Since the Downs family has implemented auto-steer into all of their tractors, they have noticed they are more mindful of the operating condition of their equipment.

MOLT, Mont. – It’s springtime on the prairie and as a Montana farmer, Will Downs is in a constant battle with Mother Nature – racing to get the seeds in the ground before the fields get too wet.

“We’ve been having rain for the last few days,” Will said.

The persistent moisture, although good for the overall health of the land and soil, has come at an inconvenient time. Will, his brother, Weston, and his dad, Kevin, are trying to wrap up planting.

The winter wheat, of course, and malt barley are planted, but the rainfall has delayed planting on the last few acres of peas for the dryland farmers. 

There is no rest for the weary though, and the trio of Downs farmers are busy nonetheless.

For the first time this year, the Downs will be applying their fertilizer using variable rate spreading. This method allows them to more effectively apply their fertilizer and pinpoint areas of application, but it also means updating the GPS systems on some of their equipment. A tech came out to the farm to help with that process. Will admits upgrading GPS systems is way out of his area of expertise.

Will also worked with an agronomist to collect soil samples and create yield maps of the fields before they implement this new approach.

The field of farming is always advancing technologically, and the Downs farm has kept up with the times.

When the Downs family first installed auto-steer into some of their equipment, the investment paid itself off in no time, so now all their tractors have it.

“You can’t afford not to have auto-steer. In today’s farm economy you have to make every penny count,” Will stated.

In addition, Will explained his family has found they pay more attention to the overall condition of their equipment, staying more in tune to break downs, since they added auto-steer to them all.

“We can’t be on our phones all the time,” he says with a chuckle.

Currently, the auto-steer tractors the Downs use are capable of driving lines, but someone has to take the wheel in order to make the turns at the end of every row. There are some companies out there that have tractors capable of turning on their own, but because Will and his family farm relatively large tracts of hilly land that is prone to experiencing wash-outs and ravines, a fully autonomous tractor wouldn’t be conducive to their operation.

Looking ahead, it’s time to start thinking about spreading fertilizer and urea to the crops. On average, this process begins about the first of May. In-crop applications for grass and broad leaf will start about then too. Then there is the fungicide, which must be applied to the winter wheat and malt barley.

“We will be able to get in the field and spread fertilizer as soon as the maps are ready,” Will stated.

Even though planting has been slightly delayed, Will is not worried. Working side-by-side with his dad and brother means they can easily divide and conquer if things start to overlap.