Manufacturers and early adopters are working out the kinks for this technology, which would let farmers pair different brands of tractors and implements and reduce confusion and clutter in the cab.

The rising cost of fertilizer, seed and equipment is a reality that many farmers face in today’s ag market.

One solution farmers are beginning to examine is ISOBUS technology that lets them pair different brands of tractors and farm equipment together that weren’t previously compatible.

Some farmers are already using this technology to offset input costs, as well as increase productivity and improve purchasing flexibility.

“As input costs have exploded, the cost of putting an acre of corn in the ground has also exploded,” says Ryan Christopherson, who reduce-tills continuous corn and soybeans in Clarkfield, Minn. “Through precision farming and ISO technology, I’ve been able to regulate my costs and pick and choose components.”

Finding The Benefits

The concept of ISO — which stands for International Standards Organization — is very much a work in progress. BUS is a generic term to describe the connection between electronic components. But in it’s simplest form, the concept allows farmers who are using precision technology to connect any brand of tractor with any implement without losing functionality and performance.

MORE ACCURATE. Canadian no-tiller Dennis Connor began experimenting with ISOBUS technology 6 years ago and now runs his John Deere 9630 tractor with his Bourgault air cart and air seeder. ISO has given Connor flexibility to combine machinery that suits his farm, which has improved planting accuracy and, “put a few more bushels in the bin.”

Farmers wouldn’t have to switch monitors, displays, wiring harnesses or electrical connectors when they move from one implement to another, regardless of brand.

One of the primary benefits for Christopherson — who adopted precision-farming practices in 2004 — is the freedom of running his Challenger 800 series tractors with his John Deere planter using an ISO connection.

He uses his Deere ISOBUS display in his tractor with the Deere planter and also runs an Ultra Guidance PSR auto-guidance system from Reichhardt Electronics to run steering for his Challenger tractor thru the Deere display.

The Reichhardt display allows him to eliminate the cost of an additional monitor to run auto-steer on his tractors.

“I didn’t want to have to keep buying expensive displays,” Christopherson says. “Instead of spending $5,000 for a new auto-steer display in each of my five tractors, I use one for all of them through the ISO connection. It’s a huge cost savings.”

The hook-up is essentially a “plug-and-play” connection into the back of the tractor to get the same auto-steer capability as if he were running the same brand of tractor and implement together.

He’s also upgrading his AGCO TerraGator spreader control from a DICKEY-john Falcon controller to a Raven Viper II system for shape file variable-rate fertilizer application.

“In the past, I think, ISO has been advertised for more than it was. The North American ag industry is now catching up with the original intent of ISO…”

— Rhett Schildroth

The switch is allowing Christopherson to save money through the increasing standardization of wiring and voltages that ISO components are running on. Farmers are able to update a piece of machinery to newer electronic controls without having to replace hardware like hydraulic valves, hydraulic motors or encoders.

“I only purchased the cables and controller for about $12,000 and all components on the machine are compatible,” Christopherson says. “Before ISO standardized all machine-control components, we would have traded in the spreader and spent $80,000 on a new one.”

Beyond eliminating the expense of unnecessary equipment, Christopherson is saving money in the field, as well through ISO. On his 48-row planter, he variable-rate applies 10-34-0 liquid fertilizer through a CDS-John Blue pump, coupled with a Precision Planting hydraulic motor and three Raven ISOBUS product-control nodes to regulate application.

The system is run through his John Deere rate controller, which Christopherson connected through the ISO port on his planter.

“The data shows up on my Deere monitor in the tractor cab, and the system basically turns the planter into a variable-rate, swath-control sprayer,” he says. “If I had to buy the fertilizer, plus all the wiring harnesses and monitors, it would be $10,000 to $12,000.”

Instead, Christopherson says he spends about $3,000 for variable-rate application of 10-34-0 on his farm.

“At $60 an acre to apply, it doesn’t make sense to put 10-34-0 where I already have high phosphorus levels,” he says. “I’m able to variable-rate apply and save money due to ISO technology.”

But Christopherson’s success with ISO didn’t happen overnight.

He’s been tinkering with the technology for 7 years.

Guarding Expectations

Christopherson and many others admit that ISOBUS is far from perfect and hasn’t gained the same traction with North American farmers as it has in Europe, where ISO originated.

ISOBUS is still a buzzword here, since the ISO 11783 standard was introduced in tractors and implements in 2001, says Djamel Khali, vice president of operations for Ally Precision Industries (API) in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“Farmers want a one-stop shop. They don’t want something to have to be added on…”

— Trevor Mecham

API is one of several third-party manufacturers that produce ISO components designed to connect different colors of farm equipment. Khali notes that not every North American farm-equipment manufacturer is on the same page when it comes to ISO.

