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Manage your farm fleet

The trucking industry is adopting technology to ramp up its strategic fleet management. Is it time for farmers to get on board too?

It’s standard now for truck companies to use GPS and sensors to track operations and vehicle maintenance from a central office. Driver performance gets recorded, efficiency gets analyzed and truck costs get scrutinized, not to mention all the stats that need to get pulled together for government paperwork in the transportation sector.

On the farm, though, progress isn’t so fast. And it’s true that finding out whether our tractors are idling at Tim Horton’s isn’t really a problem for most of us, and we don’t need to file the same kind of endless road reports.

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Even so, the costs to own, operate and maintain farm equipment are huge for today’s farmers, and the pay offs for efficient co-ordination of equipment and reduced downtime can be bigger than ever.

But how do we achieve those goals?

Rob Saik, founder of AgriTrend Agrology, based in Red Deer, Alta. still remembers the day 30 years ago when he was putting in some crop and he needed a wrench, but was eight miles from home. He drove all the way back to the shop only to find out when he finally got back to the field that a bolt had snapped too, and he had to make the round trip all over again.

It’s the sort of snafu that most farmers at the time experienced. Talk about downtime… and frustration!

Then along came two-way radios, cell phones, texting and, more recently, GPS, and the picture felt like it was getting a lot better.

But there is more. Beyond agronomic data, today’s GPS systems and the computer sensors on our farm equipment can wirelessly transfer data that can be used to maintain, fix, move and co-ordinate equipment like never before.

Plus, that wireless capability brings in the potential to link our machines directly to the experts at the dealership.

Welcome to the new world of farm fleet management.

By integrating the dealership into field operations, fleet management technology can not only prevent breakdowns, but improve efficiency and curb operating costs too.
By integrating the dealership into field operations, fleet management technology can not only prevent breakdowns, but improve efficiency and curb operating costs too. photo: AGCO

Farm equipment that can communicate data directly to the home office or a dealership’s computers will facilitate tracking a machine’s exact location, how it is operating, and whether something will fail shortly or needs to be fixed.

A crew can then be sent out to the field right away with the proper part, reducing or potentially even eliminating downtime. No more frustrating wrench runs.

Plus, since locations are known, the job of co-ordinating equipment and inputs can be more efficient. If fuel or fertilizer is getting low, a truck can be organized so it’s waiting at exactly the right time at exactly the right end of the right row. Even lunch could be delivered hot.

One example of this type of system is AGCO’s AGCommand Fuse. This enables a central program to connect data with vehicles, either by USB or wireless. A typical new Challenger tractor has eight to 10 computers on board, all measuring and controlling things like RPMs and engine temperature, but also tracking maintenance needs, plus watching sensors that indicate if a part or a system is at risk of failure — not to mention collecting and processing the agronomic and field information.

New tractors often come pre-wired for electronic fleet management, although few farms are taking advantage… yet.
New tractors often come pre-wired for electronic fleet management, although few farms are taking advantage… yet. photo: AGCO

As already noted, today’s technology can shoot all this data wirelessly to a home office or directly to a dealership. But there’s more. A web-based application can also make it easy to access that data, along with iPad and iPhone mobile apps.

Wireless transmission of data is also making it faster to use the data in real time. This is particularly useful when co-ordinating movement of people and equipment over vast farms with multiple locations, especially in variable weather with limited application windows. The data can be linked directly to the farm’s main office computer and/or to the dealership’s condition monitoring centre, or even shared with a trusted adviser.

In Alberta this past summer, Saik talked with a large farm customer with two farms, one south of Calgary and one near Peace River. While they chatted, the farmer watched his equipment on his iPad as both farms were being seeded simultaneously.

Saik has also witnessed first-hand how a large-farm manager in Ukraine tracked 25 to 30 tractors. Employees inserted ID cards under their tractor seats to ensure their butts were in the seat, and sensors measured seeding depth relaying the information back to the main office to ensure the job was getting done correctly.

