Farm equipment driven by technology instead of human hands could provide non-stop, 24/7 farming in 5 to 10 years.

“The ultimate goal of machine operation is non-stop farming,” according to Randy Baker, president and chief executive officer, Case IH Agricultural Equipment, Inc. “We’re getting to the stage now that fully-autonomous vehicles will be a reality in the farming industry. The technology is available.”

Baker shared his futuristic vision of how mechanized agriculture will reshape U.S. agriculture in his keynote address during the 3rd annual Southwest Agricultural Summit in Yuma, Ariz., in March.

Real time kinematics (RTK) and standard global positioning systems (GPS) can autonomously operate a tractor or combine in the field, Baker says. The only human involvement would refuel the equipment and service with seed, fertilizer, or other products.

“On a 24/7 basis the machine can run until the job is done,” Baker says. This opens the door to accelerated planting when soil conditions are ideal. Technology-driven equipment would benefit farm employers who struggle with finding qualified workers to operate complex equipment.

Case has a prototype tractor that guides itself, Baker said.

While automation can offer numerous benefits, potential technology glitches also raise liability concerns.

“How do you keep the tractor from driving out of the field and into town? That’s a problem,” Baker noted. “How do we make sure there’s a fail-safe control in a tractor, combine, or sprayer?”

Equipment available in the near future will include “smart machines” that quickly configure the operating electronics in new combines and planters.

“Setting up a combine or planter is very complex — it’s like programming your DVD player at home,” Baker compared. “When you bought it you read the manual, but today you wouldn’t remember how to do it.”

Smart machines will prod new equipment to become self-learners. After a brief use in the field, the machine will memorize and establish the performance features.

“The difference between a combine that is set up properly and one that’s not could mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost crop and productivity,” Baker said. “Machines will be less complex for the operator with more pre-programmed load sensing systems to determine how the machine is operating and then make self adjustments internally so the machine runs at its peak performance from day one.”

Equipment manufacturers are also improving worker comfort features including more user-friendly controls; some which resemble the grip on motorcycle handlebars.

To meet increasing restrictions on engine emissions and reduce fuel consumption, Baker said agricultural equipment manufacturers will dole out $2 billion to $4 billion to introduce engines in 2011 and 2012 that achieve Tier 4 non-road emission standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Air Non-road Diesel Rule mandates a 90 percent reduction in particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions from future non-road diesel engines. EPA is also decreasing the allowable level of sulfur in non-road diesel fuel by more than 99 percent.

“These engines will be the cleanest diesel engines ever produced by industry,” Baker said. “It comes at an enormous price.”

Case IH is taking two approaches: improved standard diesel engines plus alternative fuel sources and hybrid technology which could be fueled by hydrogen, electricity, or propane.

“At some point in time you’ll actually see diesel engines fade away in about the 10-year horizon,” Baker said. “If manufacturers aren’t thinking about the next type of power system, we won’t be ready for the future.”

On the issue of renewable fuels, Baker says biofuels remain a viable, renewable energy source. About 30 percent of the U.S. corn crop generates about 15 billion gallons of ethanol. Corn represents about 70 percent of an ethanol plant’s operating costs. Ethanol currently replaces about 10 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption, he says.

“The debate on whether ethanol is a viable source of energy is really not much of a debate anymore,” Baker said. “The energy-out versus energy-in (issue) is balanced. Ethanol is a profitable business with or without subsidies.”

The U.S. oil industry spent $100 million last year on negative press telling the public that ethanol is a bad form of energy, the Case IH leader says. Biomass production for ethanol will become a major player in the next few years. Corncobs as a biomass could produce about 5 billion gallons of ethanol.

Switchgrass, a tall, perennial forage crop that resembles sugarcane, is touted as one of the leading biomass crops for conversion to cellulosic ethanol. Switchgrass is native to North America and was part of the mix in the tall grass prairies that covered most of the Great Plains.

The U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture predict that 1 billion tons of biomass will be required annually to produce enough biofuel to replace 30 percent of the U.S. consumption of petroleum by 2030.

How to physically cut switchgrass and package it for delivery to an ethanol plant needs addressing, Baker says. “You don’t take a standard forage harvester through it.”

On the financial health of U.S. agriculture, Baker called 2008 a tremendous year tied to many record commodity prices. He predicts 2009 will be “healthy and very favorable” for agriculture. While input costs are high this year, overall commodity prices have not dropped to the level where net farm income is unprofitable. Baker predicts $3.25 to $3.75/bushel corn this year.

Worldwide, Brazil’s agricultural industry is enduring tough times from tight financing requirements which limit equipment purchases. Even obtaining a line of credit to plant a crop is difficult, Baker says.

Agriculture in Europe is healthy except in the dairy sector due to lower milk prices. Meanwhile Argentinian agriculture is hurting financially, while it’s mostly business as usual in Asia. Baker says several former Soviet countries are bankrupt and some farms may not plant a crop this year.

email: cblake@farmpress.com