When we think of the areas and cities and regions that ag technology innovations are currently being spun out of, we tend to think of places like Silicon Valley, Boston (a lot of IoT innovation comes out of the East Coast), and maybe the Pacific Northwest and a place like Seattle, where as I type this up the rest of our editorial team from PrecisionAg.com and Meister’s Global Precision Initiative (GPI) at large is putting a bow on our third annual Vision Conference.
The Morton, IL, area (about 2.5 hours south of Chicago, due east of Peoria) is not your typical ag tech incubator-type region. It’s a bit more Krispy Kreme than kale and kombucha, if you catch my drift 😉
And yet, with Greg Sauder’s Yield Center 360 headquartered a stone’s throw south of I-74 in Morton Township, and agronomically-focused aftermarket equipment innovator Precision Planting a mere 10 miles to the south, off I-155 in Tremont, one could argue that this sleepy, Midwest Cowtown-area is putting out, per-capita, more ag tech innovation than perhaps any other spot in the lower 48.
MORE BY MATTHEW J. GRASSI
Precision Planting’s (PP) annual Winter Conference is what brought me to a frozen, snow-choked Central Illinois this past week. Admittedly, I had never been to a PP event, but I’d heard good things.
First, I would be remiss if I did not applaud the overall production value of the event, what with being a member of the media and therefore a total sucker for flashy, splashy presentations (Hey, you sit through years of droning hotel conference room PowerPoints and you’ll appreciate a few strobe lights and some production value, OK?). Halfway through the opening remarks I half-expected a black mock turtlenecked Steve Jobs to come jogging on stage and start expounding on the potential of precision ag tech, but i digress…
General Manager Justin Kaufmann kicked things off for the day, welcoming the winter-weary crowd of growers and Precision Planting dealers and outlining the day’s loose theme of “Measure and Adjust.”
“This is really, as we go out and make decisions, we have to start with good measurement,” he told the assembled crowd as they snacked on coffee and donuts to shake off the mid-January morning cobwebs. “When we have good measurement, we can go out and we can make better decisions. And of course, we all know one measurement that really matters every year, and that’s yield.”
The main news of the day was the launch of two new planter-add on products, FurrowForce, a row-closing system for planters that utilizes a sensor to automate control, and SmartDepth, another sensor-based innovation that allows planting depth control and changes right from the cab, replacing the old T-handle that an operator had to manually adjust after stopping the tractor and jumping out of the cab, with an electric drive motor. Additionally, a new 20/20 Connect Mobile App, and software updates that bring WiFi connectivity and over-the-air updates to the 20/20 display, were also announced.
FurrowForce takes what has been historically a single stage process (closing wheels pinch soil together and BAM! Furrow closed) and takes it multi-stage, instead of pinching the top layer of soil PP’s new dual notch closing wheels gently move soils inward before actually “stitching” the top of the furrow together in a way that actually maintains moisture better, according to the company.
“Closing a seed trench, it seems like an extremely simple process on the surface when in actuality it is a very complex process with multiple variables that we can’t control,” says Matt Bennett, region manager sales lead.
FurrowForce 2018 beta-test plot results showed a nearly eight bushel per acre yield bump in what the company characterized a “challenging no-till system.”
SmartDepth, meanwhile, is a rather interesting new product, in that when combined with the company’s critically-acclaimed SmartFirmer seed trench sensing seed firmer, a planter can adjust it’s planting depth automatically, on the fly, based on readings from the SmartFirmer on in-furrow conditions like soil temperature, moisture, and organic matter. The operator sets up both the minimum and maximum seeding depth targets in the 20/20 monitor (based, again, on data from the SeedFirmer readings), as well as the target moisture percentage the grower was looking to plant into (in many cases SmartDepth will auto adjust to locate 30% moisture), and now you have a smart planter that can automatically seek out the most ideal areas of the field to seed high populations into.
“Moisture-based agronomy” is how marketing manager Bryce Baker coached it, if I am remembering correctly….
“Moisture-based agronomy, I would say, has always been in play,” he explains. “For hundreds of years, when growers planted they wanted to ‘get into moisture’ because that’s what it takes to germinate a seed. For us, the real advance came just a few years ago with the Precision Planting SmartFirmer, which gave us the ability to measure moisture as we’re planting, as opposed to having to get out of the cab and dig in every field. Now with SmartFirmers they can be on every row of the planter, measuring how much moisture is in that furrow.
