SPONSORED BY RDO EQUIPMENT CO.
When thinking about autonomous farming, what comes to mind? While some may envision a big, driverless tractor, others might imagine drones swarming above farm fields.
Most often, visions of an autonomous farm have one thing in common: the absence of people. RDO Equipment Co., a 75+-store network of equipment dealerships, including eight John Deere agriculture-focused stores in the Red River Valley, has a different idea.
“Autonomous farming can’t exist without people; people who understand both the aspects of precision technology and crop production,” Joel Kaczynski, Product Specialist Manager at RDO Equipment Co., explains. “As we move toward autonomous farming, people aren’t going away, they become even more crucial.”
Joel and the precision ag team at RDO Equipment Co. are committed to leadership in the field of precision agriculture technology and agronomy. They share a vision for the future of autonomous farming that combines the advantages offered by precision agriculture technology with the element that makes the farming community special – people. And they’re bringing that vision to life in a unique way right here in the Red River Valley.
Linked to the Land
Founded by sixth-generation farmer, Ronald D. Offutt, RDO Equipment Co. has deep agricultural roots. As one of the world’s largest John Deere agriculture equipment dealers, it’s also familiar with the opportunities that come with precision agriculture technology.
In early 2018, RDO Equipment Co. was presented an opportunity that allowed the team to put autonomous farming concepts into practice in a real-life setting, while providing a unique learning experience for students at the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) in Wahpeton, N.D.
Ninety one acres of land was donated to the school for three years, with the intent of being a “land lab.” Named after land donors, Mary Kosel and Linda Patterson, the Kosel Family Agriculture Land Lab is a place where students can get out of the classroom – get their hands dirty, get their boots on the ground and get up-close with the precision agriculture technology and equipment that’s the future of the industry.
After submitting a proposal to participate in the project, RDO Equipment Co. was chosen to partner with NDSCS on the Land Lab and given approximately 70 acres of the land to create a place for research, testing and student-focused learning.
Creating Opportunities for the Future
Just as RDO Equipment Co. is no stranger to advancing the farming profession through the sale and support of equipment and technology, the company is long-committed to the future of the equipment industry and providing real-world experience for students.
Through its Access Your Future (AYF) internship program, a partnership with John Deere’s diesel technician program at colleges and universities across the country, students interested in a heavy equipment career can get hands-on, mentored work experience with equipment in a service department setting.
The AYF program also includes paths for those interested in a career in sales or parts at a store – which is how Tony Kramer, Product Specialist Supervisor, found his way to the company.
“I had the opportunity to join the AYF program as a sales intern,” he said. “That was almost 10 years ago and, since then, I’ve enjoyed opportunities to grow within the company to where I am today.”
Tony leads a team of precision agriculture equipment experts so it only seemed fitting for him to take a large leadership role at the Land Lab – one which he was eager to accept, both to expand his knowledge, and to share knowledge with the Land Lab’s key audience: students.
The Land Lab created an exciting opportunity for RDO Equipment Co. to enhance its partnership with NDSCS and provide a real-world experience for students pursuing a career either working on the farm or in the industry as a trusted advisor, like an agronomist or soil health specialist.
RDO Equipment Co. provided equipment, people and time to the Land Lab. Joel, Tony and RDO Equipment Co. Agronomist, Jacob Maurer, formed the team leading the project and began planning.
Welcome to the Land Lab
To get started on what this non-traditional “classroom” looked like for students, the team began with the basics.
“We needed to plant a crop, care for a crop and harvest a crop,” Tony said. “But we also wanted to implement some of the autonomous farming concepts being used today.”
Jacob further explained that the team drew inspiration from several areas, most notable, RDO Equipment Co.’s own customers. The team regularly conducts field trials, or small research studies, with customers and felt the Land Lab could be used in a similar way.
The team also worked with several partners to shape the Land Lab. Kelsey Van Overbeke, an Agronomist with Farmer’s Union Oil of Southern Valley worked with the RDO team to provide all the crop inputs, including crop protection, nutrition, and seed. This offered another opportunity to demonstrate how precision agriculture technology can help with cost-effective decisions on the farm.
“Gathering UAV imagery, tissue tests, NDVI imagery, yield maps and other precision data the first year tied with varied rates of nutrients have given the students valuable data to analyze for future decision-making and cost analysis,” Kelsey explained.
Finally, the Land Lab’s direction wouldn’t be complete without partnership with the college. NDSCS professors looked forward to opportunities for students to learn outside of the classroom.
“Seeing the technology and equipment operate before their eyes, combined with the expertise of Jacob and Tony leading discussions, ties it all together and creates a dynamic opportunity for our students,” Craig Zimprich, Associate Professor and Chair of the Agriculture Department at NDSCS, said.
With all input considered, the team chose to divide the Land Lab’s acres into two fields, creating opportunity for comparison trials. The land had grown soybeans the past four seasons. With the interest in seeing a full season of crop and equipment data from something new, two new crops were selected for year one: wheat and corn.