“It’s on these multi-person, multi-equipment farms where fleet management really starts to pay for itself,” says Saik.

Yet in Canada, it’s generally the medium-sized farmers, not the really big farmers, who are making the jump to high-tech solutions. It seems easier to integrate wholesale changes like this to moderately sized farms, believes Saik. The 20,000-acre-plus farms are focused on trying to move large amounts of equipment as quickly as possible. To fully leverage GPS technology takes time, technological expertise and sometimes patience and imagination, and it’s a whole other leap to integrate the data into a fleet management system.

“Adoption of this type of technology is psychographic, not demographic,” says Saik.

To date, the uptake of technology has been limited by the lack of easy interfaces and the time it takes to cobble together systems and to manage the data. Once these get easier, more farmers will jump on board, says Saik.

The AGCO Fuse program works with all makes and sizes of equipment. The ability to send data has been on their new equipment for the last few years. The software is part of the maintenance agreement and for the first year it’s free. Yet very few people take advantage of it — so far.

Two buckets of data

“There are basically two buckets to this data,” says Jason O’Flanagan, AGCO’s North American field marketing and sales support manager for advanced technology solutions. “One is for agronomic data (for example, yield data) and the other is mechanical and performance.”

Spatial positioning platforms that tell you where things are at any given time has been revolutionary and it’s everywhere. Outside of agriculture, it’s as ubiquitous as cell phones.

Now it’s becoming ubiquitous on the farm too, allowing us to integrate geography, application and weather into a data summary locked into the system forever.

AGCO’s Fuse technology, for instance can monitor tractor location, engine performance, hopper levels and more, enabling farmers to cover more acres more efficiently, especially in tight windows.
AGCO’s Fuse technology, for instance can monitor tractor location, engine performance, hopper levels and more, enabling farmers to cover more acres more efficiently, especially in tight windows. photo: File

Today, the data from scouting, tissue and soil sampling, and yield monitors can also be layered over each other throughout the season and over years to become more and more accurate, says Saik. “This last summer we (Agri-Trend) had some 79,000 in-season scouting images on our Agri-Data platform, all meta-tagged and geo-coded, so we knew the exact time and place of any event. We could see that at 3:44 p.m. on the northwest corner of a specific field, there was herbicide carryover on the headlands.”

Fleet management by contrast depends on the data from the mechanical and performance bucket.

One of the big opportunities is to co-ordinate equipment with deliveries of inputs and outputs. “It can help you get maximum efficient use of the equipment and labour,” says O’Flanagan.

Similar to AGCO’s software, Trimble’s Connected Farm Fleet can compare the use of each vehicle during a 24-hour period, capturing time spent idling, moving, working and travelling and any reasons for delays. It can also monitor fuel usage, battery voltage, oil pressure and help you view trends of vehicle health and performance graphed over time.

Preventive maintenance, tracking, fuel use, stress alerts, engine use and efficiency, driver in seat, and RPMs can be monitoried, and alarms can be sent calling for help when warranted. For example, with the AGCO system, if a cable harness is fraying, an error code can be immediately sent so the farmer or mechanic knows exactly what part needs to be replaced. Then they can get out to the field right away to replace it before the whole machine goes down.

Preventing downtime during the critical season is where the payback can be huge for this system, no matter how big the fleet, says O’Flanagan.

This data can also be used to create bigger-picture analysis of a fleet. For example, a graph can give you an exact number of operator hours and how long equipment sat idle at the side of a field in the year. Instead of estimating, this can tell you if the implement isn’t sized appropriately for the tractor and operation.

It can also give an indisputable record of what the equipment did at any given location and time, which may be necessary as more environmental regulations and litigation are pushed onto farmers.

There’s no doubt that having and sharing information can be powerful. Using it to increase efficiency and decrease downtime, in real time, could be revolutionary. Which leads us to the potential next step ­— driverless tractors and combines.

About the author

Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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