Growers and custom harvesters are more likely to buy global positioning systems (GPS) for autosteer and other capabilities this year than in the past. So predicts Todd Vogel, product specialist with Riesterer & Schnell Inc., a Chilton, WI, dealership.

“They're looking for ways to reduce their input costs,” he says. “The last couple of years, a lot of growers upgraded their machines, most of which are equipped with steering valves and wiring harnessing for autosteer systems. Now they're at the point where they're saying, ‘Let's add some technology on and start reducing input costs.’”

Adding autosteer, says Vogel, who sells several brands of the technology to growers and custom operators, pays for itself in a short time period.

“Most custom guys are going to use it for cutting hay. On a triple mower, where your average cutting width is 30', the overlap (on swaths) is going to be 3' or 10%. If a guy's cutting 1,000 acres of hay four times a year, that's 400 acres that he would run across that he didn't need to.

“If your cost per acre is $10, you're looking at $4,000 saved in that year (by eliminating overlap).” And that's a low cost-per-acre figure, he thinks.

The hardest part is deciding how and what to shop for in autosteer technology. Without getting brand-specific, Vogel offers buying tips.

“It's not like a tractor; you need to be trained in,” Vogel says. Harvesters should find dealers with dedicated precision-ag consultants who know that technology inside and out. They should know about all the types of autosteer equipment and technology available, not just the brand or brands they're selling.

He visits with potential clients, gets a feel for the number of acres they'll likely be using autosteer on and the different machinery they'll run. He says forage producers can get faster paybacks on precision equipment than grain farmers because they tend to use it spring, summer and fall rather than just for planting and harvest.

But buyers need to decide from the start what they want the technology to do for them years down the line, he warns.

“Make sure whatever system you go with is going to be upgradable to where you want to get in the future.” Some systems are strictly autosteer and offer no documentation. If a customer wants to map fields and use the technology for record-keeping, some systems won't work, he says.

The ease and regularity of updating should be considered, too. Vogel says one company he knows of offers updates on the Web; others require dealerships to do the updating.

A couple of tractor companies offer autosteer as standard integrated equipment; others offer integrated autosteer as an option.

Universal autosteer equipment comes as a steering motor that leans against an existing steering wheel or as a whole steering wheel that replaces an existing steering wheel. Both can be moved from tractor to tractor.

“For cutting hay, integrated systems work much better than the universal ones,” says Vogel, who sells both. “At high speeds and, just overall, an integrated system will be smoother and it … gets you back on track faster.”

Forage harvesters may want to invest in satellite subscription fees rather than rely on free signals. “Most of our customers, operating triple mowers or mower-conditioners, are running them on the accuracy level that requires a subscription fee.”

One of Vogel's clients tried a low-cost auto-guidance system with free satellite signals on a triple mower. But that system now sits on a shelf, he says. The free WAAS signal has a harder time keeping up with the speeds of new mowers.

If you go for a system with free signals, make sure it can be upgradable to subscription signals, Vogel advises. “With a lot of the WAAS systems, if you want to upgrade them, there's a good chance you might have to replace your componentry and get a whole new system.”

Autosteer buyers won't find any deals, he says. “The price is not going up and not going down. But technology is getting better and the new software is always making it more accurate.”

Some companies are working toward standardizing precision-ag technology, where, for example, one manufacturer's tractor will work with another company's implement (baler, etc.) using the tractor display. “There are just a few implements where we can do that right now. But it's a standard that companies are trying to get across the board,” he says.