Alta. farmer tries ‘tramplining’ over tramlines

Farmers interested in tramlines may balk at the setup costs — but Josh Fankhauser has saved several thousand by using a standard GPS and paying close attention to detail.

Fankhauser farms 10,000 acres and runs 500 cattle with three partners near Claresholm in southern Alberta. This year, all their acres are either under dedicated tramlines, or tramplines, which restrict traffic without a tramline kit.

Tramlines keep machinery on the same tracks, reducing crop damage and soil compaction. But setting up a system can involve substantial costs, including tramline kits and precise GPS units such as Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS systems.

But after pricing out RTK systems, Fankhauser decided to stick with his John Deere 2600 display, which includes auto-track universal and a standard receiver. He moves the units between his Case, New Holland and John Deere tractors. The John Deere 2600 works off WAAS and GLONASS satellite signals.

“From one end of the field to the other, we might drift off three inches difference versus a full RTK system. Is it worth spending $15,000 for three inches? I’m not sure at this point,” says Fankhauser.

He and the other machinery operators are within four inches on each pass through the whole field, he says.

“On a sprayer it works pretty good because you cover a lot of acres fast. But you have to manually compensate for satellite drift and you wouldn’t have to do that if you had a full RTK system,” says Fankhauser.

“So it just takes a little more attention to detail, but we save a lot of money.”

To compensate for drift, Fankhauser lines up the machinery on the tramline in each field. After parking on the tramline, he loads the AB-lines and gets the GPS to centre the lines on the machine’s current location. Fankhauser says it takes about 30 seconds.

“It’s one button.”

On cloudy days Fankhauser says he might have to centre machinery in the middle of the field again. While seeding, he may have to adjust twice a day. Higher-speed field operations such as spraying don’t require as many manual adjustments.

Many new receivers also pick up Russian satellites, improving GPS performance. “Sometimes the American satellites aren’t quite up to snuff. Well, the Russian satellites cover you, and vice-versa.”

Tramlines also require some organization. During seeding, he had to turn on the tramline kit on every third pass to leave two blank tracks for the sprayer. The tramline kit diverts the seed from the blank rows to the row edging the track, doubling the plant population in that row and dropping the yield penalty.

Fankhauser flagged these passes with the GPS to make things easier for other operators. He tries to keep everyone on the same page, but he isn’t worried about the occasional mistake.

“If I only did an 80-foot pass instead of 120 (with the sprayer), well, the swath control will cover you, right? You’ll have to do an extra pass down the field and the swath control will compensate. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”

Alternative to tramlining

Farmers who are thinking about trying tramlining, but don’t want to purchase the kit or work out all the logistics may want to try tramplining. Last year Fankhauser put two-thirds of his acres under tramplines.

Tramplining, a term coined by Fankhauser’s agronomist, restricts machinery to specific paths, much like tramlining. But tramplining doesn’t require farmers to leave a blank strip while seeding.

Farmers who try tramplining, he adds, don’t need to make sure their equipment widths match — a requirement with tramlining.

Fankhauser, a regular guest blogger at Andy Kirschenman’s farming blog, also writes that tramplining doesn’t require too many radical changes over what farmers are already doing.

But machinery operators need to know where the tramplines are and use them. Operators also need to pay close attention, or else the farm may need to invest in a more accurate GPS unit. Fankhauser writes that tramplining the headlands is also difficult, especially on a circular pivot.

— Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Grainews at Livelong, Sask. Follow her @LtoG on Twitter.

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