Dealers are building on the success of auto-steer to show customers the value of keeping implements in line with tractors.

Many farm equipment dealers with precision farming interests consider auto-steer to be the entry point for customers who want to utilize technology.

Dealers are showing customers that implement steering systems can save input costs by reducing passes through the field. “If a customer has 2,000 acres of corn at $5 a bushel per acre, implement steering can increase yield by one bushel per acre,” says Matthew Rohlik, Haug Implement. Photo courtesy of Trimble Navigation

In many cases, those systems are now standard features on new tractors rolling off the assembly line. The tangible benefits of auto-steer are easily proven through reduced operator fatigue and the ability to maintain a straight path though the fields.

Now dealers are using this philosophy as the cornerstone to successfully sell implement guidance systems and show customers that precision accuracy can extend beyond the tractor.

“This technology is the next step. We’re now incorporating an entire system together for true tractor-implement functionality,” says Matthew Rohlik, integrated solutions manager at Haug Implement in Willmar, Minn. “Implements drift even with auto-steer on the tractor and having a system on that planter or implement lets customers get more acres covered without having to slow down and make sure they are on their rows.”

Cracking the Market

Implement steering adoption isn’t nearly as widespread as auto-steering systems on tractors. But farmers interested in implement guidance tend to already be invested in precision technology, Rohlik notes.

“We’ll approach our tech savvy customers first with these products, especially the guys who complain about running over crops during spraying or having planters slipping down hills,” he says. “In our area, these tend to be specialty crop farmers.”

Sugar beet farmers have proven to be a particularly good customer base for implement steering since Haug Implement, a John Deere dealership, began selling the technology about two years ago.

It has sold Orthman Shadow Trackers — a single cylinder and blade module that mounts to the implement toolbar — and the MBW ProTrakker hydraulic hitch.

Dealer Takeaways

• Offer video tutorials or ride-and-drive field days to give customers a hands-on experience with implement steering technology.

• Develop a checklist to evaluate a farmer’s need for implement steering, then explain the value to the customer.

• Start small and work with a handful of customers to make sure implement steering products work properly to avoid overselling something you can’t support.

Both are active systems, meaning they guide the implement independent of the tractor. Haug has also sold passive systems — which only require separate GPS receivers on the tractor and implement.

“We started by putting systems on beet defoliators because being able to stay on those rows accurately allows customers to precisely cut the beet tops,” Rohlik says. “If operators are off their mark, those rows can rot and that’s lost money in the field. When we’re talking about high-income crops like beets, it doesn’t take much more than a dollar or two per ton to justify the expense of implement steering.”

Haug sold 10 implement guidance systems to beet growers last year and other dealers are having similar success with this customer base.

Kibble Equipment in Redwood Falls, Minn., sold seven active implement steering systems last year and John Beadell, integrated solutions manager with the John Deere dealership, says he expects to double that number in 2013.

“Our beet customers are pretty progressive and we’ve had success getting out on their farms, sharing information on what implement steering can do for them and, most importantly, showing them with a demonstration,” Beadell says. “Once we get that first unit on the farm, it opens the door for us.”

An important step was making sure the dealership didn’t bite off more than it could chew when initially selling implement steering products.

The first year Kibble Equipment sold MBW hitches, Beadell says he modestly marketed the product to customers, because he didn’t want to sell something he couldn’t properly support.

“One of the challenges for growers looking at active guidance right now, is the cost…”

— Jason Pennycook, Johnson Tractor

“We wanted to make sure we were going to get the results we desired and we didn’t dive in whole-hog,” he says. “We only contacted a couple growers who we knew would be interested because they are making multiple passes in the field.

“We had experience with Deere’s passive implement guidance system so the transition to active wasn’t that difficult, but we needed to make sure we had the ability to support what we’re doing.”

The cautious approach is allowing Kibble Equipment to branch out this year and market implement steering products more aggressively to beet growers, organic farmers and strip-till farmers.

Showing the Value

While interest in implement guidance is rising, dealers say a key to selling the technology is giving customers a hands-on experience and thoroughly explaining the benefits.

This is especially critical because of the cost involved. Active implement guidance systems can cost upward of $10,000.

Haug Implement hosted field days the last two years where customers can get behind the wheel of a tractor connected to a planter, strip-till unit, sprayer or beet defoliator, with an implement steering system. The dealership also held a technology clinic where it showed video demonstrations of technicians setting up an implement steering system on a beet defoliator and then let customers try out the systems.

John Isaacson, salesperson at Isaacson Implement in Nerstrand, Minn., talks about his approach to selling implement steering technology and the increasing interest in the technology, especially among strip-tillers.

