John Deere Agri Services isn't your usual farm equipment company. Formed in May 2005, John Deere Agri Services carries the company name and familiar John Deere green logo. But don't ask its employees to sell you a tractor or a combine or most of the hardware Deere normally sells.

Instead, John Deere Agri Services aims to “combine technology with knowledge to build services that John Deere can offer throughout the agri-food chain, from growers and their suppliers to food and fiber processors and retailers,” a company statement says.

Ag-related

“We feel that our business opportunities are primarily in ag-related industries,” says Terry Brown, an account manager for John Deere Agri Services. “That's how we're trying to complement the equipment manufacturing side.

“What we're trying to do is go from the AMS (Ag Management Solutions) products in the spring to when the products are put in a bag and delivered to Wal-Mart in the winter.”

Brown, speaking at a John Deere media event in Orlando, Fla., said Deere is not marketing John Deere Agri Services through its traditional dealer network.

“The John Deere dealer organization is fantastic, but it does not have the agronomic expertise to make recommendations on prescription mapping and other precision ag tools,” he said. “Thus, we're partnering with what we refer to as value-added re-sellers or VARs to accomplish that goal.”

While Brown has been covering the Atlanta-Dallas area, Deere Agri Services was preparing to divide his territory into three regions as it adds more account managers to focus on precision farming technology applications.

Since mid-1980s

Precision agriculture or site-specific management, as some call it, has been around since the mid-1980s, but as university teams and industry have brought on new technologies and products it hasn't always been easy for growers to make sense of it all.

“There is a lot of fragmented, disjointed technology out there,” says Dan McCabe, senior vice president, John Deere Agri Services. “There are a lot of bright people with good ideas.”

McCabe, who formerly headed John Deere's Information Technology Division before joining Agri Services, says he's finding a lot of truth in the adage that “data isn't useful until it's transformed into information,” and “information isn't that useful either unless you use it to generate insights.”

The key is knowledge capital. “Technology and data management have evolved to where we have a lot of information and can collect, move and analyze it,” he says. “But it takes someone to connect the dots to provide insights.”

Because of his location in the Southeast, Brown has been spending a lot of time working on precision farming projects in cotton, particularly with seed and chemical dealers such as Jimmy Sanders in the Mid-South.

“The grower, his consultant or his seed-fertilizer-chemical supplier identifies that they have an opportunity to do site-specific management in a field,” says Brown. “Then the VAR can sit down during the winter, go out to a test site and he can geo-reference that field with satellite imagery. A lot of this preparatory work can be done prior to the growing season.

“The key to making site-specific systems work is geo-referencing the fields. The field has to be identified by farmer, by the farm and by field. That's how the images will be delivered back and the prescription will be written.”

Once the fields are flown by airplane and the imagery delivered to the farmer and his consultant, the farmer may decide to fly additional inputs, such as plant growth regulators, on portions of the field.

“Research has shown that these services can be extremely valuable in cotton,” said Brown. “We've seen increases in profits as high as $56 per acre for variable-rate applications vs. broadcast applications.”

The new entity also plans to provide site-specific tools for helping farmers, consultants and fertilizer dealers troubleshoot fertility problems in their fields through new offerings such as Deere's Soil Information System.

Better productivity

“John Deere Agri Services now offers the Soil Information System to help producers describe soil variability at higher levels of resolution, previously unavailable in the marketplace,” he says. “Armed with this information, producers will be able to undertake soil management practices that enhance design and productivity.”

“Traditionally, the major challenge has been to accurately and objectively quantify the spatial variability of soil properties at a high level of resolution,” says Rick Wesch, also an account manager at Deere Agri Services.

“The Soil Information system overcomes that challenge by combining a suite of sensors with global positioning systems (GPS) to create a high-resolution, three-dimensional map detailing physical and chemical soil variability at a sub-inch level of accuracy.”

Three phases

Wesch says data collection is undertaken in three phases with each tier of data increasing the knowledge of the soil. The centerpiece of the equipment is a penetrometer that describes texture, moisture, compaction, color and electrical sensitivity. Coupled with geo-referenced coring, the farmer gets a detailed picture of the physical and chemical characteristics of his soils.

“The value in not in the data alone,” says Wesch. “The value lies in our ability to take the data and extrapolate it into maps of critical importance for growers, managers and consultants. While a traditional sampling scheme might use 10 backhoe pits to describe a 200 — acre parcel, the Soil Information System will take up to 100 observations over that same 200 acres without digging a pit.

“And since GPS ties data to the exact location where each analysis was made, site specific management is brought to a new level of accuracy. When an agronomist or crop consultant reviews the information, they can make recommendations that will noticeably improve agronomic practices.”

John Deere Agri Services is also introducing its new OptiGro Variable Rate Imaging System to help provide a service that will combine high-resolution aerial imagery and spatial analysis with direction and scrutiny from local crop consultants.

“Your crop consultant orders an aerial image from John Deere Agri Services and a trained operator flies over your land to take digital images of the field,” says Brown. “By using GPS to match images to specific areas in the field, the resulting processed images highlight areas that may indicate potential issues which could affect crops and impact yields.”

Brown says the consultant or crop adviser can analyze the images and make a prescription recommendation for the grower. The consultant uses his local knowledge to prescribe options for those areas which indicate potential crop problems.

A grower can use variable rate chemical application technology to have products applied only where needed according to the digital map, thus applying the right amount of inputs for reduced plant variability.

Reduce expenses

“This system can help to reduce input expense, improve environmental stewardship, and document where chemicals are applied,” said Brown. “The OptiGro System is among the first to integrate the new technologies of digital imaging, computer analysis, GPS, variable rate systems, and the Internet.”

Because of the speed and accuracy of this integrated system, the producer can get information fast enough to make in-season decisions to improve irrigation, efficiently apply chemicals, and even improve harvest, says Brown.

The new OptiGro system is based on leading edge technology from GeoVantage, an aerial imagery company recently acquired by John Deere Agri Services. The system was developed by John Deere and is marketed through agricultural service providers.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com