Duane Homewood and his son, Ryan, cultivate something on the upside of 1700 acres out in the Hillside/Ida Road area of Montrose County.

They plant everything from corn to pinto beans with a few cows on the side. Tilling, planting, and harvesting are a major part of their operation. Some of their crop rows are almost a half mile long. Even the best, most experienced operator has to work hard to till long runs without overlaps or gaps. And that’s one of the reasons the Homewoods have a Big John Deere tractor with the StarFire guidance system on it.

GPS guidance and instant communications with the company that maintains the tractor was something most farmers looked on as a toy or an unnecessary expense as few as a half dozen years ago. Some still do and it is understandable.

“When they first came around talking about putting satellite stuff on my tractor, I thought it was kind of a toy, not worth the investment,” Homewood said, standing next to his recently purchased R7 series machine with a yellow dome and black stick antenna on top.

The dome is the satellite receiver and the little antenna connects the tractor to the local base station. Between the two, Homewood’s tractor, and whomever is operating it, get the benefit of state of the art technology that eliminates some of the row croppers biggest headaches, overlapping on tilling rows and downtime. There is also a safety and time factor thrown in. Plus less time lost if the machine falters.

Kirk Smith is a third generation farmer from the California Mesa area of the Valley. He spent almost three decades on the farm and he is proud of his ability to operate a tractor and his ability to run rows that don’t overlap and that follow the right contours of the land.

“I worked hard at learning that skill. But the fact is, everybody can’t do it and not every piece of land is easy to till,” says Smith, who is now the manager of the Montrose US Tractor and Harvest Company, the local John Deere dealer.

Deere has poured untold millions into the research and development of its guidance and communication system, the current iteration of which is called StarFire. The R7 and R8 series of tractors come “plug and play” ready for the system. The dome and antenna mount on the top of the cab. The display goes in the cab to the operator’s right. Most of the system controls are either touch screen or are dedicated function buttons and switches also located on the display package. There is a steering wheel component controlled by the system as well.

Smith and Rob Deines, who specialize in the sales and education for the StarFire system, are both quick to point out that eliminating overlapping tillage is one of the main attractions of the system.

Smith points to his own experience.

“Let’s say you are pulling a 20 or 30 foot disc implement. Running each pass exactly at the edge of the last one is very difficult. If you overlap by even a few feet, you are tilling some of that ground twice and is costing you time and fuel,” says Smith. Further, when an operator has to look over his or her shoulder to see the implement line, they are not looking forward, which also introduces a safety factor.

Deines offers another component.

“Downtime is a huge thief,” he says. “If a machine isn’t running right, there is virtually no guess work when it comes to a service call.” Even an unnoticed issue could be robbing fuel efficiency, costing the farmer hundreds of dollars in fuel bills.

The tractor has a direct link to on-the-fly service. The operator can call the dealer on his cell phone and the dealer can bring up the diagnostics on that tractor at the shop. The readout is like the one any car dealer can do when a customer goes in with a problem. In this case the customer doesn’t have to go to the dealership. The parameters show up on the service technician’s screen – with the engine running.

“Our guy can look at the numbers in the shop and then head to the farm, knowing what he is dealing with and usually with the right part,” says Deines. Downtime on self-guided tractors has always been an issue of concern. But Deere is continually updating the technology and it is now considered highly reliable.

As a demonstration, Smith pulled up the link to the Homewood tractor, showing where it was on a Google Earth map and if it was running or moving. (That is how we were able to drive straight to the farmer’s location and ask him about his machine.)

Getting started with tractor technician

“The first thing you have to do is to ‘mark’ the field,” says Smith. This means putting the data about the ground you want to work into the system. Things like how wide the tillage swath is, the starting point, mid-field turns, field end point and other numbers are fed into the tractor’s guidance system during the marking pass.

“Once a field is marked, that’s it. That data will guide your machine to do the task until you change something in that field,” says Smith.

“If you have an oddly shaped field with, say, a turn half way down the pass, that can become part of the system when you drive your marking pass,” says Deines.

Both Deines and Smith have been to John Deere schools, where they learned the details about what the system does, how it does it, and how to teach the farmer how to use it, which is not all that complicated, according to Deines.

“I can usually get an operator up to speed in an hour or two,” he says as he demonstrates the display that he had only mounted on the machine that we sat in that morning. The dome mounts on the top of the cab with a very secure snap-lock kind of device. The display goes in the cab on a specifically designed mount.

“An operator can move the system from one tractor to another without much trouble,” says Deines. Almost all of the new Deere production tractors come with the plug and play ability.

Not your Grandpa’s John Deere

“You know what I wanted when I was farming?” asks Smith.

“All I ever wished for was a pressurized cab, that was it,” says the guy who now sells some of the most advanced pieces of farm machinery you can imagine. “I hated the dust.”

Not only is the cab now pressurized, it has climate control, AM/FM/MP3/DVD and surround sound, optional leather seats, 360-degree outside lighting, USB charger for your no hands phone and a refrigerator. It is also spacious and there is even a passenger seat if you want to take your date on the job.

JD is working on, and has an operating model of a driverless tractor.

“They don’t talk about it much, since there are some things they need to work out,” says Smith.

Farmer Homewood says he’s not sure about a self driving tractor, but what he has now is a real asset.

“It’s not a toy for sure,” he says.

Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at michaelc@agwriter.us

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