Historically, if farmers had an ISO-certified tractor from the factory and an ISO-certified implement — but they weren’t the same color — certain features would be locked out because of compatibility issues.

“If we’re going back to the core goal of ISO — to be color agnostic — we need to make sure farmers are getting what they expect,” he says. “Farmers might be losing row-shutoff or variable-rate planting capabilities. That’s where a lot of the frustration comes from today.”

The last thing a farmer wants is a false assurance that ISO is the answer to all their compatibility problems because the term often means something different to each customer, notes Doug Prairie, product manager for planter, seeder and harvest controls for Raven Industries.

The challenge for manufacturers is to provide a level of ISO integration that truly allows customers to be able to get the most out of their technology. Some run proprietary software, which creates confusion about the compatibility ISO offers to farmers. This can muddy confidence in the technology.

“There is some electronic finger pointing that goes on in some cases,” Prairie says. “The tractor says the implement is to blame and the implement says the tractor is to blame, and the customer is caught in between.”

The end result for some farmers is utilizing only a portion of their precision functions through their ISO connection or being forced to add an extra monitor.

Fixing The Bugs

Ideally, ISO compatibility is supposed to decrease the clutter in a farmer’s tractor cab and minimize the need for additional terminals to run various precision-farming functions. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

MAKE IT SIMPLE. One of the goals of ISOBUS is to reduce clutter in the tractor cab by utilizing one display to monitor precision functions. Currently, farmers with different brands of farm equipment often need multiple monitors to be able to track all of their precision technology.

Canadian no-tiller Dennis Connor began experimenting with ISO 6 years ago when he ran GPS on his Versatile tractor with his John Deere 1900 series air cart through a Satlock receiver, which had a light bar in the cab for auto-steer.

Connor grows durum wheat, lentils, chickpeas and canola on 7,500 acres in Beechy, Saskatchewan, Canada. He used an early-model John Deere Brown Box terminal in the tractor with his Deere 1900 air cart to variable-rate plant his durum seed and canola.

Connor later switched to a larger John Deere tractor and invested in a Bourgault air cart and air seeder, but he needed separate displays to monitor planting and track auto-steer.

His John Deere monitor ran auto-steer, but Connor ended up spending $20,000 on a Topcon display to effectively implement his variable-rate program.

“It was a little frustrating, but it’s something I just have to accept for now,” he says of the expense. “I know there’s lesser-involved monitors that cost probably a quarter of the price that will variable rate for you, but you can’t see it.”

Still, Connor says doubling up on monitors in his tractor isn’t a major inconvenience and he’d rather spend the money on the right technology to maximize ISO capability than limit his selection of farm equipment.

Although he doesn’t consider himself an expert on the ISO concept, Connor knows enough to understand the value it provides in terms of purchasing flexibility and efficiency in the field.

“The benefit of owning two different colors is that I have a good tractor and an air seeder that really fits my fields,” he says. “Because of that accuracy, it probably puts a few more bushels in the bin.”

When maneuvering down a ravine or washout, Connor says, the Bourgault air seeder maintains his desired seed depth, which translates to more consistent emergence based on his planting prescription.

“It builds confidence as to what my agronomist is going to get me,” he says. “What they prescribe could make me money or lose money, so it’s important that I have equipment that works together.”

Khali agrees that the flexibility ISO provides can be a significant money-saver. He recently installed an API ISOLynx system on a customer’s Versatile tractor to run his Deere planter.

“We put the whole system on there for under $15,000,” Khali says. “He saved the $30,000 of having to buy a John Deere tractor to run the planter, and he could run it the same way with the tractor he already owned.”

Farm-equipment manufacturers also recognize the need to offer broader equipment compatibility for farmers.

While there is an incentive for companies that produce both tractors and implements to have their brand of machinery running together on a farm — in conjunction with their precision-technology platform — they acknowledge the value of ISO.

The Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF), an independent international organization, is working with manufacturers to answer some of those questions. John Deere, Case IH and AGCO are three of more than 50 companies working with AEF to test and certify ISO components with the goal of creating a standardized platform.

More than ever, there’s a push by manufacturers to create a uniform ISO standard that will further simplify compatibility for farmers.

“Farmers want a one-stop shop,” says Trevor Mecham, marketing manager for advanced farming systems for Case IH. “They don’t want something to have to be added on. The technology needs to be built in and integrated, so if the farmer wants to make a change with his or her planter or tractor, they have the capability to run what they want together.”

