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Agricultural Hydraulics Lyndsey Nash

Hydraulics – Feeding The World 

Like health, the usefulness of hydraulics sometimes only becomes apparent in its absence.  Pictures of agricultural workers of centuries past may look attractive on greetings cards, but in reality, it was gruelling and sometimes dangerous work.  The adoption of hydraulic technology not only made agriculture physically less demanding on the workers, but also more efficient and with the growth in world population over the 20th century, the point is becoming increasingly important.  While it may be too much to expect farmers to be expert engineers as well, it is useful to have at least a foundation in how hydraulic technology benefits agriculture.

From Horsepower To Precision Planting

Hydraulic technology was initially adopted, quite literally, to replace horses.  Great, heavy horses gave way to tractors, which depended on hydraulics both internally (for braking and steering) and externally (for lifting or digging).  In many cases some degree of human intervention was still required and in some cases this could be quite significant.  Not only did earlier tractors need their actions (such as lifting or ploughing) to be carefully controlled by humans, but even then there was a relatively high degree of imprecision in the process, which meant either a certain level of wastage had to be accepted or humans had to undertake what was essentially clean-up work after the tractor had finished the bulk of it.  As the technology developed, however, hydraulics was combined with advanced electronics, to fine-tune pressure and flow way beyond the skill of any human operator.  This has resulted in such exciting developments as precision planters, which can not only deliver seed in the optimum way over a changing field, but also deliver fertilizer at the same time.  This gives the seed a much better chance of growing to maturity, leading to better yields and reduced costs, which can be passed on to the consumer.

The Technology Which Makes This Possible

Earlier hydraulic technology had fixed pressure and flow.  Depending on the situation it was sometimes possible to change the settings, but this required human intervention.  Modern tractors have a vastly greater hydraulic capacity than their predecessors with significantly more remote valves.  At the same time, the traditional PTO shaft (complete with chains and drive shaft) has largely given way to hydraulic pipes and hoses which are driven directly by the hydraulic motor, making for simpler operation, meaning high reliability.  As mentioned, the use of electronic controls allows for great precision, reducing wastage and therefore costs.  In short, the combination of hydraulics and electronics has allowed agriculture to move on from a human worker making their best judgement about what is required to a machine using vast amounts of data from sensors to decide what is required and adjusting itself accordingly.

What Does The Future Hold?

The coupling of the power of hydraulics with the precision of electronics opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities.  At a very basic level, it can simply be used to increase the efficiency with which the tractor operates, thereby reducing the amount of fuel used.  At a more complex level, it could be used to increase the range and scope of the tasks tractors can perform, thereby enabling micro-agriculture, a means of farming in which sensors throughout a field provide information on the precise conditions in each part of the field, so that farmers can optimize their processes with the highest possible degree of precision.

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