“Last spring we had more than 100 people attend and we set up rotations for ride and drives on the equipment,” Rohlik says. “When the clinic was done at noon, we still had guys who wanted to stick around and we had a few who we sold systems to either on the spot or a week later.”

Hand-in-hand with demonstrations is customer training. Dealers are making sure farmers understand implement steering capabilities, which can help close a sale. This is especially important for new customers, notes Jason Pennycook, precision farming specialist with Johnson Tractor, a Case IH dealership in Janesville, Wis.

“I’ll start by explaining that implement steering is a solution to keeping row spacings even and consistent on natural curves,” he says. “This makes harvesting easier because they won’t have to worry about tight rows or knocking over corn. This is a big selling point that gets a new customer’s attention.”

Johnson Tractor has been selling Trimble’s TrueGuide passive implement steering system for the last 5 years.

Pennycook says sales started slowly, but as he’s been able to educate and train customers on the benefits, interest has picked up and the dealership consistently sells 3-5 systems per year.

“At first, people were skeptical as to how well the system would function. If you have implement drift, you are going to cut it in half with passive guidance,” Pennycook says. “It’s important to be up-front with what the product will do and not oversell it.”

Dealers say it’s important to have a thorough understanding of a customer’s farm to pinpoint the value they’ll get from an implement steering system. Rohlik will often go through a 5-step evaluation of a customer’s operation to assess their need.

This includes looking at what type of GPS system the customers has, what their field conditions are, do they have an integrated auto-steer system on the tractor, how much implement drift are they having and is their equipment properly calibrated.

“We’re now incorporating an entire system together for true tractor-implement functionality...”

— Matthew Rohlik, Haug Implement

“Once I’ve gone through those, I can target where the customer is going to get the most value from implement steering,” Rohlik says. “There’s almost always a place where I can improve their accuracy and that’s where they understand the payback.”

Dollars & Sense

After a customer has an understanding of how implement steering can improve their efficiency, dealers drive home the sale with an explanation of financial savings.

While every situation is different, Beadell will draw from university studies on the benefits implement steering can have in allowing farmers to save input costs and improve yields.

“The easiest sell as far as penciling in savings is reduced overlap with planting,” he says. “I’ll plug in the number of acres they cover and how much it costs to run the system. Say it’s 100 acres I can save them from not having to go over again, that savings can sometimes pay for the cost of the system.”

For Rohlik, it’s a matter of conveying to the customer that improved accuracy will produce increased revenue through improved yields.

“If a customer has 2,000 acres of corn at $5 a bushel per acre, implement steering can increase yield by one bushel per acre,” he says. “For a $9,000 system, it’s a piece of cake to justify the investment when they realize the savings from not running over rows.”

Sometimes the payback is less tangible, though no less valuable.

In Wisconsin and northern Illinois, Pennycook has customers with curvy fields wrapped around waterways. After planting in the spring with implement guidance, customers are able to harvest in the fall knowing that the rows are straight.

“It’s a relaxing experience because the rows aren’t too tight or too far apart,” Pennycook says. “For those customers with hilly ground, they especially want to keep their planter closer online and take the pressure off the combine operator in the fall.”

Emerging Market

Although dealers are having success selling implement steering, they acknowledge that there is some room for growth.

As implements grow larger, the need to accurately steer those will become essential. “One of our main focuses is going to be on marrying those power planters with tractors, and implement guidance is the best way to do that,” Beadell says.

Another focus for Kibble Equipment is going to be on implement steering for application equipment. Beadell says potential government regulation of certain types of fertilizer could open the door for more sales of implement steering systems.

“If farmers aren’t allowed to pump as much anhydrous in the fall and need to sidedress in the summer, that could push implement steering big time,” Beadell says. “Guys will want to make sure they are as accurate with that application as possible.”

So how do dealers plan to expand their reach with implement steering products?

This past spring, Haug Implement mailed 75 implement steering inserts to a select group of customers. “We ended up selling six or seven systems out of that promotion and figure that through word-of-mouth we will generate some additional business,” Rohlik says. “One of the benefits of this technology is that it can be used in a lot of ways.”

Pennycook says Johnson Tractor targets operations of about 1,000 acres or more, primarily corn and soybean growers. Passive implement guidance systems generally cost about $3,500 with Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) guidance and up to $7,500 with RTK, so it can be a more affordable option than active systems.

“It is just running a receiver on the implement itself and the guidance controller on the tractor shifts to compensate for drift of the implement,” he says. “One of the challenges for growers looking at active guidance right now, is the cost.”

Much like auto-steer on tractors, Beadell says it will take time for farmers to embrace the benefits. But once they do, the market could explode.

“Anyone making multiple passes in the field and wanting to keep that implement in line with the tractor needs implement guidance to do a good job,” he says. “It’s the natural progression of what farmers need from precision technology.”