Steve Cubbage: Smart Technology Must Deliver On Its Promise

As a precision ag consultant, Steve Cubbage works with farmers to implement and manage hardware and data and bridge the gap between the two. ( Farm Journal Media )

Two years ago, the talk of the farm show circuit was a “concept” autonomous tractor by CNH. No doubt it was cool. But it was still a “concept” and unfortunately no matter how bad you wanted to be the first farmer in your county to own one, it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

Fast forward to today and an ag tech startup has turned CNH’s concept into reality. Riding the autonomous technology wave that is quickly propelling the automobile industry toward a “driverless” future, Smart Ag is turning existing guidance capable tractors into autonomous machines with a real purpose.

Smart Ag’s initial focus was to tackle one of the most thankless, monotonous and nerve-racking tasks on the farm—the job of the grain cart operator. Come harvest it’s all hands on deck and for many farms there aren’t enough qualified hands. The farmer or the most senior qualified employee is obviously going to be in the half-a-million-dollar-plus combine; then you have your best drivers in the cab of the grain trucks and your operations managers back at the grain elevator. By shear attrition that doesn’t leave too many veterans left on the farm team to choose from.

Addressing that particular pain point seemed to be a good place to start when Smart Ag was looking at where to go first with autonomous technology. Their AutoCart technology allows combine operators to set staging and unloading locations throughout a field and adjust speed, monitor location and command the grain cart to sync. It’s all done without anyone in the cab of the tractor pulling the grain cart. And that piece of reality is what makes the biggest first impression.  

But the longer lasting impression Smart Ag is betting on is that over time such automation will be less costly, more trainable and more skilled than the candidates left in the rural labor pool. The current price to convert an existing tractor with the Smart Ag technology is just south of $40,000. And as it is with most technologies, as adoption ramps up, the cost will likely go down and its year-round capabilities will go up.

Farming is a seasonal high-dollar, high-wire act and the burning questions technology must answer today is to address more of the basic needs at the boots-on-the-ground level. The most urgent of those needs, given this long road of increasingly thin margins, is to control costs and increase overall profitability.

That’s why the spotlight is shining even brighter right now on Smart Ag and another innovative technologies such as BASF’s and Bosch’s Smart Spray application system. This technology identifies the weed and then custom mixes herbicides in a specific nozzle—all in a blink of an eye. Initial projections are that such technology could reduce overall herbicide inputs by more than 90%. That has major positive implications for farmers’ cost of production and also can help them check more of the right boxes in the age of sustainability.

It’s evident the likely winners in the ag technology space will be the ones whose innovations and products can drive ROI back to the bottom line the fastest. It’s clear the race is on.

How are you keeping up with this brave new world of technology? Attend the Farm Journal AgTech Expo. Dec. 3-5, 2018, JW Marriott, Indianapolis. For details, visit