“And so, that is truly the sensor and then the measurement is what enables the ability of SmartDepth to change planting depth based on moisture,” Baker continues. “A system that just allows a depth change but doesn’t really have a sensor to capture measurements (ie data) regarding where the depth should be, that doesn’t really give us, or growers, any agronomic benefit. It’s a nice feature for ease-of-use, but SmartDepth combines both ease-of-use, I can adjust planting depth directly from the cab, and the capability of that SmartFirmer sensor telling the depth control what moisture to plant into, or what depth to plant into to be at moisture.”
My next question for Baker was around corporate strategy than specific to any of the new products launched in Tremont that day. More along the lines of how Precision Planting is bringing automation to every aspect of the planting operation – typically the most time-sensitive activity for a grower in any given year, as well as one of the most labor intense – in order to get growers out of the cab quicker and back to their families, yet never sacrificing performance or precision.
“We focus on agronomy,” Baker told me. “Every product has to provide a return-on-investment (ROI) and a payback and make money for the grower over years of use. If products are difficult or complicated to use, if I have to burn way to many calories to understand even how to operate the planter, than we’re actually going backwards, because the agronomic benefit is pretty much completely wiped-out by the complexity of the product.
“So we strive to provide a producer – when they’re in the cab and they have complete control of their planter and it’s easy to interpret the display, it’s easy to make adjustments to the automated system – that’s where we can save them (customers) time. V-Drive is a perfect example of this, where I’ll never have a drive system problem that is mechanical with bearings and chains and sprockets, those types of things, and so I’ll never have to fix those things mid-season, and I’ll have more time to spend with my family and also get the crop planted.”
Premier Dealer Talks Precision Planting Benefits
Having gotten the gospel straight from the horse’s mouth (is that how that saying goes? DERP.), I wanted to speak with someone from Precision Planting’s extensive dealer network. Lucky for me, I happened to bump into Owen Gudeman, owner, On Top Precision Ag (Kouts, IN), a Premier Dealer since 2004, just as we were being dismissed for lunch.
I asked Gudeman whether everything we were seeing in Tremont that day – the advanced agronomic research, the agronomically-focused new products – whether by attaching the Precision Planting name to his local dealership brought with it community standing as the local agronomy leader?
“Without a doubt, for sure,” Gudeman responds. “Precision (Planting) has always been out in front and answering questions, and if you continue to come to their meetings and listen there’s a lot of times you can start to get a direction and understand the direction that they’re going to be going in the next couple years. Just like we saw here today with (the debut) FurrowForce, they’ve been talking about the closing system for what, five to seven years now? Talking about row-closing and making that a priority, and so when they come with a new product it’s not just some random shot in the dark, throwing something out there and just seeing if it sticks. It’s research-backed and ROI focused, and growers appreciate that. They’re looking out for your dollar as a grower.”
Another one of my takeaways from the event was just the overall data visualization capabilities that PP’s 20/20 Display gives to the operator in the cab. Does the lightbulb just immediately go on when Gudeman and his crew show a grower the 20/20 and all the ways they can interact with and visualize data as they traverse the field?
“It does. The lightbulb goes on, and I’d agree, it’s extremely powerful,” Gudeman shares. “One of the main beauties of that system is, once you can understand what that screen is telling you – and believe me, at first glance it can look real busy – but when you can settle down and look at it and understand what it’s telling you, you can know everything about that planter, and you can know how every row is doing individually, without touching a button. And then it gives you the ability to dive in and go into each row and see…I mean, it’s like you’re looking at the heartbeat of every planter row unit.
“Having that thing live and in front of you, customers are constantly playing with different speeds or planting depths, things with tillage, and they see how the planter reacts instantly, and they realize that planter they’re pulling isn’t just a tool, but it’s ALIVE,” Gudeman says. “And the things that they’re doing in the operators seat are making that tool change, and they can do the best job, immediately, and not have to wait until later to look at the data and figure out what they should’ve done.”
Head here to read the new product details from Precision Planting’s event press release.