Pictured Above: Some farm equipment and precision dealers are seeing irrigation as the next frontier for sales and service opportunities with technology, especially as water usage becomes more restricted in parts of North America. (Photo courtesy of Trimble)
Of all the elements involved in producing a healthy crop, water may be the most often taken for granted. But it is also unpredictable — and today, water is an increasingly valuable commodity in many parts of North America, where once-robust aquifers and groundwater supplies are dwindling due to decades of overuse.
Irrigation practices — specifically use of precision farming tools like RTK and variable-rate — are on the rise. Farm equipment dealers are tapping into this market to meet customer demand, complement machinery sales and broaden their scope of precision service offerings.
“Farmers are under increasing pressure to produce more with less water, and technology is playing a critical role in helping them do that,” says Chad Schneider, sales manager with 21st Century Equipment’s Water Technologies Division. “This is where we’re seeing growing opportunity to provide the tools and expertise to maximize irrigation efficiency for customers, and give our dealership another valuable touch point.”
‘Third Puzzle Piece’
Four years ago, 21st Century, a 17-store John Deere dealership group in Nebraska and Colorado, became a center pivot dealer for Valley Irrigation and also began selling Eco-Drip subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) systems. At the time, Schneider says, there was growing interest from farm customers in irrigation and precision technology, which contributed to the dealership’s decision to expand their business operation.
“We saw irrigation as a third piece to the precision farming puzzle for us, to go along with seeding and fertilizing,” he says. “Customers can variable-rate plant and apply nutrients in the field, but if they aren’t making the most of their water in the same way, they’re not maximizing the full potential of their system.”
While 21st Century established a separate Water Technologies Division, Schneider and his staff work closely with the dealership’s integrated solutions department to implement and install precision irrigation components. One example where collaboration between the dealership’s precision and irrigation specialists has proven profitable is with sales of Valley’s Precision Corner, a center pivot attachment to irrigate hard-to-navigate areas of the field.
“We’ve sold more RTK-steered precision corner systems than any other Valley dealer in the nation and that’s in a short period of time,” Schneider says. “A big reason is because we’re one of only a handful of Valley dealers that have an RTK network setup through our John Deere dealership. Customers don’t have to deal with that extra sales hurdle, which is a huge service that pivot-only dealers might not be able to offer.”
They also install and setup variable-rate irrigation zone or speed control systems, which can be programmed remotely, so customers don’t have to physically go to the pivot panel. These systems can help customers reduce electrical output by as much as 50% because they aren’t running the pivots non-stop at full-speed.
“Hardware and first-year service for zone control can run about $300 per acre, depending on the size of the pivot,” Schneider says. “There is no hardware cost for speed control, but we do charge an hourly cost to write and upload the variable-rate prescription for the pivot.”
Selling precision irrigation service and data management packages are an entry point for dealers, who may not necessarily want to sell center pivot systems. (Photo courtesy of Trimble)
Schneider says their sales approach is to leverage a customer’s interest or investment in precision technology to discuss irrigation possibilities. This has proven to be a good way to “get a foot in the door” with farmers. Schneider and his staff recently sold a long-time 21st Century customer in Nebraska an SDI system, corner arm steering kit with RTK for his center pivot and 20 soil moisture probes as part of John Deere’s Field Connect system.
“He had never bought anything from our water division,” Schneider says. “But through our sales of equipment and precision, we were able to start that irrigation conversation.”
Operating out of one location, the water division’s sales contribution to the dealership’s overall bottom line is still small, and the irrigation market is a fraction of the equipment market. But long-term, Schneider says, the goal is to have an irrigation presence at every one of 21st Century’s John Deere dealerships.
The driving philosophy of the Water Technologies Division is to contribute to providing a complete precision farming solution to customers, says Justin Childears, integrated solutions manager at 21st Century.
“Our model with how we sell and service irrigation equipment is the same as with our farm machinery,” he says. “We’re not out to sell just a center pivot or a tractor, but a comprehensive system and support package whether it’s designing an SDI system or developing a prescription for variable-rate irrigation.
“Right now, I think this differentiates us from a lot of other dealers because historically, Valley dealers sold center pivots and Deere dealers sold iron. We’re bringing the two pieces together through precision to truly be that one-stop shop for customers.”
More Than Hardware
Not every dealership has the interest or ability to also sell center pivots, but that doesn’t mean they can’t capitalize on a customer’s irrigation needs. In more cases, precision farming specialists within a dealership are offering complimentary products or services to irrigation customers, says Steve Sveum, vice president of sales and marketing with AgSense, which produces center pivot monitoring technology.
“Typically, we see center pivot technicians from irrigation dealers do the installations because they have that intimate knowledge of the systems,” Sveum says. “But those dealers aren’t necessarily experts in precision farming or agronomy. This is where there’s incentive for precision specialists to be that advisor for the customer and complete the loop.”
Subsurface drip irrigation is an emerging market for 21st Century Equipment, which has seen steady growth of its Eco-Drip systems. (Photo courtesy of 21st Century Equipment)
This is a niche Dan Aberhart, director of sales with Ag Water Supply, in Winkler, Manitoba, is looking to fill as part of the company’s water management business. Aberhart recently became a reseller of Trimble’s Irrigate-IQ solution, which provides wireless control for center pivots and pumps, variable-rate irrigation capabilities and real-time data monitoring.
