Precision Farming Dealer Staff Report

As a precision farming professional, you know how the analysis of hard data can remove much of the mystery from decision-making. A lot of decisions no longer need to be made on a hunch, bias, subjectivity or “who” suggested it.

So as we aimed to capture some of the more memorable pieces of Jack Zemlicka’s “From the Virtual Terminal” editorials from our twice-monthly e-newsletter, we let the numbers do the talking. What you see below are quick summaries of 15 of the most-viewed columns (in descending order) that appeared online over the last 12 months, and which have never been culminated in print before.

And with the luxury of time and perspective, we’ve also provided a “Reboot” commentary to provide additional remarks and insight since the editorial was first released.

Summaries are provided for each of the 15, and you can access each of columns in their entirety at We’d like to hear your thoughts, too.

15) At Your Service Before Harvest

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Visiting with precision ag specialists on the cusp of harvest highlights the need to take pressure out of the system by being proactive with pre-season service. Pre-season clinics that include refreshers on maintenance and tech updates will reduce some of the heat-of-the-moment call volume, but not enough.

Implementing service plans to recoup time is touchy at times with the customer, and techs themselves need to change behaviors about jumping in and, in effect, de-valuing their own time. “We have to start physically billing people for the time we’re out there and once they start seeing how those costs add up, the service package will look a whole lot nicer because they’ll get more for their money,” says one precision specialist.

His dealership now sells a pre-harvest yield monitor calibration and training session for $345 for one crop and then $175 for each additional crop.

REBOOT: Specific how-to sessions, like calibrating a yield monitor, or adjusting row clutches, during planter and combine clinics will save everyone vital time during in-season battle. Better to invest in giving the farmer knowledge to do it himself, particularly if you aren’t currently able to recoup technician time properly. Referring back to tips shared in the off-season seminars also raises the importance.

14) A Precision Dealer’s Refuge

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As dealerships modernize and expand their facilities, the ones most serious about precision farming are creating dedicated “tinkering space” for their technicians to test, play and troubleshoot. These workspaces are the precision techs’ “man cave,” so to speak, where they can test out updates and problem-solve, in private, before heading to the farm.

Precision technicians often have little time to spend testing products during the season. But having an area away from the showroom floor to work through challenges they may have faced during planting will undoubtedly help avoid repeat problems.

REBOOT: Techs don’t want to be surprised — especially on simple software updates — in front of the customer. Creating dedicated lab spaces will reduce their stress, give them trial-and-error experience and make them better at servicing customers and doing it quicker. You’ll attract talent and a lab setting will boost their confidence too.

13) No Pause Button in Precision Farming

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In the fast-paced world of precision farming, a dealer’s wish list for a “pause button” segued into a dedicated website at that allows dealers to search archived stories and videos, late-breaking news and updates, along with the precision education directory. More than ever, dealers need resources, especially when it involves advice or guidance from other dealers experiencing the same successes or headaches. The website and print edition are our attempts to keep dealers up on what is relevant today, while keeping an eye toward the future.

REBOOT: The knowledge void is every bit as present — perhaps more so — than when we launched Precision Farming Dealer 3 years ago. Thankfully, there are more resources today, and a greater awareness of the need to learn how to integrate the various functions. We’ve seen the development of peer groups for precision ag (offering the networking and unstructured learning experience of best practices), additional training resources and discussions over an academy concept exclusively for precision ag.

12) Tailoring a Precision Plan to Suit Your Customers

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Conversations with a California precision-only dealer show the vast differences in business models out there. In fact, he said his approach isn’t likely to work in the Midwest, where technology is more prevalent and competitive among equipment dealers. His farm customer base often has an owner, mid-manager, tractor foreman, irrigation foreman and 10-12 operators jumping in and out of the cab.

“It’s a challenge because that manager has no idea how often we show up on the farm because we deal with so many different people,” the dealer says. He’s also translating English-to-Spanish at the same time that he’s trying to convey concepts of precision ag that are still foreign to many farmers.

REBOOT: Whatever your challenges and frustrations, you’re not alone. Talk to enough precision ag specialists and you come to appreciate your specific headaches as much as the successes, because someone can always “best” your worse challenge. In addition to precision ag peer groups, maybe it’s time for support groups?

11) ‘Tis the Season for Precision Headhunting

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A candid precision farming manager admitted his real motive for attending his supplier’s annual dealer meeting was to cherry pick precision ag talent. With this segment of the industry still in its relative infancy, we may see more free agent work in the years ahead as talent is in such high demand. “I’m here to steal employees who might be open to making a change,” one precision farming manager told me. Said another: “A lot of us are in the same position: we could use 5 new precision employees right now.”