Playing Catch-Up

Although the ISO standard was introduced in North America more than decade ago, it’s real value is only just starting to be realized by farmers. Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge by farmers about how ISO compatibility can change their farm operations.

“It’s not something I knew much about, beyond the idea that one color of tractor could electronically talk with another color of implement,” Connor says.

After investing in precision technology, with guidance from his equipment dealership, Connor took the initiative to try ISO.

But it took a leap of faith, since he wasn’t sure how effective it would be.

“Instead of spending $5,000 for a new auto-steer display in each of my five tractors, I use one for all of them…”

— Ryan Christopherson


“I’m not heavily into technology, but I had to do it because I wanted to variable-rate seed and I needed to see the mounting while I’m seeding,” he says. “Basically, I just had to trust the system and have confidence in my dealership to make it work. And it did.”

ISO education is still an ongoing process for farmers, but more are starting to realize the practice’s capabilities.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Agtron Enterprises offers ISOBUS upgrades for Bourgault 5000 and 6000 series air carts to simplify the hook-up for growers.

Bill Baker, Agtron’s president, says the adoption of precision-farming practices is fueling interest in ISO as farmers gain an understanding of technology.

“Farmers tell me all the time that they spend a day each spring putting all the monitors in the cab and mounting and running harnesses in and out,” Baker says. “ISO lessens that learning curve because they know that same tractor terminal will be in there 365 days a year.”

FINDING ANSWERS. Manufacturers like Kinze are working to simplify ISOBUS capabilities for farmers by improving “plug-and-play” capabilities. Ideally, farmers won’t have to change monitors, displays, wiring harnesses or electrical connectors to run one brand of tractor with another brand of implement.

If a farmer has a new data set, rather than having to rewire a new monitor, he can plug into a baler, seeder or sprayer through the ISO connection and pull up the information.

Christopherson recalls his early experiences trying to connect monitors to machines.

“To get things to talk, we had to work endless hours down to the point of looking at individual wires on individual wiring harnesses,” he says. “All it took was one crossed wire and nothing worked.

“When there is a bundle of 35 wires, there is potential for trouble.”

Farmers today don’t have time to diagnose faulty connections, which is pushing manufacturers to develop better ISO solutions for the future and compensate for compatibility shortcomings of the past.

“In the past I think ISO has been advertised for more than it was,” says Rhett Schildroth, product manager for Kinze Manufacturing. “The North American industry is now catching up with the original intent of ISO.”

ISO Equipment Emerges

In 2012, Kinze announced production of its ISOBUS line of planters, which will be available this spring. A component of its ISO system is a single monitor in the tractor cab that allows farmers to manage operations.

Case IH is set to introduce its ISO Task Controller system, a module that will improve functionality by electronically sending and receiving data between different brands of tractors and implements.

The system lets farmers plug into the ISO connector, and the task controller logs the work that’s been done, Mecham explains. Then those tasks can be created, displayed or exported via a USB stick and recorded.

“Part of the reason for moving forward with this technology is getting the customers up and running faster through improved software,” Mecham says. “How can we make it more seamless for farmers?”

“ISO lessens the learning curve because farmers know the same tractor terminal will be in there 365 days 
a year…”

— Bill Baker


One industry goal, Schildroth says, is to broaden the availability of automatic controls, where a farmer wouldn’t have to manually input seed-rate changes or import prescription maps. Currently, only a handful of tractors and implements support automatic control through ISO.

Kinze’s new line of ISOBUS planters will support the automated-control function, which means farmers can automatically view their prescription maps on the go and change their seeds rates without having to touch a button.

“I still think we’re 1 to 2 years out from that advanced functionality of working with any brand or make of tractor or implement,” Schildroth says. “But manufacturers are working to get it there.”

Beyond improving the electronic conversation between different brands of machinery, farmers also envision a day when ISO functions can integrate with mobile devices like iPads or smart phones.

Christopherson acknowledges that getting to the point of only needing one monitor in the tractor cab would be a significant achievement, but he sees more potential for ISO.

“Even on a 6-by-9-inch display, there’s no way to see everything you need to see,” he says. “I talked to my tractor manufacturers about having my iPad plug into the system and being able to select different displays. That would be useful.”

But for now, Christopherson is satisfied with the return he’s gotten from ISO on his farm. The fact that the technology has helped manage input costs and allowed Christopherson to eliminate paying for unnecessary precision equipment is helping him run a more efficient operation.

“The capability of ISO drives us to collect more information we can turn around and use to refine our farm management,” he says. “In the age of increasing crop input costs, we’re able to do use variable-rate technology, and ISO is allowing us to do that in a productive way.”