With increasing interest in collection and analysis of irrigation data to be more judicious with center pivot applications, Aberhart developed a comprehensive service package, which starts with installation of Trimble’s hardware and software.
“The initial setup price can vary greatly, from $8,000 to $30,000 depending on the size of the pivot, but once everything is installed, one of our water management zone specialists collects the data, creates variable-rate irrigation zones and writes the prescription for the customer,” Aberhart says. “Our data collection services cost $10-$50 per acre and we charge about $1,500 per year for the variable-rate irrigation prescriptions. We also offer annual maintenance packages for $500 per year.”
Aberhart admits the services aren’t cheap, and variable-rate irrigation is still more of a “buzzword” than widespread practice in Western Canada. But he sees irrigation technology evolving in much the same way precision tools like auto-steer and GPS did more than a decade ago, as farmers begin to understand how to use the data.
“We’re seeing customers save energy and water by being more calculated with their application with variable-rate irrigation,” he says. “It’s still very new, but growing. We don’t want to just dabble in this business. Ultimately, we want to be able to tie customers into a perpetual service that will keep us coming back on their farms again and again.”
Drop in the Bucket
Another way dealers are entering into the irrigation market is with surface and subsurface drip-irrigation systems. These tend to be more expensive than traditional center pivots, but also more efficient with water or even fertilizer application.
Hastings, Neb.-based T-L Irrigation Co., recently updated its Precision Mobile Drip Irrigation (PMDI) system, which is a marriage of ground-level drip line application and center pivot mobility. The company also partnered with Netafim Inc. to improve drip line hose technology. The hoses are attached to a center pivot system and pulled through the field, applying water in an even pattern.
“The market for this technology is in areas with what we call ‘deficit irrigation’ where farmers don’t have as much water as they’d like,” says Dave Thom, vice president of sales with T-L. Irrigation “Drip lines don’t spray water into the air so there is minimal evaporation or wind drift.”
For dealers selling irrigation equipment, corner pivot systems with GPS capabilities are popular because they cna offer a more complete solution to customers. (Photo courtesy of T-L Irrigation)
The PMDI systems can cost $5,000 or more for a quarter-mile long pivot system, and can be remotely monitored via a smartphone, Thom says. While T-L’s center pivot and PMDI systems have traditionally been sold through center pivot dealerships, Thom says farm equipment dealers are showing more interest in adding the product lines or partnering with irrigation dealers to provide precision service.
“In the eastern part of the U.S., about half of our resellers are center pivot dealers and half are tractor dealers,” Thom says. “What we’re also seeing is with the decline in crop prices, equipment dealers don’t necessarily want to invest in the overhead of selling center pivots. But they have trained precision specialists who can be that GPS or guidance link for customers and this allows dealerships to get into the irrigation business without a lot of added expense.”
Another entry point for dealers is subsurface drip irrigation, which is starting to emerge, especially in the western part of the U.S. During the last 2 years, 21st Century has seen steady sales growth of its Eco-Drip systems.
The dealership only sold two systems the first year, but sold six in 2013 and had more than 20 active quotes toward the end of 2014.
“It’s a new way of irrigating in our area, burying the drip lines below the surface, but we’re seeing customers save 25-30% more water than with pivots,” Schneider says. “A component of these systems is using moisture sensors in the field, which is where our integrated solutions group gets involved to provide us with those tools for the customer.”
At a cost of about $2,000 per acre for an 80 acre field, the Eco-Drip system is pricey, but Schneider says the dealership has been able to show customers a return on investment, sometimes in unique ways. They recently worked with a customer on a field remediation project to lower pH levels on some irrigated acres.
Drip-irrigation systems, like the Precision Mobile Drip Irrigation (PMDI) system from T-L Irrigation Co., blend ground-level drip line application with center pivot mobility.
Through the subsurface system, the farmer applied small amounts of sulfuric acid, which lowered pH levels from near 9 to about 6.5.
“It was a creative way to solve that customer’s problem, but it worked,” Schneider says. “We’re starting to see interest in these systems really take off in the last 2 years.”
Although dealers are seeing more interest in precision irrigation products and services, they also note that this a new and still-developing market. But in terms of the technology, it is a familiar one, and potentially the next precision frontier in agriculture.
“There are a lot of similarities between precision irrigation and the traditional precision ag business,” says Chris van der Loo, water solutions marketing director for Trimble’s Agriculture Division. “That’s because the precision industry is gradually shifting from solely focusing on steering and implement control, to also encompassing full management of all farm inputs and applications, including water.
“Our precision dealers understand how to install equipment on aftermarket machinery, tractors, sprayers, etc., and we see them taking the same approach with selling our irrigation technology.”
Heart Mountain Farm Supply, a single-store Case IH dealership in Powell, Wyo., is gradually incorporating precision irrigation into its product and service offerings, based on customer demand. Precision specialist Kyle Oechsner is spearheading the sales efforts and says his goal is to target customers who he’s established strong business relationships with to discuss irrigation needs.
“We don’t sell pivots, but have a lot of customers with Reinke systems, who also buy precision equipment and service from us,” Oechsner says. “It’s definitely a new market for us, but if we already have that customer with a Trimble display in the cab, driving a Case IH tractor, we want to be their go-to outlet for setting up their center pivot with RTK or auto-guidance.
“The need is there, but the biggest obstacle is overcoming that traditional irrigation mentality and getting customers to understand the value of the technology.”