REBOOT: It’s a seller’s market for precision ag talent, so make sure your A-players are satisfied and challenged. Perhaps more likely than losing burned-out techs to rival dealerships is losing them to a supplier.

10) Who’s in Charge of Your Precision Service?

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“I’ve seen the enemy and it is us.” A precision farming dealer-principal says dealers themselves are the ones undermining the success of precision service packages. “The worst thing you can do is sell precision products and not charge enough for the service. A lot of co-ops, and even equipment dealers, are doing this because they think they’ve got to give the service away to sell the seed or a tractor.”

Paid-for service may be a chicken or egg dilemma, as some dealers don’t charge to manage limited resources and expectations. But if you add staff and resources, farmers may just pay for what they can’t attain today.

REBOOT: While there’s fear of alienating customers who’ve benefited from free service, more dealers are moving to a paid-for model. Those not there agree that’s where they need to be. As support-orientation takes hold in what has always been a hardware-oriented business, phone support for non-plan customers could start with the credit card number.

9) Playing the Percentages

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A look at the 5th Annual No-Till Farmer Practices Survey showed that use of yield monitor data analysis, field mapping, tractor auto-steer and satellite aerial imagery were all up from the prior year. The biggest jump was in the use of auto-steer systems, up 7 points to 44.4% of respondents. While many dealers note that auto-steer is the starting point for precision technology, plenty of farmers are just now taking that first step.

The technologies on the more aggressive side of the spectrum, however, slowed. While implement steering and remote sensing saw no measurable change, projections on the application of variable-rate technologies showed a dip from the prior year. Cost is a major consideration and while the planned investments were poised to drop, it could be that farmers are getting more for their money. But even if farmers are spending less on technology, precision specialists will have plenty to keep themselves busy.

REBOOT: The numbers can be misleading as more precision arrives at the farm factory-installed. Also, many farmers who’ve just started playing in precision ag with the low-ticket items need experience before making the leap to the more costly and advanced systems that have a more extended ROI period.

8) Picking a Data Management Partner

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When it comes to equipment dealers’ entry into data management, the majority opinion at the IDEAg Interconnectivity Conference is that partnering with data management vendors or consultants is more practical than building their own internal operations. Third parties for data management will be the gateway route, as it’s more efficient and less risky. Because, as the industry has seen, extracting data and knowing what to do with it is a whole different world than selling iron and requires thought and execution.

But while outsourcing this function may be the way in, that model may bring indefinite squatter’s rights. One dealer says the farm market will be saturated with data management companies, and not all will survive.

REBOOT: Outsourcing data management expertise remains the first choice for equipment dealers entering this new world, and that of those intending to get into it this year. Once success is demonstrated, don’t be surprised to see equipment dealers acquire their precision ag/data partners and operate as a division of the dealership.

7) Avoid Mixed Signals with RTK

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While some farmers laud RTK as being worth every penny spent, others say it’s not all it’s cracked up to be — with lack of dealer support a commonly cited area of deficiency. “I’m not sure my precision guy knew any more about it than I did when he set it up,” says one farmer, who invested $25,000 in his system. “It created more questions than answers for me.”

Expectations must be managed too. Precision farming dealers say that farmers — even those experienced in precision ag — can struggle with knowing exactly what they want from their GPS system in terms of performance, cost and accuracy. “It can be confusing stuff, but it should work,” says one dealer. “It’s a matter of making sure farmers know what they’re getting.”

REBOOT: As always, dealers should do their homework before taking a farmer’s buck. More dealers, including some innovative partnerships, are investing in their own RTK networks and directly offering subscriptions in order to control the problems their farmers face.

6) Plug and Play Still on Its Way

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The Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF) Plugfest brought hundreds of engineers and software gurus to the Univ. of Nebraska for a rapid-round of pre-testing of competitive products every 35 minutes. With farmers’ desire to run multiple brands together without sacrificing functionality, one manufacturer says compatibility is now a priority — as there’s finally enough market now to sell into. “As we get everybody moving in the same direction, it’s starting to pick up speed.” While plug-and-play is still unfulfilled, one manufacturer predicts, “We’ll get to the point in the next couple of years where you’re either ISOBUS or out of business.”

REBOOT: Perhaps compatibility has inched closer in the last year, but the issue is still a migraine-inducer, to be sure. Dealers are caught in the middle, particularly when suppliers say something can’t work only to see an innovative dealer find a way, often with a cable or an off-the-shelf item. A universal solution between suppliers is still tops on the wish list.

