First Steps to Space Age Technology in your Tractor

As published in Grower, August 2009.

We often hear about how the aerospace industry has given us so much, and how many human activities are gaining the benefit of new technologies.   GPS or satellite navigation, is an everyday tool in many industries and recreational pursuits and farmers are becoming big users too. 
Let’s turn the clock back for a moment.
In July forty years ago, we heard the news that Armstrong and Aldrin had set down on the face of the moon and mankind had taken its first step, on soil in space.  Historic limitations were swept aside by a decision.  JFK said it, and NASA did it, and after a huge team effort (400,000 people contributed to the project) NASA astronaut  Jim Lovell was able to say… “From now on we’ll live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.”
Apollo 11’s on-board computer, had 36Kb of memory – that’s probably less than most emails you send today.  Navigation and fuel capacity were determined after long-winded calculations, on slide rules and with pencil and paper.  Trusting souls, those astronauts.  
Today a cropping tractor equipped with GPS has thousands of times more computing power than all of NASA had back in the sixties.
In New Zealand the adoption of GPS for cropping has been accelerating.  With the current economic conditions and the need for farmers to improve their efficiency, there is growing interest in how GPS and related technology is helping them to be more efficient.  
“It is getting simpler and cheaper to put user friendly, space age technology in your tractor and make your cropping work easier, quicker – and more interesting”.  says Dan Bloomer at LandWISE.
GPS helps farmers to cut costs, to reduce the number of operations in their system and to make more money.  In fact, GPS providers here and in the US, report that the demand for precision agriculture equipment is growing while their other sectors contract in the current “r”.  
The LandWISE Advanced Farming Systems project is promoting the use of such technology in vegetable growing and cropping.  It is sponsored by the MAF Sustainable Farming Fund, Regional Councils, growers and other suppliers.
“It gets easier and easier to use GPS and we keep finding new ways to apply it in our system, whether to plant, weed, harvest or gather site data to manage nutrients, soil and irrigation. It is an indispensable tool for what we do ”. says Scott Lawson of True Earth Organics.
GPS is simple to use.  When James Powrie started at LandWISE last November, Hugh Ritchie gave him 15 minutes of training on his Trimble RTK GPS, before leaving  James, to finish subsoiling a squash paddock. 
“It was easy and fun and the driving was bullet straight, within a cm or two of the line.   I can’t say the work was all mine though”. 
The tractor was steering itself, with help of an autosteer system controlled by GPS via computer and the tractor’s own hydraulic system.

The LandWISE website, at is full of information, articles and events for anyone interested in technology in cropping.  The LandWISE conference, in May each year, is a great place to come before you take a small step of your own, or to learn more about Advanced Farming Systems and Precision Agriculture. 
We may also be able to put you in touch with farmers in your neighbourhood  who are using Advanced Farming Systems and GPS, if you would like to see the technology at work.  Email or call LandWISE for information.
LandWISE is a forum for sharing information on new technology for smarter farming and on farm research.  For more on LandWISE field days, discussion groups, events and membership, go to or phone James Powrie 06 6504531.

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