Can Tires Enhance Precision Agriculture? Yes, and Here’s Why

May 14, 2020

Modern Tire Dealer has partnered with AG Tire Talk to provide answers to insightful questions that farm tire dealers have about farm tire technology. This is the 12th in an ongoing series, which is designed to help farm tire dealers better connect with their customers. A trending question, followed by an abridged version of the answers, will appear in our Commercial Tire Dealer section every other month.

QUESTION: How do you define precision agriculture, how do tires interact with precision applications and what is the impact on tire usage, buying criteria and future product development?

Nick Phillippi, national product manager, Alliance Tire Americas Inc.: Precision agriculture is all about using data to achieve exactness and is focused on optimizing all the inputs possible to optimize yield. As a tire manufacturer, we utilize an extraordinary amount of precision in designing, engineering, creating and testing our tires. But once they’re in the field, the only variable farmers can really optimize on their tires is inflation pressure.

Fortunately, central tire inflation system technology helps tires become more of a precision input, because operating tires at the proper inflation pressure reduces soil compaction and improves traction, fuel economy, slip, rolling resistance and tire life. The ability to adjust inflation pressure from the cab is as big a revolution as the ability to adjust fertilizer rates or seed population on the go.

There’s also a less-direct connection between precision agriculture and tires. If we can get access to the amazing stream of data being collected by today’s equipment, it could help us further improve tire design. Connecting inflation pressure data from a tire pressure monitoring system chip and correlating it with the data on slip and speed from a tractor, we could collect a massive volume of valuable, straight-from-the-field insight into tire performance. With that insight, we could build and test new designs with different variables and make the best real-world decisions.

Of course, just like farmers choose the right hybrids for a field and the precise fertilizer rates to maximize their yield potential, they can also choose the right tires for their operation. Selecting a tread design, ply rating/load index, construction and size can have significant impacts on how the tires, the machinery and even the crops themselves perform.

Dave Paulk, manager field technical services, BKT USA Inc.: Precision agriculture is the application of using the right amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides at the right time to increase crop yields and protect the land. These practices can reduce the amount of each used and ensure that it is put in the right spots in a field to maximize yields. Farmers can gain a better return on their investment by saving on fuel, water, fertilizer, and pesticide costs.

Precision agriculture has been enhanced by using GPS and sensors to help find the right mix to get the most yield-per-acre of land. Emerging technologies include robots, self-driving/steering tractors, drones and satellite imagery, smartphone applications, machine learning and the internet of things.

The agricultural tires chosen can be important. Maintaining correct air pressures for the equipment used can decrease soil compaction and help increase yields. Soil compaction decreases the efficiency of water and nutrient absorption to the roots of the plant. Soil compaction also limits root growth and decreases yields. By managing soil compaction, the practices of precision agriculture and no-till farming can be greatly enhanced by decreasing runoff.

Increased flexion (IF) and very high flexion (VF) technologies used in agricultural tires can help with managing soil compaction, as well. An IF tire is designed to carry 20% more weight at the same air pressure as a standard tire. If air pressure can be dropped 20% and still carry the required weight, this would lessen the impact on the soil. A VF tire is designed to carry 40% more weight at the same air pressure as a standard tire. In this case, air pressure could be dropped 40% and carry the same weight as a standard tire.

As agricultural equipment gets heavier and faster, tire technology must also improve to keep up with these advancements. The future will see more VF technology tires in a wide array of sizes and for a variety of applications. As farmers look for ways to decrease operating costs and improve profits, they will also have to look for ways to improve and protect their land. Tires can be viewed as another cost of doing business or as an investment to help them reach their goals.

Jim Enyart, technical manager, CEAT Specialty Tires Inc.: Precision agriculture encompasses the utilization of the latest technologies to maximize production on individual fields. There are many components that contribute to maximizing production as well as returns. We start by reviewing each fields’ production history, including yields and quality, as well as weed and disease problems. Previous soil fertility information, along with fertilizer applications and herbicide programs and efficacy, need to be considered. Crop rotation, projected market prices or contracts, pH, soil fertility, previous weed and disease pressure are the main components that must be evaluated to make the best planting decisions. After you have identified the crop you are going to plant, you need to select the specific variety that works best for your conditions.

