Technology In Overdrive

It cannot stand alone. It has to be weaved into the fabric of the business.

When it comes to technology and precision agriculture at Jimmy Sanders Inc., this is the simple golden rule for making it work. The top-down commitment to integrating technology into every aspect of grower service has put Sanders among the nation’s most imaginative and innovative users of agricultural technology.

“What has separated us is that we have not risen and fallen with the tides in terms of technology,” says Jeff Dearborn, who has been in charge of implementing technology at Sanders for more than a decade. “It’s never been a fad — we integrated it into the way we do business.

“I have been fortunate in that the owners have known where they wanted the company to be on technology,” he continues. “They always felt it was going to be a long-term investment, not a quick buck. We have had some tough times when it has been more difficult to show the value, but it has been good for the company as a whole. I have always had a seat at the table with seed, fertilizer, and chemical planning, and technology influences the decision in every aspect.”

From the beginning of its technology integration movement, Jimmy Sanders aimed at creating a holistic precision offering that took grower-clients from planning to planting to harvest. It started a decade ago, when the retailer launched its OptiGro program. Pioneering for its time, OptiGro was designed as an all encompassing full-service precision program for growers with clearly defined services and value.

“It started with our commitment to accurately record and map the field boundaries for every customer’s field,” says Dearborn. “It took a lot of time and effort, and field salespeople had to accept that it was part of their responsibilities to get it done,” he explains, but he and his crew knew that it would be the key to all other services.

Jimmy Sanders has continuously built on that foundation of data year after year, and the retailer provides a full menu of precision services and data management under its OptiGro program. “The data has had business benefits for us as well,” notes Dearborn. “For example, it provided us a lot of market share information, and showed us where products and traits were going in our market area. We could spatially sort and process the data in a massive way vs. field by field.”

Looking For The ‘Next Big Thing’

Keeping on top of technological trends in agriculture requires constant evaluation of new technologies. Dearborn says he is fortunate to have two individuals on his team who have been instrumental on this front, Clint Jayroe and Carey Webb.

“Every year we evaluate new technologies. We need to commit the time to understand how they work, how to market them, and how to incorporate them,” he says. “One person can’t do it all. We rely on them to do the heavy lifting.”

One of these new technologies is the AutoProbe, a GPS-guided, automated soil sampling machine manufactured by AgRobotics. Dearborn’s team is working intimately with AgRobotics to make best use of the technology in Sanders’ operation, while also helping the company get the technology off the ground.

“We’ve been working with Sanders on getting out the logistical kinks and making it a viable service for them,” says Jeff Burton, AgRobotics president. Working with Sanders, AgRobotics has evolved into a service organization, which owns and operates the AutoProbe units and provides the georeferenced soil sampling service to Sanders customers.

Adding Telematics

Jimmy Sanders’ recent integration of telematics is another manifestation of that commitment to improving service and efficiency using smart technology.

In short, telematics marries global positioning systems with mobile communications and computer technology to bring a whole host of powerful tools to an end-user.

The telematics trend was one of the concepts that Dearborn watched closely as it became more prevalent in the consumer market. The most visible manifestation of telematics technology has been the growth of the OnStar system in cars, but the increasing power of handheld communication devices like the Blackberry and iPhone also revealed the potential of telematics technologies.

Not unlike many technological breakthroughs, telematics has been slow to emerge in agriculture. It can be frustrating to wait and watch, but Dearborn feels it also provides an advantage. “We have the luxury of being at the tail end of adoption,” he says. “All you have to do is follow general trends in technology to predict what’s coming.”

A couple of years ago, Dearborn got the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Equipment manufacturer GVM was developing a suite of telematics-based tools specifically designed for custom applicators called AgJunction. Being long-time partners on the equipment side, Sanders became one of the first retailers to sign up for the new product, GVM Telematics.

Aaron Hunt, who heads up the AgJunction initiative for GVM, says that there are three primary functions that Sanders is using. First, sending and receiving data and transferring files wirelessly; second, tracking the movements of machinery in the field; and third, monitoring and recording machine efficiency, performance, and maintenance.

To maximize the benefit of these capabilities, Hunt worked with Dearborn and his team to integrate the capabilities into Sanders’ OptiGro program to ensure that the systems worked efficiently and in harmony. The connectivity made possible ensures that every piece of machinery operates like a remote office, sending and receiving data as if the rig cabs and locations were cubicles in an office building. On the equipment side, Field Application Equipment Manager Bob Griffin at Sanders was in charge of making sure that the system was going to work in the retailer’s fleet.

The GVM Telematics package is virtually turnkey today, with all of the hardware, software, and cellular subscriptions provided. The rig system includes a cellular signal receiver and a programmed in-cab computer — the Raven VIPER because it features built-in wireless communication capability.

“GVM Telematics will work with more in-cab displays in the future as they come out with wireless capabilities,” says Hunt. Development emphasis now and in the future is on building a system that works anywhere with any color machine or brand of display.

Hunt notes that the cellular contracts are purchased and maintained by GVM to eliminate confusion and make things more streamlined. Cell service can be added or changed by Sanders using GVM as a third party.

All Systems Go

The system used by Sanders starts with a work order. That order is tied to a field boundary, and is assigned to an asset. The software in the VIPER downloads the work order to the cab, and it is ready to go. After completing the work, it generates an as applied file and an invoice and automatically changes the job status — all of which is transferred wirelessly to the main office.

A big time saver? You bet. “Back in the old days, when a work order had to be changed, you just naturally took out two disks because one would fail,” says Hunt. “Flash drives are better, but you still need someone running them out to the field. This technology virtually eliminates that problem.”

Back at the main offices, an Internet-based software program gives every manager access to a screen that shows the location of all the retailer’s assets on an electronic map in real time. Assets can be monitored and reassigned based on customer requests or even expected weather events.

On the back end is a rich pool of data for managers to consider and make future decisions. Machinery operation data reveals how much product is spread over any period of time, as well as time spreading vs. time driving. The data help managers make decisions about logistics, equipment replacement, and find holes in an applicator’s performance.

It’s also helped solve the elusive “shrinkage” problem. “Every location has found spread acres that did not get billed, especially with fertilizer,” says Dearborn. “It’s a constant battle to remember what got done when you’re working so hard, but with the system we have a better handle on acres applied and product shipped.”

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