Farm Industry News

Precision payoff

The Promise of precision agriculture is paying off with new by-the-row planter technologies that allow farmers to cut seed costs 9 to 15%. And by-the-nozzle sprayer technologies offering similar savings are just around the corner.

With savings in the 9 to 15% range — and $200 a bag seed corn — recovering planting equipment costs can take two years or less. Similar rapid payback of spraying equipment upgrades also is possible.

Both technologies involve splitting planters and sprayers into sections as small as a single row or nozzle. This allows a GPS-capable precision controller to shut off the rows or nozzles automatically in sequence. So at point rows, headlands and waterways, the planter and sprayer sections turn off automatically, avoiding overlap.

In the planter world, the Tru Count air clutch, introduced in 2006, has quickly become all the rage. When this key enabling technology is harnessed with a controller, the clutches turn most planters in use today into precision planting machines. Although planters typically are arranged in two-, three- or four-row sections, it's feasible to individually control up to 36 rows, depending on the controller used.

Most of Tru Count activity to date has been with existing planters as an aftermarket add-on. But what could be the first of many from-the-factory planters, the Kinze 3600V Twin-Line series planter for 2008 comes factory equipped with Tru Count's clutches and a controller (See “Precision Planters,” September 2007, page 48.)

In the sprayer world, by-the-nozzle capabilities aren't as advanced. However, in recent years there has been rapid adoption of automated control of the three to five sections typically plumbed into sprayers. At least three manufacturers currently have, or are putting the finishing touches on, systems that can turn individual nozzles on and off using air or electric solenoids.

Precision controllers are the hang-up. Today, most boom-section control devices handle 10 or fewer sections. The boom-section controller with the most sections, available from Topcon Precision Agriculture, controls up to 30 sections. Meanwhile, a 90-ft. spray boom with 20-in. nozzle spacing carries 54 nozzles; a 120-footer carries 72.

But boom-section control device manufacturers are likely to hop on the bandwagon once by-the-nozzle on-off technologies become widely available. Already, one by-the-nozzle manufacturer has devised a work-around that effectively controls as many nozzle sections as a grower would like.

Chicken-and-egg challenge

Until about three years ago, if you wanted to turn off a planter section, you had to manually throw a switch. Then GPS-capable section controllers for spray booms came along, and the planting world changed forever.

Jeff Dillman, president of Tru Count and inventor of the namesake patent-pending clutch, saw an opportunity he had been dreaming about for years. “It was clear to me that a sprayer and a planter aren't all that different when it comes to shutting off sections,” he says. “I thought about an air clutch 15 years ago. But what was the point? It couldn't be controlled effectively with manual switches.”

Mark Bartel of nozzle manufacturer Wilger Inc. also knows the frustration of being ahead of the curve. Wilger has had an air-driven, by-the-nozzle sprayer solution available for the past four years. But the lack of controllers with enough section horsepower limited his company's sales.

“Customer interest has been there,” Bartel says. “Getting the controllers has been the problem.”

As a result, Wilger's product hasn't been used for variable-swath applications. However, customers have adopted the technology via manual and automatic switches to activate multiple nozzles to vary carrier rates without physically changing out nozzles.

Tru Count planter basics

The Tru Count clutch is a simple air-actuated sprocket clutch that is installed in row-unit drivelines, one per row. Clutches are plumbed individually or in gangs to air-actuated switches. A GPS precision controller actuates the switch when the planter crosses into an area that has been planted. This sends an air impulse to the clutch, which disengages the row unit. It's simple, effective and practically instantaneous, Dillman says.

Two-row sections are the most popular configuration as customers upgrade planters for 2008 planting. “The single row is coming,” Dillman says. “The limitation right now is the GPS controllers. The beauty part is that you already have a clutch on every row. When you want to upgrade, most of the cost is already on board.”

The typical cost, excluding GPS and a precision controller, is about $300 to $400 per row. The cost of upgrading a 16-row John Deere planter set up with two-row sections is just more than $6,000. Adding three-row section control to a 36-row planter (12 sections) would cost about $12,300.

Dillman says seed savings make up the bulk of the cost benefit from using Tru Count clutches. Avoiding double planting also reduces associated yield losses and harvest hassles. Because planter units shut off automatically at headlands, average planting speeds increase. This improves planting efficiency, reduces operator fatigue and may allow extended planting hours.

Contact Tru Count at 800/323-5026, visit or, or circle 101.

By-the-nozzle options

Three companies have developed by-the-nozzle options for agricultural sprayers: Wilger, Harrison Ag Technologies, and Capstan Ag Systems. All three use solenoids to turn nozzles on and off. These developers say that supply-line plumbing-based solutions aren't practical, given the weight of plumbing lines and the cost of valves.

The air system developed by Wilger uses solenoid-activated air power to turn Wilger Combo-Rate nozzle bodies on and off. Nozzles are turned on when air actuates valves built into the nozzle bodies. Draining air from distribution lines turns them off. Typically, solenoids are located on the sprayer chassis to minimize weight on the boom.

Wilger uses the same system to turn stackable nozzle bodies located at each nozzle position on and off.

Solenoids and nozzle bodies to adapt a 90-ft. boom into 27 two-nozzle sections would cost about $7,500. Contact Wilger Inc. at 877/968-7695, visit or, or circle 102.

The Smart Nozzle system from Harrison Ag Technologies uses low-power electric solenoids to turn nozzles on and off. Solenoids, which are attached to individual nozzles, are controlled electronically via CANbus and aluminum-encased computer modules located at each solenoid.

To get around the lack of controller capacity for individual nozzles on wide booms, the company has developed a software and handheld computer package that allows standard controllers to be used. Essentially, the computer tricks a standard controller by altering apparent ground speed as nozzles are shut off, says John Harrison, a former weapons system guidance software developer. “That way the product pump is always putting out the proper amount of flow,” he says.

The software also tricks the controller into reporting the actual sprayed acreage. The company has talked with various controller manufacturers and hopes controller capabilities will expand to eliminate the need for the handheld computer work-around. This would reduce the purchase price.

A stand-alone Smart Nozzle system with handheld computer for a 90-ft. boom has a suggested retail price of $13,900. The cost is lower for Case IH sprayers equipped with the AIM Command system, because AIM solenoids can be used. Contact Harrison Ag Technologies at 605/845-2433, visit or, or circle 103.

Individual nozzle control capabilities are built into current Capstan Ag Systems products, which include AIM Command (available on Case IH self-propelled sprayers) and aftermarket SharpShooter systems.

In addition to on-off capabilities, the Capstan systems allow flow rate and pressure to be changed independently by electrically pulsing the solenoids. This allows a standard nozzle to act like a multiple-orifice nozzle.

Beginning this summer, Capstan will offer an upgradeable intermediate solution that will provide variable-rate features, such as turn compensation (higher rates on outside nozzles, lower rates on the inside). Automated nozzle diagnostics, called Tattler, also will be available. Once higher-horsepower controllers are available, in addition to by-the-nozzle control, it will be possible to install a so-called soft boom. Such a boom would have multiple nozzle spacing options and could be configured on the go depending on product application needs.

The suggested retail price for a SharpShooter system for a 90-ft. boom is $12,000. The price of an AIM Command system is slightly higher. Contact Capstan Ag Systems Inc. at 785/232-4477, visit or, or circle 104.

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