5) Avoid Being a Precision Outlaw

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“It’s the wild west out there,” says the owner of a precision farming consulting firm. “There are a lot of us vying for market share and competition is increasing, but there’s also a lot of junk.”

Training is the key to helping the market develop, of no small concern when trying to stay abreast of technology evolutions and answering customer calls can fill every second of every day. One relatively new precision specialist admitted a desperate need for more knowledge prior to harvest. His goal for the year, he says, is to find an independent mentor to work with on a regular basis.

REBOOT: The frontier is not yet tamed, but there’s progress being made to bring more structure as the segment evolves. Dealers are gaining experience with package programs that are bringing standardization and consistency, along with meeting farmer expectations. There’s more insight into business models that work and don’t work.

4) The Solo Side of Precision

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A call from a precision technician who hung out his own shingle led to an interesting discussion about the precision expert leaving the comfort of an established business structure. Advantages include cost-competitiveness through virtually no physical overhead and salaries, and a truly enviable position of selecting your customers. Cons, meanwhile, include pressures to sell beyond his core service work, administration and record keeping challenges and the stress of being a one-man show bombarded during planting.

This fledgling entrepreneur says farmers will pay a little more for a product with better service than to demand a discount on a product and pay for all the service. He knows the risks of going it alone, but adds, “You never know whether you’ll succeed or fail at something, unless you try.”

REBOOT: Although there’ve been some farm equipment dealerships who are spinning off operations into affiliated but separate business units, stories of techs leaving to start their own operations are rare. Technology troubleshooters considering an entrepreneurial endeavor should first consider what revs their motor the most. Managing requires tasks and skills that aren’t as much fun as having the bat in your own hand.

3) Moving the Conversation Beyond Metal

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While watching progressively larger machines roll by during John Deere’s 2014 product launch event in Columbus, Ohio, the industry analyst sitting next to me said, “Iron can only get so big. It’s going to plateau and, eventually, it’s all going to be about the technology.” This sentiment was shared by many dealers on the floor, as most agreed that a shift is underway. Getting technology into the hands of the customer is becoming more important than putting them behind the wheel of a new tractor, sprayer or combine.

But the shift isn’t easy. “Technology is taking off a lot faster than the equipment right now,” added a Kansas dealer. “Right now, we don’t feel very well prepared.”

Prepared or not, change is here. John Deere’s Luke Gakstatter recalled skepticism among the dealers just a few years ago, saying, “The technology sounds interesting, but let’s talk about the iron. The conversation has changed a lot since then.”

REBOOT: It’s not just iron that’s being commoditized; farmers and dealers now say there’s little differentiation between precision ag products as the market becomes saturated. And more so than in the equipment world where brand loyalties are strong, the choice of hardware the farmer buys is coming down to the very first impression made by the dealer on service.

2) A Cloudy Future for Precision

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Several precision farming manufacturers recently unveiled wireless data transfer systems that tout the “cloud” as the future of precision farming. Storing valuable yield data and precision maps in the abstract rather than on a thumb drive farmers can put in their pocket, however, brings out fears of the unknown. Manufacturers say dealers can work with their customers to show them why the cloud is a move worth making. The biggest benefit is that wireless management of farm data should improve efficiency and reduce the risk of information being lost in transit.

Through the cloud, maps and data can be collected and stored in one cen- tral place, with a host dealer serving as a clearinghouse that farmers and their consultants can more easily work through to make decisions.

REBOOT: Cloud-based systems will, directly or indirectly, put more dealers into the precision business. Through the cloud, volumes of maps and data can be collected and stored in one central place, with a host dealer serving as a clearinghouse that farmers and their consultants can more easily work through to access and use the data. Exposure, proximity and access to the data will move the needle on the possibilities of what to do with it.

1) Preparing for the Drone Invasion

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One of the hottest precision farming topics today is productions and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), or drones. Regulations may soften, allowing for broader use of the technology to scout crops, record nutrient and moisture levels and detect insects. While co-ops and ag retailers may be where many farmers start with drones, manufacturers say there’s a path for dealers, too. UAVs could be another entry point to forge new relationships or strengthen existing ones with customers.

REBOOT: While adoption and application hasn’t yet arrived, UAVs continues to be the most talked-about segment of precision ag. Wisconsin’s Mid-States Equipment, committed to being on the front end, is one equipment dealer group that is actively selling the hardware and doing on-farm demonstrations.