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Published on 13 December 2023

A LARGE-SCALE cropping operation in northern NSW is set to become one of the first Australian farms to adopt fully autonomous cropping operations with the planned purchase of several revolutionary AgBot tractors.  

 

Developed by AgXeed, a Dutch technology start-up, AgBot tractors allow a range of monotonous tasks, including tramline renovation, spot spraying, and spreading, to be performed without an onboard operator. Beefwood Farms, a 12,500-ha aggregation between Goondiwindi and Moree, has taken delivery of its first tractor. If all goes to plan, the business intends to acquire another tractor each year for the next three years with the view of retiring several of its self-propelled sprayers and conventional tractors. Beefwood Farms is owned by Gerrit and Pam Kurstjens, together with their daughter, Marieke. Gerrit had effectively retired after a successful career as an agricultural contractor, transport operator and farm machinery manufacturer in the Netherlands when his passion for gliding brought him to Australia more than 20 years ago. Soaring high over the black soil plains of northern NSW, he was impressed by the region’s potential and decided to embark on a second career in broadacre farming. Gerrit and Pam purchased ‘Beefwood’ in 2006 and began converting the then 2500 ha livestock operation into a continuous cropping, controlled traffic min-till cropping system.

 

An enthusiastic adopter of technology, particularly those that minimise chemical usage, Gerrit and his team have been utilising optical sprayers for more than 15 years. “Optical spraying has reduced our chemical usage by 95%, we’re getting better weed control and we’re putting less chemical in our farming system,” farm manager, Glenn Coughran, says.

“The downside is that each sprayer is spending more time in the field, which is why we started looking at autonomous tractors about 10 years ago. “Gerrit knew some people in Europe who were making self-guided mowing equipment for use on golf courses and for highway maintenance. “He had to twist their arm to come to Australia to fit this technology to a 350 hp tractor but they agreed to have a go. “The engineer came over and installed the operating system on our Fendt 936 Vario. “It took about two weeks to get it going but it worked.” A John Deere 8345R was converted three years later. Over the following years, the two tractors clocked up more than 4000 driverless hours spraying more than 40,000 ha and renovating about 25,000 km of tramlines. Despite this success, Beefwood Farms was forced to abandon the project after the technology was sold to a farm machinery manufacturer in 2019.

 

“We were disappointed – we’d put a lot of time and money into making this work and we were nearly there,” Glenn says. “We’d got this to being about 95% perfect when we received an email saying the company had been sold and that technical support would no longer be available. “One of their technicians came out, stripped the gear out, gave us a cheque and that was the end of it. “We didn’t have the capabilities to do this ourselves so we had to give up. “It was like losing a couple of our best staff.” Undeterred, Gerrit contacted some of his former colleagues in the Netherlands who were developing their own autonomous tractor. After visiting several start-up companies in Europe and the USA, he placed one of the first orders following the commercial release of the AgBot platform last year.

 

The tracked AgBot 5.115T2 model is powered by a 4.1 L four-cylinder Stage 5 Deutz diesel engine that produces a maximum output of 155 horsepower and 610 newton-metres of torque. The engine drives a generator that in turn, powers the electrically driven tracks, PTO and 700-volt external electric supply. This hybrid system delivers maximum torque and efficiency at all speeds, without the need for ballast.

 

“There’s a reason why diesel-electric technology has been used in locomotives for more than 50 years – and that’s because it’s a proven and extremely efficient drivetrain,” Gerrit says.

The eight-tonne unit is equipped with front and rear linkages, high capacity hydraulics, RTK steering guidance and four separate collision avoidance systems. Two on-board cameras that are connected to the internet via Starlink allow remote monitoring of field operations. “AgBot really ticks my boxes,” Gerrit says. “It’s fully autonomous, it’s able to operate 24 hours a day, it’s on a three-metre track width, it’s reasonably economical to run and it’s low maintenance.” “This is a real tractor, it’s a just a smaller size.” The AgBot was immediately put to work renovating tramlines using a six-metre TPOS FlaTrac renovator. The AgBot has also been successfully paired with a 24 m Croplands Weed-It optical spraying unit. “So far, we are very happy with the AgBot and we have been pleasantly surprised about how easy it is to set up and operate,” Gerrit says.“It is a bit daunting that we’ve got the only unit in Australia but the back-up from AgXeed and Landpower has been great. “Setting it up for different uses, such as our 48 m Hayes Weed-It optical sprayer, is going to take a bit of work, but it’s something that has to be done.  “We plan to run this unit for as many hours as possible, even doing work that is not necessary, to uncover any problems before we put more units in the field.

“This is just the start and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”

“Yes, it is expensive, but we estimate we’ll halve our hourly operating cost by eliminating the need for a driver and doubling the operating life of the tractor,” Gerrit says. “We also expect that maintenance and fuel consumption will be much less, as our previous experience with autonomous tractors showed that humans tend to push the machine harder.”

 

These attributes make AgBot ideal for tedious jobs, such as tramline renovation or round-the-clock spraying. “Tramline renovation is probably the most boring job on the farm,” Glenn Coughran says.“We have about 8000 km of tramlines across the six properties and we try to renovate about one-third each year, usually following chickpeas when there is less crop residue.“This year we had three operators renovating tramlines all summer and some of them weren’t too happy about it.“Being able to do this automatically is not about reducing labour – it’s about being able to use your resources better. “We’re 55 km from town and we only have four to six full-time employees, so it’s important to get everyone doing what’s more important.”

The ultimate plan is to run a fleet of five AgBots performing everything from 24/7 ‘green on green’ optical spraying, spreading fertiliser to shuttling 60-tonne grain bins during harvest.“AgBot is going to take our spraying program to the next level,” Glenn says. “Provided conditions are right, we will be able to spray 24 hours a day plus we will be able to cost-effectively apply a second or even a third spray if we have to.“In time, we plan to retire two of our three self-propelled sprayers and let the AgBots take over. “We’ll probably end up employing a manager for the day-to-day operations of the AgBots, with other staff going out to refuel and fill the machines each day.”

AgXeed has already caught the eye of several corporate investors, including the German farm machinery manufacturers, CLAAS and AMAZONE, with the former recently appointed international distributor.

AgBot is distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Landpower, one of the largest privately-owned farm machinery distributors in Australasia. 

More information: Landpower Product Manager – Precision Farming, Haydon Martin, +61 447 184 250.

 

 

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