Machinery trend photo

Soil management is becoming a greater issue as machinery gets bigger. Tracks on this combine are one way to combat soil compaction that might reduce productivity.

Over the years, tracking equipment trends seems to have been an exercise in seeing just how large equipment can get.

Tractors and combines continue to get more powerful. Tillage equipment, planters and seeding equipment can cover more ground with each pass. Hay tools produce large round and square bales, some now weighing in at more than a ton each.

According to Eric Lescourret, director of strategic marketing for AGCO North America, there are several factors associated with the reason we have been seeing bigger and higher capacity equipment.

“It was mostly based on labor shortages and wanting to get more productivity out of the labor that we have,” he says. “Farms are getting bigger. And it’s tougher to find good labor. So it’s really all about efficiency, productivity and the scarcity of labor.”

Lescourret notes, though, that farmers are encountering a variety of issues with larger equipment, including transporting equipment from field to field and the lack of flexibility from a fleet management standpoint.

“I would argue that if a producer has all their eggs in one basket, say one or two very large pieces of equipment, it makes their options very limited if they have a piece of equipment out of service for an extended period,” Lescourret said.

“Compaction is also an issue,” he said. “Soil management is becoming a greater issue. One might think you’d get more productivity by getting bigger. However, soil compaction might well take away that productivity with negative effects on yields.”

For AGCO, John Deere and other manufacturers, the answer is about right-sizing equipment for the operation.

“As we look at machines today, John Deere is focused on taking the attention away from ‘bigger’ towards ‘easier, smarter and more precise,’” says Beverly Flores, North American media relations and communications manager for John Deere.

“We are doing that with the combination of equipment, technology and dealer support. Each one of those plays an important role in making sure that not only does the grower have the right equipment, but also the right equipment for the job, and that it performs as expected.”

Flores says Bigger could mean horsepower, capacity, fuel tanks or other features.

“We have to understand why those are important to the grower,” she says.

Right-sizing equipment for a producer’s operation is one of many trends to watch. Other trends include new technologies, especially machine-to-machine communication and autonomous tractors, improved accuracy even with greater speeds, reduced dealer inventories and the increasing popularity of leasing.

“Precision farming, which began with guidance and accuracy, has evolved to help reduce input costs, save time, increase operator comfort and cover more acres,” says Flores. “By using GPS technology and correction signals, self-propelled equipment can be guided to a repeatable accuracy through the field within an inch of accuracy, which allows the operator to focus on additional operational activities in the cab.”

She offered the example of optimally setting a combine.

“Historically, an operator would set a combine at the start of the day. As conditions change, the operator may notice a change in the quality of the job and has to fine-tune those combine settings manually,” Flores says. “With the S700 Series Combine equipped with Combine Advisor, that operator sets his machine parameters at the start of his day, and the machine monitors the quality of the harvest job and adjusts settings incrementally to maintain that performance throughout the day.”

AGCO is also working on various technologies that could change the very face of crop farming, including something it calls MARS or Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms.

“This project is really the opposite of getting bigger with equipment,” says Lescourret. “It’s actually getting to smaller equipment. Autonomous, single units with integrated logistics. Very light with low compaction and all automated. It’s already in some other industries, and it’s coming to agriculture.”

Lescourret notes the advances in technologies are well ahead of what the market is prepared to accept. In other words, many crop producers are not quite ready to make the transition or dedicate the investments required to obtain and operate such advanced technologies.

Farmers, though, have been embracing new equipment and practices that promote faster cultivating and planting. With the change in climate, weather has become even more unpredictable, and the windows of opportunity have become smaller to prep fields and get crops planted.

Recently, AGCO announced its Crop Tour 2017 on-farm research and demonstration program that culminates in a series of field events showing comparisons of different tillage, high-speed planting and in-season cropping practices.

“The Crop Tour is a way for us to learn about agronomic impacts from different practices, from a machine-use perspective,” says Lescourret. “We can show that we can cultivate and plant faster, very accurately. And we have the data to back it up.”

Each of the 10-acre demonstration fields includes strips comparing plant emergence, season-long plant progress and yield impact due to certain variables that include residue management and seed-to-soil contact. All plots were planted with the White Planter 9800VE series planter featuring the Precision Planting SpeedTube seed delivery system. Some locations also demonstrated the new Sunflower SF6830 high-speed rotary finisher.

“What we’re trying to see is how fast we can go to take advantage of the short windows of opportunity, while still optimizing yields,” adds Lescourret. “You can see that in the way we are developing our planters, tillage equipment and sprayers. Certainly speed is critical. So is accuracy.”

Producers are seeing trends at their local dealerships, as well. For example, inventories of new, large agricultural equipment are below previous years’.

“The largest capital investment our dealers are facing is inventories,” says Lescourret. “… It’s a balance between having too much and not having enough. Pre-sells are the best option, of course. And from the customer’s viewpoint, ordering a piece of equipment can make the most sense, as well, since they can customize that equipment based on their own needs.

“That said, the compact and utility equipment market is quite a bit different. Adequate inventories are essential for taking care of those customers.”

As for new equipment leasing, this approach has shown positive trends for producers who want to better manage cash flow, obtain a newer piece of equipment every few years and control maintenance and repair costs. Buyers of off-lease equipment have seen real advantages to those machines, as well.