On the ride home from the 23rd annual National No-Tillage Conference held earlier this month in Cincinnati, I couldn’t help but glance out the car window and visualize what small, unmanned farm equipment would look like roaming farm fields.

I’ll admit, picturing a fleet of pint-sized planters or strip-till units was hard to do, but it got me thinking about the evolving disparity between the shelf life of today’s large farm equipment vs. precision technology. It’s no surprise that the lifespan of a high horsepower tractor, combine or strip-till unit far exceeds that of any in cab monitor, potentially by decades.

During a discussion at the No-Till Conference on new technology knocking on the door of production agriculture, Ohio State University professor Scott Shearer suggested the cropping system of the future will include 60-70 horsepower autonomous tractors, weighing less than 10,000 pounds, with adjustable ground clearance, armed with sensing technology and able to work 24 hours, 7 days a week.

“Today, when a farmer buys a John Deere R tractor, it can last about 20,000 hours, assuming about 500 hours of use each year on a Midwest farm,” Shearer says. “That tractor could be on a farm for 40 years, but the technical value will be obsolete long before the mechanical life expires.”

The tractor and technology of tomorrow will last about 6-7 productive cropping seasons, says Shearer, and also be much more efficient and profitable for farmers. Lighter equipment means less compaction and higher yields, while automated performance equals increased productivity.

But the skeptics question the practicality of smaller implements and relying too heavily on technology. “More machines equals more things to go wrong, especially with all the electronics involved,” notes one observer at the conference.

Talking with a few strip-till farmers at the event, they shared a similar view and questioned the efficiency of micro-managing perhaps a dozen smaller strip-till units. While performance of the equipment itself might be reliable, some didn’t want to lose the “hands-on” ability to tinker with row unit setups or fertilizer delivery in a more automated system.

One farmer from Minnesota likened the technical future of farming to the advent of electronics in the auto industry. Fixing a car manufactured 50 or 60 years ago requires mechanical know-how, one reason those vehicles are still on the streets today.

He doubts the cars of today will have the same longevity, because they rely heavily on electronics to run and the technology will likely be obsolete in another 50 years, rendering them as industry relics, not classics.

Are smaller, autonomous strip-till units the wave of the future? Join the discussion by contacting me at (262) 782-4480, ext. 441, or send me an e-mail at jzemlicka@lesspub.com