The best thing dealers can do to help their customers experience the full benefits of the new precision ag tools is have experts on staff who can help them choose products for what they want to accomplish.
You can be a hero by matching farmers' precision needs to the right equipment, and making sure they know how to efficiently use it.
Technology is great, when it works. And there's plenty of precision technology you can put in your growers' hands that can help them be more effective and efficient in their farming operations.
The issue, manufacturers say, isn't so much being worried about whether the technology that's available today works. The fact is, there are plenty of good precision tools available. The real issue dealers face is matching growers' needs with the right technology, and helping them maximize the precision features to make them more effective and profitable farmers.
In addition, you need to put yourself in a position of being able to educate the grower on how to use precision equipment properly. If you can be the knowledge leader with precision technology, growers will drive past other dealers to do business with you.
Growers want more features with less complexity, which is a paradox within itself," points out Jennifer Sheridan, marketing manager for Rinex Technology.
Sheridan, in essence, points out the challenge for manufacturers and dealers. Farmers are attracted by all the bells and whistles, but precision tools are only as good as farmers' ability are able to easily use them.
To no one's surprise, farmers want precision tools that are easy to use and flexible, providing all the features they want at an affordable price, says Dave King, marketing manager for Ag Leader Technology. In addition, they'd like to eliminate a monitor or two in the process.
Rhett Schildroth, marketing manager for Topcon, agrees with King's assessment.
"No. 1 would be simple, cost-effective and easy-to-operate guidance and steering products," Schildroth says. "They want 'plug and play' solutions that also provide application maps for record-keeping."
Adds King: "We strive to offer the right combination of functions and features to producers, without making them pay for things that they don't need. For example, our Insight display has the ability to be a yield monitor, a planter, application control system or all of the above, depending upon the needs of the producers. It also offers data logging and mapping capabilities to provide better recordkeeping and decision-making.
"We're trying to provide display and various features that can be tailored to fit anyone's farming operation."
"Growers are attracted to precision technologies, like guidance systems and technologies that allow precise placement of inputs as a means of better managing the rising cost of crop inputs and to improve overall crop production efficiency," adds Jack Gerhardt, GreenSeeker product manager for Redball.
"Aerial- and ground-based sensor systems and technologies like GreenSeeker both identify crop input needs and make variable-rate applications in a single field pass."
Mark Waits, marketing manager for SST, says they see a continuing trend of dealers and farmers combining traditional precision technologies with information-management practices for a more complete decision support system.
"Precision ag equipment manufacturers are ramping up recordkeeping features for their customers," Wait says. "This will have a profound effect on the information management side of precision agriculture, which is where we argue the real decision-making, as well as compliance benefits are found."
In the effort to provide growers simple-to-use technology that can do multiple tasks and automate processes, Sheridan says plug-and-play systems need to be compatible across all machines.
"Individual dedicated controllers are frequently better suited to these tasks," Sheridan says. "Finally, the grower must appreciate that compatibility is not always possible due to intellectual property rights between the large manufacturers. Isobus will address this as machinery manufacturers adopt this technology."
"What we hear," adds Rob Hoehn, sales manager for Micro-Trak Systems, "is the need for compatibility between products and suppliers. Customers want options and do not like to be limited by the OEM as to which products might work best for their operation."
Obstacles to Overcome
Whether it's perception or reality, one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of growers adopting precision technology is the thought that technology is too complex.
"The average age of today's farmer is 50-60 years old, and most of these growers did not grow up in the computer generation," says Schildroth, citing education as the key to adoption. "Once they understand how user-friendly most of the systems are today and that they don't need to know a lot about computers, it tends to decrease their reluctance to adopt these systems.
"Tutorials and self-learning software are part of the answer. Free seminars, field days and educational materials from the industry also help."
Rob Lindores, director of marketing for Trimble, agrees the biggest obstacle preventing growers from enjoying the benefits of GPS steering and machine control technology is lack of awareness, information and understanding.
"We've tried to address this situation with a sustained customer information and education program in which we stress the ease, affordability and fast payback of adopting a product like our AgGPS system," Lindores says. "We also attend dozens of national and regional farm shows and sponsor many 'ride and drive' field days with our reseller partners around the country."
Gerhardt says the complexity of hardware and software, and how they are integrated into equipment and farming practices, is nevertheless a stumbling block for growers.
