From agricultural giant to tech top dog

Modern farmers need to embrace mechanisation to drive efficiency. John Deere wants to be the technology company that enables this new era of precision agriculture.
Read time 5min 30sec

In 1837, John Deere created a steel plough that would make it easier for farmers to plant crops in soil that was hard and sticky. This particular plough was rather revolutionary because it allowed farmers to work continuously without having to stop every few metres to remove soil from the blade. At the time, Deere’s plough was considered the latest and greatest farming technology. His vision birthed a company that produces farming equipment‒ from ploughs and tractors to combine harvesters and planters ‒which is being used to reshape a massive percentage of the earth’s surface. Today, Deere’s company is spearheading an agricultural revolution using technology to add a layer of precision to traditional farming techniques.

Modern agricultural equipment can think, predict and guide farmers, says Wayne Spaumer, technology specialist for Precision AG at John Deere Sub-Saharan Africa.This presents Africa with an incredible opportunity to meet the continent’s food requirements.

One of John Deere’s early forays into the world of tech – after his historical plough, that is – happened in the 1990s, when the company created a GPS guidance tool that farmers could fit to their existing tractors to ensure that the right seeds are being planted in exactly the right place. Back then, this guidance technology system was manually operated and had an accuracy of around 30cms. Today, it’s accurate to 2.5cms with repeatability that allows farmers to plant seeds in exactly the same lines year in and year out, Spaumer notes.

This all comes down to data, he notes. Using a cloud-based programme, all of the data generated from different pieces of smart farming equipment is made available to each customer via a central operations centre. The data is combined with insights from third parties – fertiliser companies, soil scientists and seed companies – and shows farmers what they need to do to produce a higher yield. This information is then fed back into the customer’s operations centre profile and can be used to analyse and assess the effectiveness of any interventions that have been made. “It’s about using data to plan, make the necessary changes and then analyse the results. And when you’ve done that, you start with the process all over again.” As consumers become more conscious about the sources of the food they eat, these data insights can also be shared to improve customer decision-making, adds Stephan Nel, branch marketing manager at John Deere Sub-Saharan Africa.

Is AI the answer?

According to GeoFarm South Africa, when compared with farms across the same area and with the moisture levels and soil types, farms in the United States are 27% more productive than South African farms. According to Spaumer, while this difference may appear to be about mechanisation, a closer look shows that artificial intelligence has transformed the industry and how drastically these changes have improved agricultural yields.

Painting a picture of precision farming in practice, Spaumer explains that the agriculture process is divided into four steps ‒ land preparation, planting, looking after the plants and, finally, the harvest. In the first stage, the machines used to till and prepare the soil to grow crops are programmed with data from soil experts. These pieces of equipment know that the soil in a certain area is more sandy or harder than in other areas of the field and will adjust accordingly. “The end result is that your land is perfectly prepared for your plants to grow,” he says.

“In being able to remotely connect with a piece of equipment, farmers can be proactive, not reactive.”

Stephan Nel, John Deere Sub-Saharan Africa

In the planting phase of the process, these smart technologies use tillage data to ensure that each pip is placed at the exact right depth, in the best location and with the perfect amount of soil on top of it to give each plant the best possible opportunity to grow. After planting comes crop protection and care, says Spaumer. Self-propelled sprayers are used to distribute fertiliser and insecticides with a level of precision that monitors the size of the droplets being sprayed across the field. When the plants are ready to be picked, harvesters fitted with intelligent cameras move through the field. Should a plant not be ready for harvest – in that it deviates from the parameters that have been programmed as ‘ripe for the picking’ – a notification is sent to the farmer and the appropriate adjustments can be made.

Coming to SA

Did you know that John Deere equipment actually arrived on South African soil accidentally? In 1878, a ship carrying two John Deere Prairie Queen walking ploughs ran aground near Bathurst. The ploughs were recovered and sold at auction to George Knott of Botha’s Post farm in Victoria East, South Africa, and became the first John Deere implements to furrow South African soil. It took another 40 years before the brand officially entered the South African agricultural market.

Beyond all this, Nel says these insights also make it possible to monitor machine health and for John Deere dealers to offer proactive support. If a piece of equipment is running hot, for example, a warning message is generated to alert the farmer about a potential problem. Armed with all of this maintenance-related information from around the globe, John Deere can better understand the ’symptoms’ or root causes of a total system failure. Should a customer’s equipment show any of these failure markers, farmers will be warned about the risks and are sent advice about what parts may be needed to fix the issue. “In being able to remotely connect with a piece of equipment, farmers can be proactive, not reactive.”

Despite the obvious benefits, there are still some farmers who are afraid of technology and would prefer to stick to the processes they’ve been using for decades, notes Nel. But these methods are no longer sustainable. “They are being asked to produce more food due to growing populations and they need to do so at an acceptable cost so that customers can afford to buy the food. In addition, all of this must happen in an environmentally sustainable and profitable way,” says Nel.

“Our challenge is to show these guys how new technologies can help. This applies to farmers with 20 000 hectares and those with just 100 hectares,” he adds.

“It’s no longer about having the best tractor, fertiliser or seeds. Today, it’s about being part of an ecosystem where farmers, equipment manufacturers and industry experts work together to build the value chain.”

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