“Face” time with customers, staff expertise and access to a RTK network are key to growing your precision ag sales.
Offering access to a RTK network, designing precision ag systems and spending one-on-one time with farmers is how The Kenn-Feld Group and Central Illinois Ag dealerships are making a science of selling precision ag systems.
Whether he’s talking to a relative newcomer or an experienced user of precision ag, Andy Drerup, one of the Kenn-Feld Group’s two precision ag specialists, says there’s a common starting point.
To successfully sell precision ag equipment and systems requires one-on-one demonstrations with farmers in their fields.
“You have to know the farmer and his operation. Where do they want to go? To get them started with auto-steering, we demo it one-on-one on their farm,” Drerup says.
Successfully selling precision agricultural technology requires commitment, Tim Dawson, Central Illinois Ag’s precision ag supervisors, says.
“You have to demo. You have to talk with farmers. You have to want to do it. You have to enjoy doing it and you have to go sell it,” Dawson says.
Central Illinois Ag is the third largest seller of precision agricultural equipment of Case IH dealers in North America, according to the dealership’s website.
Kenn-Feld’s roots in precision ag date back to 1996 when service managers Jim Bonifas and Paul Lefeld made the commitment to developing the market, Drerup says.
The Kenn-Feld Group, which has 2 John Deere stores in western Ohio and another in eastern Indiana, took another calculated risk when it created its own RTK network in 2006.
“We were the first dealer in the area to have a RTK network,” says Drerup. “We had a lot of farmers who had their own individual base stations. We acquired the individual base stations from the customers and filled in the gaps.”
While other dealers watched the market for RTK subscribers, Drerup says Kenn-Feld created its own network and reaped the benefits from farmers who then subscribed.
After the company developed its RTK network, Drerup estimates that 98% of strip-tillers in the area subscribed to the service. “There has been tremendous growth in strip-till in our area. Having RTK is a necessity for accurately strip-tilling,” he says.
But other farmers weren’t convinced at first that they needed RTK.
“We did a lot of field days and put the flags in the dirt and drove tractors back and forth and showed them the accuracy of auto-steer and the difference GPS network choices make,” Drerup says.
For the Kenn-Feld Group, commitment to its customers was more important than the cost of the network.
“We have more than 70 RTK receivers in the network. We put up all our base stations and maintain them ourselves,” he says.
“When there’s a problem, our customers know who to call. We promise them that if there’s a problem, we will have service back within 24 hours.”
Two Groups of Customers
Kenn-Feld’s territory runs 60 miles from east to west and 100 miles from north to south. Its customers are primarily corn and soybean growers in the north and central region, but dairy is predominant in the south. The crop farmers have been using precision ag tools longer than dairy farmers, he says.
Dairy farmers are now adopting yield monitors and are interested in variable-rate application of fertilizer and manure, Drerup says. “The dairy farmers are more focused on cost and yield records.”
Drerup says the company’s precision ag customers basically fall into one of two main groups: Those who have a good amount of familiarity with the technology and those who’ve barely scratched the surface.
Some farmers have been using lightbars for several years and now are moving up to AutoTrac, which is Deere’s auto-steering system.
“If you talk a lot of equipment and technology to this group at the outset, you will scare them,” Drerup says.
Instead, it’s more important to give these farmers an appreciation of what precision ag can do for them, he says. In other words, stress the benefits rather than the features.
Another group of farmers has been using yield monitors and variable-rate technology for seeding and fertilizer application. Now they’re ready to move on to other applications like swath control and implement guidance systems, he says.
“The most advanced group wants to move on to more sophisticated controls, and a lot more technology is involved,” Drerup says.
There is a third, small group of Kenn-Feld’s customers who are the most advanced users of precision ag technology. These farmers are moving up to John Deere’s iTech Pro, a hands-free auto-steering system, Drerup says.
It also takes a lot of training with customers in the store and on the farm so farmers are completely familiar and comfortable with the technology, he says.
Both Drerup and fellow precision ag specialist Paul Lefeld emphasize continuing education for themselves and the importance of that for their customers.
Having RTK is a necessity for accurately strip-tilling. After The Kenn-Feld Group developed its RTK network, 98% of strip-tillers in the area subscribed to its service. There’s been tremendous growth in strip-till in the area since then.
The one-year service agreements that farmers can purchase with yield monitors, auto-steer and other precision ag technology include 4 free annual training sessions at Kenn-Feld’s stores.
