
Day Three – A fun field of study
Day Four – Crop of the Cream

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