Tech component theft is becoming an expensive concern in the ag industry. Precision Agriculture Digital Digest provides advice to protect yourself and your investment
By Andrew Joseph
Farms.com Special Projects Editor
For as long as people have had nice things, others have coveted them, and the truly unscrupulous steal them.
In the days of yore, farmers had to be aware of cattle rustlers, horse thieves and folks trying to poach livestock, crops, equipment and such.
But nowadays, the new kick is stealing components—such is the case when it comes to precision ag equipment. Not only is it a hot topic, but it has become a hot commodity as a lucrative target for thieves.
It’s not the outright theft of an autonomous tractor, for example, but rather its parts. Expensive parts, and easily transportable parts—components that can be utilized in other technologies and in other sectors. Or at least that’s the feeling among law enforcement agencies, though others believe it’s only a matter of a quick, no-questions-asked transaction at an ag equipment fair.
Precision ag machinery uses GPS satellite receivers and a controller in the cab for exacting control of the equipment. However, the biggest targets for theft appear to be auto-guidance monitors and antennas—perhaps because both are easy enough to remove without damaging the components.
Some pundits believe the microchips contained within the monitors draw interest because of a global shortage of micro chips.
It Takes A Thief
Central Illinois Ag, a Clinton, Illinois-based ag shop, recently discovered the theft of some of its precision ag machinery components.
A Degelman Industries, L.P. representative was planning to move a tractor from the ag shop to an event, when it was discovered that the auto guidance monitor and antenna were missing.
The ag retailer knew it was present in its vehicle the day before, having calibrated the tractor in anticipation of the demonstration.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only ag shop to be hit that night. Although the Clinton shop had eight precision ag components—all monitors and antennas—stolen, an additional four tractors and five combines were hit at its Atlanta store. Bane-Welker Equipment and AHW, LLC dealerships were also hit on different dates and locations, as well.
Because of the large number of thefts, and the distance between the robbery sites, law enforcement does not consider it to be the work of an individual. While unstated, it’s either several individuals with the same idea, or the onset of an organized ring or rings, which we know is hardly encouraging.
For a spot of good news for any shop or farm experiencing a theft, although the microchips are not able to be tracked, the monitors and antennas can be disabled to render them useless to anyone looking to reuse—provided the precision ag equipment uses a system that allow that function, such as the AFS Connect from manufacturer Case IH.
Over in the United Kingdom, reports have also surfaced of precision ag component theft, where two monitors and antenna were stolen in north Devon from a tractor, as well as other similar thefts in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. And there have been reports of more around the globe.
In the US, it was estimated that agricultural crime resulted in some $5-billion in losses annually—and this was data from a 2007 report. The lack of more recently dated reports is also indicative of how little ag crime is considered important in society today.
Of those estimated losses, however, the report noted that only about 12-percent of all ag-related crimes were reported to the police.
When theft of precision ag components does occur, there is a lot of ancillary damage affected to the vehicle such as cut wiring, or scratches or dents.
And because of the specific types of components being stolen, parts replacement may not be quick or simple, meaning the vehicle could be out of service for an extended period of time. Downtime, of course, implies loss for the precision ag farmer, be it in crop yield opportunity, time or income.
While it can be expected that most victimized ag farmers and dealers have some form of insurance to protect themselves, the non-availability to use the stolen products impacts farmers directly in the form of lower profits or costs that are passed down to the consumer in the form of higher prices. It’s cliché, but crime affects everyone.
The Simple Solution Is The Best
Short of having guards stationed 24/7 around the farm and in particular the higher-valued precision ag equipment—a costly solution—there are other options.
Deterrent options might include free-roaming guard dogs, such as often seen in auto repo facilities, or the use of motion-detection lighting systems may also frighten off would-be thieves.
Motion-capturing cameras or CCTV systems are also a choice but are probably only good for providing details of the theft to authorities, rather than its prevention.
However, the wide-open nature of the industry—be it ag retail shop or farm—precludes usage of such deterrents unless the valuable tech is purposely moved to a more secure singular area.
Vehicles could certainly be transferred to a lockable shed when not in use, but if someone wants in, they will find a way. And placing everything under one roof can have the unwanted effect of making things easier for the criminal mind.
The most obvious preventative solution is for farm operators to unplug their precision ag components—those capable of being removed by the user—from their machinery after use and place it somewhere secure and then bring it back to reinstall in the morning.
It’s simple and obvious. And it is achievable.
So far, the criminals involved in precision ag tech components are looking for the quick and easy theft in lonely outdoor locales—as such, moving the components to a lockbox within a locked room within a locked facility could be a triple-deterrent.
Loss & Recovery
Recommended, though hardly a deterrent or preventative solution, is to cross your T’s and dot your I’s and make sure you have access to your equipment’s documentation.
Ensure you have the Make, Model and Serial Number of all your equipment—whether it’s precision ag related or not. It won’t stop it from being stolen, but it certainly can aid in you getting it back should the goods be recovered.
Noted earlier in this article was the reluctance to report ag crime to the police. However, regardless of how insignificant you believe it to be, a crime is a crime is a crime, and should be reported immediately, especially in the event of a robbery.
Reporting a crime like theft is also important when later dealing with your insurance company—if you don’t take it seriously, why should they?
While some individuals may feel personal embarrassment for having been the victim of a crime—don’t. By reporting your issues, you provide a local area warning for your peers. The same holds true for retailers—don’t be afraid to inform customers to allow them to be better prepared.
Hopefully with common sense prevailing, there are other ways to prepare oneself against theft.
A hi-tech identification mark can be used, such as a forensic marking solution or a forensic marking warning sticker applied to your equipment in a very visible location. You want would-be thieves to see it to possibly prevent a theft from occurring.
An old-school solution is the use of a roll-on theft-prevention stamp. Its purpose is the same as its high-tech brethren—to warn a would-be thief that the component is marked. A knock against it is that it is hardly a practical application on a precision ag antenna.
If your system has a pin number password for input, ensure it is being used. John Deere, for example, use a security pin code system to lock its StarFire 6000 vehicle when not in use. The pin password system will not prevent a vehicle from being stolen nor will not be able to stop a component from being removed—but it can stop it from being used by others.
Having said that, the truly tech savvy criminal enterprise may possess the means of breaking the pin, if Hollywood movies have taught us anything. At worst, you make the thief work for it.
Theft, no matter the scope, is no laughing matter. Even if not directly affected, feelings of being invaded by strangers on or in your property can play on the emotional state of the mind.
To provide more peace of mind, the only solution at this juncture appears to be for the owner/operator of precision ag technology to remove it when not in use and lock it in a safe location.
For future resolutions, it may be up to the precision ag manufacturer itself. Can removable technology be created where a pin number must be first inputted to allow it to be removed, with total equipment failure if not done? How about adding facial recognition or thumb print software to allow the component to be accessed in the same way our wireless phones use that technology?
Will the next generation of precision ag technology provide affordable security features to prevent theft or repurposing of its components? Precision ag owners are willing to embrace the future with open eyes regarding technology and the security it can offer.
This article was included in the 2021 December Precision Agriculture Digital Digest — view it here.