The need to maximize production and returns on each acre planted should include ag tire buying decisions. Soil compaction has detrimental effects on crop yields and needs to be managed as well as possible.

The latest tire technologies include radial-constructed tires, as well as IF and VF technology advancements. All of these technologies enable a farmer to reduce compaction. If you can decrease inflation pressures, you are decreasing the compaction primarily by increasing tire footprint.

Harm-Hendrik Lange, agriculture tires field engineer, Continental Agriculture North America: Precision agriculture has developed into a very wide field. In the beginning, it started with GPS steering systems and measuring and mapping yields, and it has become more and more complex over the past 20 years. Furthermore, fleet management systems have joined precision agriculture solutions, so not only is data collected about yield, fertilizer, seeds, and pesticide optimization, but many machine parameters also can be monitored. Fuel levels, fuel consumption per time/acre and even data which can lead to machine downtime — such as temperature, oil pressure, oil level and failure codes — can be analyzed by farmers, fleet owners or machine service partners.

Tires have always interacted  with each facet of agriculture, from spring tillage, spraying and planting to summer side dressing applications and beyond.

For precision agriculture, there are multiple possibilities where intelligent tires can improve safety, productivity and protect the environment by reducing future impact to the soil.

Many of those possibilities reach their full potential by working together with solutions offered from agricultural machinery original equipment manufacturers.

Greg W. Gilland, business development and ag segment manager, Maxam Tire International:  Precision agriculture is a management approach to farming operations based on measuring, observing and actively handling all the possible variables in crop farming. Much like the advent of VF technology, precision agriculture is incorporating every facet of technology to revolutionize how agricultural equipment operates in the field to maximize the yield of crops to ensure greater grower profits.

Precision agriculture demands the complete integration of all the field and crop production intelligence that can be gathered, including crop yields, terrain features, topography, organic matter content, moisture levels and nitrogen levels.

In many ways, tires are the last element to be incorporated into precision agriculture as they are not an integral mechanical or electrical component of the ag platform but rather part of the vehicle chassis as a mounted component. The key to successful implementation of tire technology in the field to maximize yields or influence precision agriculture lies in the active adjustment of tire air pressure when dynamically operating in the field or on the road. The tire’s air pressure not only carries the machine load but influences the size of the tire footprint, which has a direct impact on the ground contact pressure, resulting in greater or lower compaction. This ultimately dictates the crop yield and the grower’s profits.

For precision agriculture to truly meet the objective of improving growers’ yields, the equipment in operation would have to fully integrate every aspect of the machine’s operation to include the tire impact.

David Graden, operational market manager, Michelin North America Inc.: Precision agriculture is very basically defined as satellite farming. It is the use of GPS and satellite imagery to manage machine routes, observe and treat crop problem areas, build crop and yield maps, and so much more.

From a tire value standpoint, I have successfully used downward force maps from high speed planters with overlaid yield maps. In the image shown at the top of this page, this farmer allowed cattle to graze his fields in early spring every year. We discussed the potential issues that soil compaction caused by cattle can have on his overall yield. We blocked off one of his four fields from the cattle, measured the downward force it takes to plant the seed and then at the end of the season, we captured and overlaid yield maps. With this information, I was able to show the impact of about a 9% yield gain as a result of less soil compaction.

Regarding tire testing and machine operator habits, we often tie Michelin GPS equipment into the machine’s precision systems. This enables us to gather road speed and distances, field speed and distances, pitch and sway of the machine, stopping points, etc.

Finally, as central tire inflation systems continue to grow in popularity here in North America, I see nothing but upward momentum. Precision agriculture systems can feed an incredible amount of data that will not only drive the machine, but also the artificial intelligence required to run all aspects for total efficiency in machine operation in all seasons.