"It needs to be easy for the grower or equipment operator to make decisions based upon sensors and information that is already in the cab, not on a map on some other computer screen," Gerhardt says. "Compatibility across various OEM equipment and related controllers is a big challenge.
"Overcoming compatibility issues is best handled by continuing to work toward universal standards for precision ag communication formats."
Sheridan adds that dealers need to help growers make sure that they are willing to commit the time to properly make full use of the precision technology that they buy.
"Chasing value for money is in many ways a false economy," she says. "It's not feasible that growers will have the time or the expertise to use some of the technologies available today without investing time and money to fully utilize and capitalize on these systems."
Waits says he's seen too many growers buy into the idea of using on-board computers for variable-rate fertilizer or other applications without having robust or easy-to-use tools for recording those operations in a true record-keeping system.
"But the shift is occurring now and growers will be able to continue using those equipment pieces while building a useful historical database of every operation that takes place on their farm," Waits says. "This will give them the ability to make better decisions for the future by looking back at what they did right and what they did wrong.
"They will have increased abilities to ask questions of the data and find out, for instance, what variety did better on what soil type and at which seeding rate."
Because precision agriculture is still a young industry with new features and capabilities being added to products each day, King says a large obstacle for growers is the ability to look down the road at their precision needs.
"There are a lot of growers who want to get the most functionality for the least amount of dollars spent," he says. "The most value will come from investing in a system that fits the needs of the producer, but can also be upgraded in the future.
"Doing so will save the producer time and money in the future."
Adds Hoehn: "It's our responsibility to educate the customer so they fully understand the capabilities of the product as it's used today, as well as the opportunities that may present themselves for a particular product of the future."
Lindores says that based on Trimble's research, it's evident that many U.S. growers in the "majority" class of technology adopters are now ready to adopt precision technology.
"It's just taken these growers a little longer to accept the fact that the industry is quickly changing, and that they need the benefits of GPS precision farming to remain competitive, particularly if the current ethanol bubble subsides," Lindores says. "And history indicates that it eventually will."
Be an Expert
When it comes to helping your growers understand how to use precision farming tools, the best thing you can do is have experts on your staff who can help growers choose the products that match up best with what they want to achieve.
"The top dealers who successfully sell precision technology have dedicated and trained personnel who can maximize the potential of these technologies for the growers," Sheridan says. "Simply providing the technology at the cheapest possible price off the showroom floor is not viable for the grower, dealer or the industry as a whole."
"Dealers need to possess knowledge about the products they sell," King adds. "The more knowledge they possess, the better they will be able to help producers find a precision farming system that fits their needs and farming equipment. Helping producers digest that information and invest in a system to meet their needs will earn them a long-term customer.
"In addition, you need to offer support to the grower. You'd be surprised at what a little follow-up and help during the busy time of year will do for your customer. They will remember when they make their next purchase."
Gerhardt says you can help your growers by taking the time to make sure they understand the features of precision technologies so that they can benefit from using it.
"Our most successful dealers host grower meetings to demonstrate the features and benefits of remote sensing and variable-rate applications since GreenSeeker technology is still a relatively new concept," he says.
Gerhardt adds it's important to show an economic payback on a precision ag investment.
"We encourage dealers to promote a systems approach, including agronomics, to farming practices, which help the producer beyond adoption of just one technology," the Redball product manager says. "For example, you might be able to include variable-rate application along with boom section control so long as your producer understands and can see the value of adding that technology."
Schildroth reports that his top precision technology dealers conduct product showcase field days with company sales reps, as well as provide periodic training sessions.
"Our best-performing dealers provide top-quality service after the sale and also spend adequate time after the initial installation helping the farmer understand how to operate the product effectively," Schildroth says. "Periodic follow-up calls to the customer also help, if nothing more than to touch base and check on how they are doing."
Most of all, if you have the precision technology expertise on your staff, you can ask the right questions of your grower and help him identify the precision package that helps him achieve his goals.
"Those dealers who can put a complete package together for their customers are valuable to the grower," Hoehn says. "At times, it takes a bundling of products from a variety of sources to do that.
"What it does is take the burden off the farmer to source out the various components. By the dealer doing this for the grower, it means they've done the background research that ensures customer satisfaction."
Show Precision 'Passion'
Lindores says there are a number of attributes he's seen from the dealers who are successfully selling precision technology — approaches that demonstrate that the dealer is in tune with his grower.
