Larry Krepline and Martin Freed have been using auto-steer while cutting hay this season. Now they can't imagine working without it.

According to tractor manufacturers and auto-steer experts, hay growers are finding that automated steering works well while mowing. It reduces operator fatigue and lessens swath overlap, saving time and trips across the field.

Manufacturers say the technology — using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data to guide farm machinery — is also used in forage harvesters out West and may someday be used while baling square bales.

Krepline and Freed are doubtful they'd use auto-steer for more than mowing. But they're happy that it works so well and makes their 12- to 14-hour cutting days easier.

“You can actually talk on the cell phone and eat your lunch if you're on a long swath. You don't have to worry about holding the steering wheel and trying to judge that edge,” says Krepline, a custom operator from Reedsville, WI. “At the end of the day we've saved time and fuel because we'realways taking full swaths.”

Krepline pulls a Kuhn 30', three-unit disc mower-conditioner using an Agco tractor with an Auto-Guide system. He added auto-steer to cut 4,500-5,000 acres of alfalfa more efficiently each year. Yet he also uses it for spring and fall tillage,corn planting and other uses.

Freed was skeptical yet curious while viewing a demonstration of auto-steer on a self-propelled windrower,or swather, at the World Ag Expo in California last winter.

“I called my dealer while watching it and asked, ‘Is this going to work?’ I could see the problems they would have steering a swather because it steers from the front. They were having trouble getting it to stay consistent,” says Freed, a Loomis, NE, hay grower and custom wheat cutter.

The dealer's answer: They were working on it and ironing out the problems.

Since then, Freed's dealer urged him to trade in his 15' windrower for an 18' unit.To sweeten the deal,he was given a month's free use of a Case-IH Trimble-based system — during a heavy-use time. “They put it in and said if I didn't like it or want it, they would take it back out. They were pretty confident that I would want it.”

It took a few days for the dealership to iron out the bugs, he says. “It's a little trickier on a swather because it steers hydraulically from the front tires while everything else steers from the axle. We just had to change some settings and got it to where it works now. Occasionally it will drift. Sometimes going really fast, like 11 mph, it gets off and we have to slow down.” His normal swathing speed using auto-steer is 10 mph, he says.

Freed was interested in auto-steer because he and his crew swath wheat for wheatlage ahead of choppers. They've been challenged to keep high speeds and not lose crop.

“I found it really hard to justify auto-steer right off the bat, but that one week where we cut so hard — I believe we cut eight quarters(1,280 acres) — I was sold on it.

“With GPS, you can look to see who's coming down the road or grab a pop out of the cooler without leaving a divot in the field. You can pay attention to other things.”

He makes good use of his$7,500 investment, he says. Besides wheat, he cuts 600 acres of alfalfa five times/year and also lends the machine to a buddy who cuts 300 acres of hay three times with it.

The first things growers or custom harvesters should decide when investigating auto-steer is the amount of accuracy they want and how much money they want to spend, says Jake Walker. Walker doesn't sell auto-steer, but does install it as well as provide service and support through Independent Support Services, Auburn, IN. His company also performs alpha/beta testing for various precision ag companies.

“There are accuracy levels from steering within a foot, pass to pass, clear down to within an inch. Moneywise, we're talking $6,000 to $25,000-30,000 depending on the application and how much repeatability you need,” Walker says.

Hay growers, he adds, don't need the accuracy row-crop farmers ask for and can get by with lower-priced systems. “If they can be within 6-9” on a swather, most guys are tickled.”

Quite a few such systems are available, he adds. “A common system people are familiar with is the EZ-Steer from Trimble that mounts right on the steering column and its new lightbar that runs it, called the EZ-Guide 500, has been a really good system,” Walker recommends.

“Raven Industries also has one that uses AutoFarm hardware. John Deere's (AutoTrac Universal Steering Kit) system works well and fits to different color machines as well.”

Those systems are comparable as far as accuracy is concerned, Walker says, and can run using the free government WAAS signal. “Just in the last year, those systems have really improved and they're starting to hold accuracy a little better. But we'll see guys jumping up to the paid subscriptions of XP and HP on OmniStar (based out of Houston, TX).” Those subscriptions range from $800/year for XP to $1,500/year for HP.

Row-croppers are starting to buy into RTK (real-time kinetics), which gives sub-inch accuracy and costs up to $30,000, including a base station.

Before buying auto-steer systems, growers should check the costs of upgrading them to the next level. “Accuracy,” Walker warns, “is addictive.”

Nate Weinkauf, Case-IH AFS marketing manager for North America, uses the same term. “This is very addictive. A lot of guys started off with a lightbar manual-type guidance for spraying. Now hay growers are starting to utilize the Case-IH or Trimble EZ-Steer product to get that full swath cut, and they're getting some higher speeds, as well.

“We've really seen a growth in the last couple of years with this technology and I think within the next three or four, it's going to be very common,” Weinkauf says.

Ben Craker, Agco marketing specialist, agrees. “I think more and more forage guys will pick upon auto-steer, especially as more people adopt the 30' mowers. That's where they're using it right now.”

“We have customers who use it on self-propelled forage harvesters and while cutting hay,” says Laura Robson, senior marketing representative for John Deere.

Deere's StarFire Network has three levels of accuracy, the SF1, which is + or — 13” pass to pass; SF2, which is + or — 4"; and then RTK, which provides sub-inch repeatable accuracy, Robson says. “Hay and forage customers will probably use the SF1 or SF2 (paid subscription) signals. Those signal levels will give them the accuracy that they need to be more efficient,” she says.

Growers are talking about baling square bales with auto-steer, says Independent Support Services' Walker. But he has never seen anyone doing it. “What are you really gaining by doing that?If you're running down a windrow, you don't have the overlap problem.”

Freed sees there could be challenges in bringing auto-steer to work on balers. “You very rarely have a perfectly uniform windrow that will exactly fill the size of the baler and where you won't need to be pushing a little to your edges. You seldom have a huge-enough windrow you can drive right down the middle of and bale.”

Yet, as he learns more about auto-steer, it may happen, he says.

Auto-Steer Resources

The following list is to help growers acquaint themselves with available auto-steer systems and where to get more information.

Agco

Auto-Guide (Beeline)
www.auto-guidenav.com

Case-IH

AccuGuide (Trimble)
www.caseih.com

John Deere

GreenStar AutoTrac Assisted Steering
StarFire iTC
AutoTrac Universal Steering Kit
www.deere.com

New Holland

Intellisteer (OmniStar)
EZ-Steer (Trimble)
www.newholland.com

OmniStar

XP, HP
www.omnistar.com/

Trimble

EZ-Steer
www.trimble.com

Raven Industries

Smartrax
www.ravenprecision.com/us/

AutoFarm

DGPS AutoSteer
www.gpsfarm.com