RDO Equipment Co. kicked off season one at the Land Lab with planting in May of 2018.
Taking Technology to the Field
Early on, the RDO team encouraged students to use the Land Lab in any way they saw fit.
“We reminded them, this is your field,” Tony said. “Come out, walk around, use this as your playground.”
Field days and events were organized to weave the experience into the students’ lives. Additionally, NDSCS seized opportunities to bring subject matter to life.
Anissa Hoffman, Associate Professor, brought her Introduction to Soil Health class out to the Land Lab on several occasions to dig soil pits, do soil assessment labs and observe actual soil characteristics in their natural setting.
Conversely, there were opportunities to bring the Land Lab into the classroom. Instructor Chris Duchsherer’s Data Collection class spent a week focused on the reviewing and analyzing data in the John Deere Operations Center, a cloud-based platform for farm management.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity RDO was able to offer students was the chance to work with precision agriculture technology and equipment.
“To meet the demands of a growing global population, we can either plant more acres or increase the productivity of our existing farmland,” Joel said. “Farmable acres are shrinking, so precision agriculture technology is how farmers will continue to feed the world.”
Joel further pointed out that one of the biggest challenges with technology adoption and using it to the fullest potential is lack of time and resources for farmers to understand and put practices into action. His team’s focus is to know the equipment and technology inside and out, not only offering it to customers but to help them implement and provide ongoing support so those good data-driven decisions can be made. This made their work at the Land Lab that much more important.
The Faces of the Land Lab
Learning by Doing
RDO Equipment Co. used John Deere machines supplied by their own stores. The team’s first field trial, a speed trial, was done during corn planting with a DB planter equipped with ExactEmerge row units and a John Deere 8R tractor with Gen4 Command Center. The test involved planting at various speeds to see the agronomic impact on the field.
Data was collected via the Connect Mobile app for instant access to review, analyze and make changes. The data was also available instantly to students to see what was happening during the trial.
“When we do a trial, I think the misconception is that we’re hoping to see major differences,” he explained. “In this trial, we wanted to help students understand how a change in speed might affect yield. We found there wasn’t much difference in yields compared to planter speed.”
Getting out to the field, students had the opportunity to participate in corn harvest and again see the process of working with autonomous concepts. A new John Deere S780 combine was used, equipped with precision programs CombineAdvisor, ActiveYield and Gen4 Yield Data.
Precision agriculture-enabled equipment takes more effort to set up and adjust to ensure proper functionality in the field, something RDO’s precision ag team offers ahead of each phase in the crop cycle. Students were invited to participate in this set up prior to corn harvest. Then, they had the opportunity to “be” in the combine cab during harvest – virtually, via iPad, through the machine’s connection via remote display access.
“There’s something special about harvest,” Jacob said with a smile. “The students were engaged, they asked questions, they got into the combine to check out the precision features. That’s the kind of stuff they can read about in books but it’s so much more seeing it in person.”
In addition to machines on the ground, the RDO team used UAVs to fly the Land Lab’s acres and create maps used to build prescriptions for planting, spraying and harvesting, and monitor the crop throughout the season.
Entering year two, the team has a lot planned, including more student field days and workshops, more field trial with John Deere equipment, and even hosting events at the Land Lab for team members, customers and partners.
Connections, Colleagues and Collaboration
Even with every available technology, AI and autonomous opportunity, Jacob, Joel and Tony agree: the profession of farming thrives because of people.
“We can write programs for machines to work a certain way – but a person needs to write that program, just like a person needs to look at data, analyze it and make the right decisions for his or her unique operation,” Tony said.
“Edge computing is the next big development in autonomous equipment, giving machines more ability to sense and make decisions. But there’s still that perspective only a person can have of truly seeing what’s happening in the field, watching the weather shift before their eyes and combining knowledge and instinct to make the right decisions,” Joel said.
“The connections between people are just as important as the connections to the land; it’s why I’m in the business. It’s all about the people,” Jacob said.
Quick Facts About the RDO Team
Tony is host of RDO Equipment Co.’s Agriculture Technology Podcast. Tune in every other week to hear Tony talk with professionals about precision technology, autonomous farming, and issues affecting the agriculture industry. Visit RDOequipment.com/more/podcasts to find all episodes.
Prior to joining RDO Equipment Co., Jacob was a precision ag curriculum specialist at Highland Community College in Wamego, KS and an extension agent at North Dakota State University. He continues to educate students, fellow agronomists and industry leaders through various speaking engagements and as a regular contributor to PrecisionAg and CropLife magazines and websites.
Joel holds two agriculture accreditations: the Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Precision Ag Specialty Certification (PASp). While the industry doesn’t require these, Joel proactively pursued them to stay on top of rapidly-growing precision agriculture opportunities, and expand his knowledge skills to better understand the challenges and needs of grower customers.