Scott Sloan, ag product manager/global LSW, Titan International Inc.: I define precision agriculture as a farming management system based on observation, measuring and responding to the constant variability of various soils and crops to optimize the efficiency of inputs like seed, herbicides and fertilizers to optimize crop yields, which will optimize the returns on those crops produced.

Tires have always interacted with each facet of agriculture, from spring tillage, spraying and planting to summer side dressing applications and beyond.

Each time a piece of equipment rolls across a field, it is having a major impact on the soil in those areas. Growers have been concerned with compaction issues long before GPS and the term precision agriculture ever came around. To me, the tire industry has been keeping pace with the ever-changing, wide variety of agricultural practices.

The major change we have seen in the market is the sheer size of the tires themselves. Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the standard tire on a four-wheel-drive tractor was a 480/80R42 and then moved to the 480/80R46.  At that time, one of the largest tire sizes was 710/70R38. 

Fast forward to today, a 480/80R50 is the standard rear tire on a MFWD and we are putting on LSW1400/30R46, which is currently the world’s largest ag tire, on four-wheel-drive tractors.  As equipment has gotten larger, the capacity of the tires has needed to increase.  

There are two ways to minimize ground bearing pressure, which equates to compaction, and that is to physically increase the size of the tire itself or increase the size of the actual footprint on existing sizes. 

This is done by decreasing the inflation pressures of the current tires and in effect increasing the footprint, distributing the load across a larger area.

Norberto Herbener, OE applications engineer, Trelleborg Wheel Systems:  Precision agriculture is the adoption of technology that increases the accuracy and reduces input needs. Basically, its objective is to increase the margin by increasing the yield and reducing the need for inputs. Tires have influence on several of these aspects as they are the link between the power of the equipment and how it’s transmitted to the ground. The correct set-up of the equipment includes setting the correct  inflation pressure of the tires. This process is mandated by the type of tire technology or where the tire will be working, the load that the tire must carry and at what speed this load will be carried.

The equipment manufacturer only releases tire sizes and configurations that “fit” their products. If the equipment is correctly ballasted, the first step to adjusting the tire inflation pressure is to weight the unit to the maximum load each tire must carry and at the desired speed.

Using tire manufacturers’ manuals, we can extrapolate the correct inflation pressure for the tire with the load and speed data. This optimal inflation pressure will adjust the tire to supply to the largest footprint possible, reduce soil compaction and enhance grip.

In the last few years, the trend has been for equipment manufacturers to develop larger units that are heavier and bigger, equipped with more monitoring and adjusting capabilities. Following this trend, the tire manufacturers have been stepping up to the plate by offering tires with higher load capacities and specific tread designs for different applications. Larger sizes and new compounds have been developed to address the needs and demands of farming operations that want tires with flexibility and durability.

Ken Brodbeck, vice president of technology, Precision Inflation LLC:  Today’s farm equipment utilizes GPS, variable rate planters, sprayers with individual row/section shut offs and self-adjusting combines.

Tires are now coming into the 21st century with variable technology to match. Consider your new car or pickup. Chances are they have a tire pressure monitoring device on their digital display. Does your eight-tire, $500,000 tractor tell you individual tire pressure levels? Probably not.

What if we not only could check tire pressure, but automatically adjust pressures for axle load, field vs. transport speeds and horsepower? This is where the industry is headed.

Today, tires must be inflated for the worst-case condition. But what if the machine is carrying only half of the maximum weight? Think of grain carts, sprayer, planters or combines. In these conditions, the tires are over-inflated for the load on the tire. What if the tire/machine can sense the tire has only 50% or 70% of the maximum load? The pressure can be reduced to match the actual load or speed the tire is experiencing, thus optimizing the tire’s performance for traction, flotation, wear and fuel economy. Today, the machine operator must know the load and speed for the tire to set the proper inflation pressure. 

Soon, we will have smart tires and machines that will talk to each other and then adjust tire pressure levels for specific conditions, rather than the maximum pressure for the heaviest load and highest speed, with no driver input required.    ■