Self-driving tractors are here!

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To many of us self-driving tractors may seem like a thing of the future, but exhibitors at Agfest are revving up for agriculture’s autonomous future.

Precision equipment is changing the face of agriculture, with not only autonomous tractors, but also drones and lasers being used to improve productivity.

Midland Tractors’ Jamie Ellis said that precision equipment, such as self-driving tractors, are likely to be widely available in the next five years, but that their viability will depend on a number of factors.

“It’ll depend on the price and the cost savings,” he said. “Farmers are being pushed to produce more food and better quality food at a lower price, so somewhere they’ve got to farm smarter, and that’s where precision ag comes in.”

Tractor suppliers such as John Deere and Case have prototype models, but autonomous vehicles are yet to become commercially available in Australia.

While fully autonomous farm machinery may still be a few years off, many pastoralists are using some form of automatic equipment already.

“It seems to be in some way, shape or form right across the board,” said Mr Ellis.

The soil information sector has also seen significant growth over recent years, with new technologies being introduced to better monitor soil properties.

BMS Lasersat is the Australian distributor for Trimble, a producer of GPS based soil management software. 

BMS’ Bryan Granshaw said the software is revolutionary.

“One of the layers that we really haven’t had a great deal of knowledge about is the soil, and the characteristics in the soil that drive variability,” he said. “With this system we actually measure surface and sub-surface physical and chemical parameters.” 

While previously farmers have had to manage land as large blocks, this technology means they can pinpoint problem areas and distribute nutrients accordingly.

“It’s really digital agriculture. We’ve gone from having to manage paddocks within a farm and we can now manage zones within a paddock.”

Mr Granshaw said his background in farming helped him see the value in the technology. 

“I was a farmer for 30 years and this was a layer of information that we didn’t have enough knowledge about,” he said. “I think this technology will move throughout agriculture.”

The software is targeted at pastoralists farming ground crops, such as carrots, onions and potatoes which make up a large part of Tasmanian agriculture.

“I’m here to explain how the technology is used and then talk with the farmers and their advisors on how we can best add value,” said Mr Granshaw. “If farmers have better information and agronomists have better information they can make better decisions.”

While the push into a new technological age is beneficial in many ways, it may risk increasing unemployment rates in the agricultural sector, said Mr Ellis.

“If we start talking about driverless tractors, it’s going to start pushing people out of jobs,” he said.

“I don’t know how it’ll go. It’ll be a case of doing the maths, I suppose.”