Arable farmers are still waiting for full-scale autonomous systems to make sense financially.
Arable farmer, Australia
- Gerrit Kurstjens was born and raised in the Netherlands, where he started a contracting company, then later a manure transport company and from 1985 he ran a construction company for manure transport and manure spreading machines.
- In 1996 he sold this company and was planning to take a (semi) pension. He wanted to live in the Netherlands for 6 months a year and the other 6 months in Australia. In practice, things went very differently. He now lives in Australia for at least 10 to 11 months a year.
- Since 2001, he has bought several farms in Australia as an investment to rent out. In 2006 he bought an arable farm of 11,000 ha and started to work on it himself.
Automation has existed for many years in the aircraft and mining industries. In the container and warehouse industry, moving goods autonomously is completely normal. So, why then is this not the case with farm equipment?
Not suitable or economical for crop farms
It seems that every day somewhere in the world, a new futuristic autonomous farm machine is being developed that is “coming to the market soon”. But in practice, they are often not suitable or economical for crop farms. The arable farming industry is still waiting for full-scale autonomous machines to make sense financially.
For instance, Australian farmers are not interested in replacing their 24 meter wide planter with two 12 meter wide planters pulled by two separate tractors controlled by one operator. And does it make sense for a farmer to replace his 48 meter wide sprayer with a swarm of four spot sprayers, that are controlled from the edge of the field with a tablet? If this turns out to be more expensive, the answer obviously is ‘no’.
What farmers do need, is an “autonomous add-on” for their existing tractors
Do farmers need a tractor without a cab – just to show it is indeed an autonomous tractor? Of course not, they want to “feel” the machine when they have to test the field for areas that may be too wet and too soft to work on, or whilst making sure the implement is working correctly in different areas of the field. What farmers do need, is an “autonomous add-on” for their existing tractors.
Millions of dollars are spent on the development of autonomous systems. That is all very exciting stuff, but if the result is not economical for farmers, why should they bother to invest in it?
Less chemicals and less labour
Farmers want to be able to perform repetitive tasks like weed control using less chemicals and less labour. If they are happy with the adjustment of the machine for a new task, they’d like to switch on the autonomous control and go home. They are struggling to find workers who are prepared to sit – like a sack of potatoes – the whole day and night on the tractor doing nothing. Broadacre crop farmers in Australia must cover twice as many ha to produce the same amount of crops as their colleagues in areas that receive more rainfall.
Controlled Traffic Farming
One way to do this is with economies of scale. It is no wonder that most farms in our area cover over 5,000 ha. The adoption of Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) solves the problem of compaction caused by heavy machinery. No-Till and spot spraying are already standard practice.
Autonomous systems could very well become standard practice, as long as those systems meet the practical requirements of farmers and an investment makes financial sense. It seems we haven’t reached that point yet.