Retail dealership Ceres Solutions LLC, Crawfordsville, IN is using a variety of technology tools to make its precision program run more efficiently. Troy Walker, GIS team leader at Ceres, shared details on some of the systems the company has in place, and where he would like to see technology move in the future.
Q. What is Ceres using for logistics?
We use two programs to help manage our soil and tissue sampling side of the business. One that we developed is called Tracker, and the second is John Deere’s AgLogic program, which we have been using for about 4 years.
We actually got in on AgLogic early on, and while it has a lot more functionality on the fertilizer and chemical application side that we don’t use, we like the general concept of seeing open orders spatially. We cover thirteen counties on the Indiana-Illinois border, really from Lake Michigan all the way down to the Ohio River – it’s a very narrow, long territory, and you can’t know all the fields. We run our samplers out of a couple of locations, and use interns in summer for sampling.
The staff I have doing soil and tissue sampling does not first-hand experience with fields that our well-seasoned branch managers would, so a logistics program lets me schedule more efficiently. When viewing fields that need to be sampled, I can see what fields are next to another fields and assign samplers so they are not traveling all over the territory.
It maximizes time spent in field – it has been a huge help for us in that regard. The way it used to be, it was all Google Earth and PLAT maps. That is challenging because while you do have a map of that field, it is still hard unless you are familiar enough with the fields to know where they lay in relation to the other fields around them. For example, you might naturally assume that the Troy Walker home farm is close to their residence, in reality we see growers with fields that stretch 20 to 50 miles apart. So, more efficiency in our ability to schedule is the primary advantage of using AgLogic.
We can also set routes strategically, for example, schedule a sampler to start at the farthest point from his or her house and work back toward home by end of the day. And we also can generate turn by turn directions, which saves a lot of time and hassle. Finally, if all that fails we can go online and look at look at where the location is, where they are, and provide directions
The Tracker program was developed about 10 years ago from necessity. I’m not sure how others handle it, but we used to get growers telling us in a lot of different ways – phone calls, faxes, emails – when a field was harvested and ready to sample. It’s really challenging for us during the busy time to get a call like that when you’re in the middle of something else to put it on a schedule. You write it on a piece of paper and later on you can’t find it. Not having field results for a grower because of a misplaced or forgotten order is not a good place to be.
Tracker allows the salesman to go in anytime and put fields in that they know are going to get sampled. Once in the system, we have a bar code system we use for our lab, which eliminates extra paperwork.
In the Tracker system, the field sits in a “not ready” status, and when it is harvested the salesman logs in and click and field is ready. That field automatically transferred into the AgLogic program and we know to send a person in to do the sample. It eliminates the need to rely on calls, faxes and other means of communication. We still miss things from time to time, but it cuts down on errors.
It also allows us to track our performance, from who told us it was ready to go to when we actually got out there. It also tracks when we get results back from the lab, and how much time it took us to get recommendations back to the salesman, and it handles all billing for us.
On the tissue sampling side, similar to soil sales the salesman places an place order for work on a field, and if they go back in and give use the planting date for field the program will calculate growing degree days. The system pulled weather data every night, and calculates growing degree days for each region. Matching up growing degree days with a particular crop, the system can predict the growth stage that is optimal for sampling, assigns a tissue sampler and schedules an appointment on the farm through AgLogic.
The logistics capabilities are huge for tissue sampling, as we’ve grower from just a handful of customers to nearly 500 fields, and that’s a lot to track without some help.
Q. What would you like to see improved?
A. One of my grievances is that the platforms that AgLogic makes available to use for giving directions and generating orders are very limited. In fact, we only have two choices – the Intermex CN70 ruggedized handhed computer, which costs about $3000, or phones with Windows CE. They stopped making Windows CE phones, so getting them and keeping them functional is a constant challenge. We joke that Ceres has cornered the market on CE units. We’ve been talking to John Deere about this and hopefully they will come forward with an update, or something that works on a tablet.
On the sampling side we use SST, so we are really looking forward to having Sirrus to use when it is released as a tablet app this year. sampling uses SST so hopefully they will ge cirrus released to the public and we will be on tablet.
Last, I hope tablets in the future come with better GPS reception than they currently have, It’s not that good and not repeatable … we tried a Bluetooth attachment and that still is not working well. We’re not looking for RTK level accuracy, but we’d like to be consistently within a foot or two. I’d also like to see more development on the Android platform.