"Our best dealers are those who sell the customers what they truly need to improve the profitability of their crop operations," he says. "As always, the best salesperson is the one who asks the right questions and spends more time listening than talking."
He adds that dealers who keep up on new technology while staying tuned in to the farm economy and what's on growers' minds also perform well.
"The word 'passion' is a bit overused these days, but the concept is valid," Lindores says. "Top dealers are excited about GPS technology and the many benefits it can bring to their customers. And, of course, this is a segment that's just growing out of its infancy, so there's a lot to learn and communicate about it."
You also need to spend "15 minutes in the cab" with a prospect at field days or on-farm product trials that convey more information and excitement than hours of talking. In addition, Lindores says a high percentage of Trimble AgGPS systems they deliver to a prospect's farm for a 3-day trial never return to the store.
He adds that one of his dealers urges customers to follow a "10-minute rule" of support on AgGPS Autopilot automated steering systems.
"This retail manager says that they tell the grower if he's having trouble, they expect a call within 10 minutes after the problem arises," Lindores says. "That gives the grower less time to get angry or frustrated at the system or the dealer. He said they found 90-95% of all GPS field problems can be resolved over the phone, so this approach results in a quicker solution for both the dealer and the grower."
Growers Have a Long List of Precision Needs
It's not a one-size-fits-all world when it comes to growers' precision needs, but following are some of the things that Rob Lindores, director of marketing for Trimble, hears from growers when they discuss precision farming needs.
- Reduce crop input costs for fuel, fertilizer and labor.
- Improve yields through better fertilization and seed placement, more effective water management, less bruising of high-value crops like potatoes and less loss of difficult-to-harvest crops, such as the "extra viney" peanut cultivars like Georgia 01R.
- Reduced dependence on hired labor. Skilled machine operators are nearly impossible to find in some U.S. regions, notably the Southeast, Intermountain and Central Valley of California.
- An assurance of excellent field service and support for the GPS systems they buy. "These days, any company can market GPS systems made by other companies, often at a lower price than the industry leaders," Lindores says. "But with today's professional crop growers, a top-performing GPS product is just the price of admission onto growers' farms." That's why Trimble has invested in a global network of field sales, engineers and technical support, he adds.
- Growers want assurance that their GPS system won't be obsolete in 2 or 3 years. "They also want the ability to upgrade their GPS system so they can perform additional field applications next year or the year after, as their farming operation continues to grow or they adopt new crops and agronomic practices," Lindores says.
- Growers are seeking simplified displays and a reduction in cab clutter. "If you can provide single cab displays and compatibility with a wide range of monitors, sensors, flow controls, switches and application modules, you can provide the grower an easier, more affordable way to move toward a total precision farming solution," he adds.
- Features like RTK auto-steering allow growers to perform critical planting and harvesting operations with ease.
- Use precision to reduce the per-acre cost of machinery by eliminating "guess row" variation, which permits use of varied row configurations on strip-tillers, planters, sprayers and harvesters.
- Cover more ground in less time by avoiding gaps between passes. "In some areas, growers are downsizing, or right-sizing, to simplify their operations and their lives," Lindores says. "The improved efficiencies of GPS machine steering gives these operators the same or improved net return they've been getting, but on substantially fewer acres."
- Conserve water and soil through strip-tilling, improved conformity with terraces, more efficient water management and the ability to leave heavier-than-ever surface residue by replacing disc and foam markers with GPS steering.
- Improve crop quality by achieving better uniformity or forcing maturity with improved water management tactics like drip tape and zero-grade land leveling.
What Precision Technologies Will Growers Be Using Use This Year
Technology..........% Of Growers
GPS Guidance — Lightbar..........62%
GPS Guidance — Tractor Autosteer..........31%
GPS Guidance — Implement Autosteer..........6%
Yield Monitor Data Analysis..........62%
Satellite Aerial Imagery..........10%
Soil Electrical Conductivity (Veris) Mapping..........6%
Variable Rate Seeding..........17%
Variable Rate Fertilizing..........40%
Variable Rate Pesticide Application..........4%
Electronic Weed Control (Weedseeker or other)..........1%
Electronic Fertilizer Application (Greenseeker or other)..........2%
—Survey of attendees at 2008 National No-Tillage Conference