Cost of Variable Rate Technology Equipment (9/1/2018)

By Kevin Martin

For the Efficient Vineyard project, we have borrowed a lot of things, including technology for field crops and philosophy from outgoing federal reserve chairman, Janet Yellen.  Previous policy was informed by expectations, history and experience.  Yellen took the Reserve down a different path, one that is "informed by incoming data."

While history, experience and future expectations remain important, we now have an opportunity to follow the philosophy of "data dependent decision-making."  This means that growers still make decisions but those decisions are informed by data.  If data is going to improve outcomes we need good data.  We also need to know how much it costs to get good data.  For us that means, at a minimum, three pieces of technology and accessories:

  • A sensor

    • Active Multispectral sensor $4,150 (Crop Circle, Optrix, etc.)

    • Data Logger

      • GeoScout X: $1,400

      • GPS

        • Basic GPS included with GeoScout

        • Cables

          • $335

At its most basic level the hardware will cost $5,885.  For growers fewer than 200 acres and/or growers with few employees this might be the right place to begin gathering data.  For growers with high labor costs and manually intensive practices, this system would be adequate.  Such a grower might add a higher quality GPS and a few handheld units to assist in communicating location and management strategy to employees.

Many growers, rather than buying this system, take advantage of the free loaner sensor program through LERGP.  Once comfortable with data patterns and data based decision-making, the primary motivation to invest in the technology becomes the ability to automate sub-block management.  Growers want to track employees that are completing variable rate and non-variable rate tasks.  Larger growers also seek sprayers and fertilizer spreaders that do not require constant ground speed and calibration.  To execute variable rate management, though, growers still need data.

  • A sensor

    • NDVI sensor $2,900

    • Field Computer

      • Ag Leader 1200 or similar: $5,500

      • GPS

        • Basic GPS $100

        • Advanced GPS $2,800+

        • Cables

          • $300 - $500

          • Software

            • $1,000

            • Flow controllers

              • $750 - $1,600 per attachment

For $9,000 - $11,000 Ag Leader and Trimble offer fairly basic systems. Particularly when spending closer to $11,000, these systems are highly upgradable and offer tools to mechanize variable rate management as well as labor/fleet management.

Variable Rate Practices A grower can easily move GPS and tractor computers from one tractor or harvester to another. In one part of the season it can be used for gathering NDVI data and in another part of the season it can be used for variable rate thinning or variable rate fertilizer. Flow controller would be necessary for each mechanized variable rate implement. The cost of those controllers would vary based on the number of controllers necessary, the amount of flow, and the type of controller. If variable rate control is desired any hydraulic motor or water flow can be controlled through variable rate technology for less than $3,000 including the cost of dealer install.

A few popular production practices are not always powered by hydraulic motors but conversions are possible. A grower converting a fertilizer spreader from a ground or PTO driven chain to hydraulic would need to spend about $4,000. Growers that hire dealers to do the conversion would probably spend about $6,000. This would include the cost of variable rate control. Conversions are fairly unusual so costs are approximate. These systems are usually purchased when a grower upgrades to a new fertilizer spreader. Total cost of a new “smart” fertilizer spreader would be $13,000 - $15,000.

The commercial availability of shoot thinning devices is questionable. The Oxbo shoot thinner added $2,500 - $3,000 to the Oxbo V-Mech system cost. Purchase of the whole system was $25,000 and rose to nearly $40,000 before the line was sold to Mid-west grower supply. Further developments are being made to the line before new systems are sold. A grower or equipment dealer that reengineered a shoot thinning device could easily build a unit for less than $3,000 if the system was mounted to an existing tool arm. Variable rate control would add an additional $2,100 for a total of $5,100.

Costs of other sensors The commercially available yield monitor from Ag Leader is a modified impact plate that is essentially a load cell.  It is available as an option on the new Oxbo grape harvesters.  The cost of this equipment on a new harvester is approximately $7,000 for the sensor.  A display and GPS would add another $7,500 to the cost if the grower needed a stand-alone unit.  Another yield monitor is available from ATV.  This Australian yield monitor uses load cells and requires significant modification of the discharge conveyor.  Installed the cost of this system is approximately $17,000.  Data is owned and processed by ATV in the dormant season.  

