R+D spend continues at record levels, and John Deere reckons to be in a good position to exit the four-year industry downturn in a strong position. Addressing journalists at an Agritechnica press conference last week, president Mark von Pentz of the company’s agricultural and turf division (Europe, CIS, Asia, Africa and global tractor platform) added that the company has also strengthened its position with recent acquisitions, such as sprayer manufacturers Hagie and Mazzotti. Plus, there was the US$300 million acquisition of California-based firm Blue River Technology.

The latter is interesting and expected to play an increasingly important role for Deere in the future. According to Mr von Pentz, 90% of all chemicals currently used do not reach a weed or a sick plant. “Only 10% reaches the target and there is a significant potential to reduce wastage,” he said.

His message is to think of Blue River as a form of lean factory manufacturing, but then in the field. “This company takes precision farming to the next level, breaking it down from 10m² plots to individual plants for a 90% reduction in the use of chemicals. Also, only 50% of nitrogen is currently used by crop plants, so there is plenty of opportunity to use similar technology to apply individual plants with fertiliser.”

Blue River has successfully applied machine learning to agricultural sprayers and Mr von Pentz is confident that similar technology can be used in the future on a wider range of products. It is possible we could see something at the next Agritechnica in 2019.

AutoTrac Implement Guidance

Increased precision is not just for the future, and a product that will be much earlier to market (possibly within the next 12 to 18 months) is a tractor integrated implement steering for mechanical hoes called AutoTrac Implement Guidance.

Developed jointly with John Deere subsidiary Monosem, and designed to provide an alternative to spraying in row crops, the technique combines a camera with GPS to steer both the tractor and row-crop cultivator.

Sideways movements of the implement are controlled by an electro-hydraulic control unit on the tractor. There is no side shift frame. Instead, it works with lower link arm hydraulic stabilisers. Controlled by a tractor integrated control circuit, using camera images from the hoe the system calculates the distance of the elements to the crop rows.

As well as steering in straight rows, the system is claimed to be accurate on slopes and when turning corners. Corrections and cross shifts of more than 500mm of the hoe’s tools are possible, while two patented hydraulic disc coulters provide precise tracking accuracy at speeds of up to 16km/hr.

The tractor is controlled in the same way, with both the camera and StarFire GPS receiver mounted onto the cab. Deere says that when used in combination with the iTEC Pro headland management system, it is possible to automate weed control.

With over 300,000 AutoTrac systems on the market, John Deere says it wants to make precision agriculture more mainstream. “Mechanical weeding is not new but we have found a way to speed it up and at the same time increase accuracy,” added Mr von Pentz.