Auto-steer is gaining popularity with custom forage cutters tired of overlapped swaths and long, tense hours at the wheel.

“Once you have it, you will not want to give it up,” says one Midwestern custom operator of the technology, which uses Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data to guide farm machinery in straight lines. He bought a 7920 John Deere with its AutoTrac system and a Kuhn Knight FC 883 disc mower-conditioner last year.

The harvester invested in the setup because he was in a hurry to harvest rye and move on to first-crop alfalfa. The 28'11" mower cut faster than the three 16' sickle mowers it replaced and the automatic steering stopped overlap loss, saving him a day.

“Probably the most important thing we can do for cutting more efficiently is to get rid of that overlap loss,” says Kevin Shinners, University of Wisconsin ag engineer. “That's the 1-2' that we have hanging over into the already cut area so we make sure that we don't have streaking.

“One way is to automate the process. We can use GPS-based auto-steer systems to cut the same width strip every single time, cutting the full width of the cutting platform,” he says.

The custom guy's setup also saved him labor, in part because the new cutting machine replaced two tractor drivers. He saved even more by letting an older or less-skilled driver “steer” the AutoTrac system.

“He doesn't have to worry about staying exactly on to get the full cutting width,” says the custom operator, who harvests 6,400 acres of hay each year.

His driver was probably less tired at the end of a long day, too, says Shinners. “He may not be as fatigued because during each swath he's cutting, he's not having to make any steering adjustments to get a full cut width.”

Auto-steer, says Brad Toellner, a Kuhn product specialist based in Brodhead, WI, is just coming into the forage industry. He says it permits faster cutting.

“Easily, ground speed can be increased 5-10% in many situations. If you run a 5% fuller cutting width and 5% faster ground speed, your productivity can be increased by 10% a day,” Toellner says.

He sees auto-steer working best in cutting operations on square fields without contour strips.

“I've heard that auto-steer also makes the operation of the merging equipment and chopper more efficient. The consistency of the mowing carries through to the rest of the operations and improves the time you travel,” Toellner says.

Tractor manufacturers have made auto-steer available for years, and row-crop farmers have made good use of the technology. But John Deere's AutoTrac, Case-IH's AccuGuide, and New Holland's IntelliSteer aren't the only auto-steer systems out there.

AutoFarm, one of the first companies to get into precision farming in the early 90s, has offered several generations of precision equipment, from guidance products to devices that steer to sub-inch accuracy, says Travis Murdock, its communications director.

Lots of his customers are using auto-steer to harvest alfalfa, Murdock adds. “All throughout the Midwest and Canada, folks are using GPS to guide or steer tractors to do that.” Many hay growers may have started using guidance and/or auto-steer in row crops.

Daryl Geddes, Preston, ID, is surrounded by hay growers, and more and more are adopting assisted steering, says the farmer and Ag Leader Technology dealer. Ag Leader offers assisted steering systems, including guidance and auto-steer, plus other precision farming products that use GPS technology.

“Precision farming is relatively new to the forage industry in our area,” Geddes points out. He feels that it offers great potential.

Hay growers and custom operators, however, may not need the sub-inch level of accuracy row-crop people demand, he says. Operators who want to get into assisted steering can for as little as $5,500.

“For many hay and forage operations, there's a free government satellite signal called WAAS that they can use that will get them 1' pass-to-pass accuracy,” Murdock says.

Starting steering systems of any brand can cost “$8,000 to more than $16,000 depending on the system's accuracy and repeatability,” he says. AutoFarm's RightTrac product, as an example, gets 3” in repeatable accuracy for $16,500.

Customers can start with guidance equipment and upgrade to include the GPS receiver and other equipment, Murdock says. And much of the technology easily transfers from one implement to another in 10-30 minutes.

The bottom line, says Murdock, is that the technology allows anyone to drive straight. “Steering makes every operator your best operator. You can take somebody who hasn't spent a lot of time driving a tractor and he, within minutes, can be driving that tractor perfectly straight every time.”

Auto-Steer Resources

For more information on guidance, auto-steer and GPS, visit the following:

Geddes offers GPS educational information on his site: www.agleaderidaho.com.

AFGC June Meeting Is In Pennsylvania

Anyone involved in the forage industry is invited to attend the June 24-26 American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) annual meeting at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, State College, PA.

The event will feature exhibits, speakers, scientific posters, student contests and tours designed to advance the knowledge and use of forage as a prime feed resource, says AFGC President Bill Talley with Summit Seed Coatings, Princeton, KY.

It will also give participants the opportunity to network with others from all walks within the industry.

“This gathering,” adds Marvin Hall, conference chair and a Penn State University extension forage specialist, “is the place to be for learning about this important agricultural resource and to share experiences and information with colleagues and friends.”

For more information, visit the AFGC Web site at www.afgc.org. Or contact AFGC at 800-944-2342 or email info@afgc.org.