Gregoire will be releasing a yield monitor.  It appears to be available as they roll out their new line of harvesters.  For 2018 only GLS 7 and 8 harvesters with dual bins were equipped with yield monitors.  By 2020 Gregoire expects all GLS 7 and 8 models to have an ooptional yield monitor.  Development of the G9 is a bit slower due to lower international volumes but will likely have yield monitoring technology when it is updated.

A Brix monitor  for logging and mapping Brix at harvest is currently in development.  The cost of the system is largely unknown.  It's possible that the monitor owuld integrate with existing tractor computers or data logging technology.  This would substantially lower the cost of adoption.

Current research is focused on very high quality brix monitors designed for industrial applications. The current cost of a sensor and display are approximately $9,500 - $14,500. Customized mechanical hardware is in the experimental phase but will add cost. If a sensor is developed specifically for agriculture that integrates with Ag specific technology, we could see the cost of the sensor drop by 50% - 90%.

Soil EC mapping identifies soil types and can be used to layer over other data to help identify a source of variability. It may also assist in variable rate fertilizer prescription maps. These sensors with data loggers start at around $15,000. More sophisticated EC sensors can increase cost to nearly $30,000. We’ve identified EC as the most likely candidate for shared resources and/or consultant services. Just a few sensors could fill the needs of the entire region at a cost of $20 - $40 per acre.

Carnegie Mellon University is working to develop a hq stereo camera sensor. The sensor is not commercially available but has a target price of $30,000 or less. With no commercial partner yet identified, there is a high risk that there will not be widespread adoption for at least five years. The higher purchase price will probably not help some sectors of the grape industry adopt the technology. The promise in the technology is the reliance on software. If it can see it, it can be taught to count it. When applied to a 3-D world, certain limitations do arise but it does offer a possible solution that could replace multiple sensors.

Where to start? 

Once you become familiar with the technology and develop a plan for realistic adoption that will provide actionable data, the technology that each operation should purchase may be slightly different. At this time NDVI and yield provide the most actionable data. With these two sensors and georeferenced data it is possible to map crop load.

For growers that own modern harvesters that are upgraded with yield monitors it probably makes the most sense to upgrade the harvester to have variable rate thinning capabilities. Once data is gathered for a couple of years the grower can identify what variable rate technology is most important to them. If the grower does start with these sensors, a variable rate fruit thinning upgrade to a harvester would be the least expensive practice to implement.

Extension Services Both extension and consulting services are important to the implementation of variable rate management. Data processing and management have the potential to add moderately or significantly to the cost of variable rate management. In future articles we can discuss the costs of data management and processing. At this stage of the project we continue to work toward decreasing those costs.

The economics of sensor technology rest on the benefits of actionable data. Field crops had decades of data that many growers never acted upon. Efficient Vineyard is focused on trials in commercial vineyards to show real- world impacts of variable rate technology.

This costs how much?


A 200-acre grower is going to end up with quite a bit of technology if the eventual goal is to variable rate all practices. The grower will have around $10,000 invested in canopy and yield sensors. The grower would also have another $4,000 in consulting fees to obtain soil sensor data. Total cost $14,000 (plus whatever the cost a brix monitor ends up at). The grower will have equipment upgrades the allow for variable rate control as well as the variable rate controllers on a fertilizer spreader, grape harvester a shoot thinner and perhaps eventually a fungicide sprayer. Total cost $13,900. The grower then needs to buy the brains. The most expensive tractor computers come with unlocked features and can interchangeably accomplish any task. An Ag Leader 1200, for example, could log data today and fruit thin tomorrow. A simple data logger, would be limited in scope but allow a grower to inexpensively log data with one tractor while another tractor thins shoots. In all a grower is likely to spend $14,000 on data loggers and field computers. This would give the grower at least one data logger and two field computers. Total cost $14,000. The grower also needs GPS. While field computers are interchangeable, the intermixing of branded products is still basically impossible. This does increase the cost of GPS. For a grower that decided to have two field computers and a data logger, he’d likely have two high quality GPS units and one inexpensive GPS. Total cost $6,000.

Total hardware cost of converting a vineyard into an efficient vineyard: Up to $48,000. We fully expect the adoption of all practices to either be phased in over time or perhaps a grower would stick with a few variable rate components and never adopt others. It might be realistic to substantially decrease vine size variability and increase yield potential for less than $35,000.