At these meetings farmers also get software upgrades for their equipment. These sessions are also very effective sales opportunities because Drerup and Lefeld get input on what their customers need.
“Farmers can come to all the precision ag training sessions and also receive free, live support from myself or from Paul,” Drerup says. “It gives them a person to call whom they know.”
The Kenn-Feld Group also invites customers who didn’t purchase the service agreement to participate in the training sessions for a fee.
Successfully selling precision agriculture not only requires anticipating the needs and demands of customers, but also making the technology work on their farms, Drerup says.
“I have learned the most from farmers riding in the tractor and combine, where I can see what they need and what they prefer. The more I learn from them, the more it gives me an edge in selling them the benefits of the technology.”
Investing in RTK
For Central Illinois Ag, expertise in precision agricultural technology not only serves customers in Illinois, where it has 4 Case IH stores, but also attracts buyers from across the U.S. and Canada, says Dawson, the company’s precision ag supervisor.
The company was one of the first Case IH dealers in Illinois to invest in a RTK network, Dawson says.
“We decided to do it and it helps that we are in the heart of the Corn Belt with large commercial farmers.”
The network covers about 1 million acres, and has 12 towers, each of which covers a 10-mile radius. The company also shares a RTK network with 2 other Case IH dealers, as well as a RTK network with a local Trimble dealer.
Since Dawson became Central Illinois Ag’s first precision ag specialist in 2006, he’s discovered that some approaches to selling the technology are more effective than others. Field day demonstrations are OK, and working individually with farmers is better, but small focus groups that include farmers and experts work best.
In the small group setting, farmers feel free to bounce ideas off of each other, Dawson says. The idea of using small groups for farmers came from a former Case IH rep. “It seems to work really well,” he says.
Central Illinois Ag doesn’t have a “typical” farmer who buys precision ag equipment, but there are 3 distinct groups.
- Farmers in their 20s who recently graduated from college and grew up with video games. They know what the want and are willing to pay for it.
- Farmers who are 40-65 years old who learned to use computers as adults. They need help figuring out what they want and are sensitive to prices.
- Farmers who are 65 and older may thought that precision ag technology was a toy at first. These farmers — including one who is 80 years old — are less sensitive to prices.
Despite their ages, computer skills and price sensitivities, all of these farmers share at least one thing when it comes to precision ag, Dawson says. “Accuracy is addictive.”
Farmers in their 20s who recently graduated from college have very specific ideas of what they want, Dawson says. “They want guidance and row shutoffs on planters. They want to take monitors from their tractor to their combines. They have an idea what it will cost and are confident of the payback on their investment,” he says.
“They know that they are going to have to pay $20,000 or $30,000,” adds Dawson, “but are confident in the payback if they can use it to do specific things.”
These younger farmers are very comfortable with precision technology because they grew up with video games, he says.
Farmers using precision ag who are 45-65 years of age and didn’t grow up using computers are less comfortable with the technology, Dawson says.
“They really don’t know that much about it. Typically, these farmers start out with EZ steer and WAAS and then in a few years decide they want implement guidance and Omnistar and RTK.”
Once the farmers in this middle group get into a comfortable zone, they consider planter row and sprayer section shutoffs, Dawson says. They also become interested in moving their precision agricultural equipment from their tractor to their combine. “The price point is very important to them.”
Farmers who are 65 or older are a “very select group,” Dawson says.
They want technology that is easy to use and extremely reliable.
“Price is not as important to these farmers if you can give them ease of use and reliability,” he says, adding that these farmers can get frustrated with precision agricultural technology very quickly.
They’re also willing to pay extra for service agreements that cover the cost of having a specialist come out to the farm and work with them in the tractor. This group also wants someone to be available by phone.
“They are willing to pay extra for the additional service,” Dawson says.
While they initially looked at precision ag as just a toy, they’ve since discovered that auto-steer can save labor and reduce their fatigue.
The “fatigue factor” wasn’t initially stressed as a benefit when the technology debuted in the 1990s. Back then the emphasis was on dollars and cents and potential savings from variable rate application of fertilizer, seed and chemicals, Dawson says. But Central Illinois Ag’s customers have taught him that fatigue reduction is an increasingly important benefit.
Dawson was the first precision ag specialist at Central Illinois Ag, but today he supervises 3 others. Each of the dealer’s 4 stores has a specialist.
This expertise not only serves corn and soybean growers in western Illinois, but also pulls in customers from across the U.S. and Canada, Dawson says, where local dealers don’t know much about the application.
“They are losing their customers to us,” he says.
And it’s not just a loss of precision agricultural sales. These farmers often buy other equipment like tractors, planters or combines.
“Just about every tractor that we sell has auto guidance on it,” Dawson says, estimating this to be 80-90% of all units sold. In addition, 90% of the planters that Central Illinois Ag sells has some type of row shutoff clutches, he says.
Customer demands have changed during the past 5 years, Dawson says. Then, auto-steer was hot, but farmers only wanted to buy one tool, like a monitor for their tractor. Today, operators want integrated auto-steering for hands-free driving and row shutoff for their planters.
“Now you have to look at a complete package for the customer,” Dawson says. “You have to design a system. There’s always new technology.”
RTK Networks Expand with New Connectivity Options
As growing numbers of farmers opt for the sub-inch accuracy of RTK guidance, the choices for connecting with the GPS signals have also expanded.
At this point, RTK customers have two options. These include radio or cellular technologies that not only provide the needed connectivity, but also help correct signals that may be interrupted by any number of obstructions.
With radio signals, guidance equipment basically needs to be within sight of an RTK base station tower. But barriers like hills, buildings and, in some cases, even thick tree stands can interrupt connections resulting in problems with accuracy and repeatability, according to Chad Pfitzer, Trimble RTK/VRS ag systems specialist.
Early on in the evolution of RTK technology, farmers, dealers and other network developers erected towers to receive GPS correction signals and transfer them to vehicles equipped with receivers in the field. But building towers can be an expensive proposition and can also limit the area of coverage where operators can receive the radio signal.
Using cellular connections can help resolve line-of-sight barrier and distance limits to a significant degree, says Pfitzer.
CORS Networks. One of the more advanced RTK networks currently being offered is called CORS, or Continuously Operating Reference Stations. CORS works by using a single GPS/GNSS reference station to transmit RTK corrections to the cellular modem on a tractor or other moving vehicle.
Some CORS networks are public. Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio are among the states that operate CORS systems through their transportation departments.
Some also utilize technology that is specific to certain precision ag equipment manufacturers.
Trimble, for example, offers VRS, or Virtual Reference Station. Leica calls its proprietary technology mojoRTK. Raven Industries rolled out its Slingshot system at the Ag Connect Expo in January.
VRS. Trimble describes VRS as an integrated system of multiple GPS/GNSS reference stations spread out over a large area, typically 30-45 miles. A central server uses Trimble’s proprietary software to create a correction map for the covered region.
GNSS is a term for all satellite constellation systems that provide positioning data.
The GPS/GNSS rovers communicate using a cellular modem with the VRS server and receive RTK-type corrections.
“VRS corrections are particularly suitable for areas with natural obstructions, like trees and hilly terrain,” Pfitzer says. “The corrections are obtained by a cellular modem, rather than through the line-of-sight signals provided by a RTK tower. VRS also provides sub-inch GPS correction for farms located in areas without an existing RTK tower network.”
mojoRTK. Leica’s system, called mojoRTK, also utilizes a built-in cellular modem and its Spider software that can connect with all CORS networks providing the correct open standard formats, according to Darren Herstedt, technical service-support manager for Leica.
Working with the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), Leica is helping to implement one of the world’s largest DOT-owned statewide networks of GNSS/CORS. Called the Iowa Real Time Network (IaRTN), this statewide RTK/GPS network provides authorized public and private users near-instantaneous GPS satellite corrections for accurate and precise positioning anywhere in the state, according to Mike Jackson, special projects engineer with Iowa DOT.
Slingshot. Raven Industries recently introduced Slingshot, which allows farmers to receive a RTK signal at greater distances than from towers in existing RTK networks and includes high-speed Internet access, says Ryan Molitor, the company’s marketing supervisor.
“With Slingshot, the base station antenna just has to see the sky. There is no line-of-sight limitation. It eliminates the tower infrastructure issues with a regular RTK network,” Molitor says.
An industrial grade modem in Slingshot’s field hub connects to a RTK signal through major cellphone wireless networks in the U.S. and Canada. Slingshot users can receive an accurate RTK signal beyond what a typical RTK tower network can offer.
Slingshot users can connect through dealers that handle the Raven system and have a Slingshot base station or access to a public CORS network.
Farmers can choose to just use Slingshot’s wireless data transfer option and purchase service from their cellphone carrier. They can also get the RTK option for an additional fee, Molitor says.