The trouble with telematics

When it comes to telematics, that special set of data that helps monitor the performance of big equipment, acceptance by farmers appears to be coming in fits and starts, with the emphasis on the younger generation.

The challenge, several dealers say, is to provide training and follow-up to farmers who are now buying equipment with the big guns of data collection on board.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a farm office and I’ve seen a farmer or a farm manager pull out a Ziplock bag with all of his USB sticks, and he’s been collecting data for a dozen years, and it’s all sitting in a Ziplock bag and he’s done nothing with it,” said Steven Dyck, president and general manager of Western Tractor, which has locations in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“Even for that next generation, us, as a dealership, we’ve got to create easy buttons for them.”

That easy button comes in the way of training, easier access to data, and follow-up help, issues that a Glacier FarmMedia survey shows are concerns for farmers who are wandering into the fledgling field of telematics data.

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Telematics gathers information from on-board sensors about equipment location, operations, diagnostics, and maintenance. Users can connect their machines to their offices and mobile devices or equipment dealers or manufacturers, which can then study the data and advise farmers.

The GFM survey suggests that farmers are aware of the potential for telematics data use. Some 42 percent of farmers surveyed said it would save time, while 39 percent said it would result in decreased costs.

But few farmers have yet taken the deep dive. Just 11 percent say they are testing telematics now and only five percent say they have fully adopted its use. More than a quarter of farmers say the industry will not be ready to make telematics data useful to them for one to two years and 29 percent say the industry won’t be ready for another three to five years.

Only about a third of farmers believe the industry is ready now.

Regardless, 56 percent of farmers feel they’re not going to adopt telematic data use for three to five years.

This is despite the widespread availability of the technology on newer machines.

The biggest barrier to acceptance of telematics is budget constraint, say 43 percent of survey respondents. Many believe they’ll have to buy new machines with the onboard equipment, though some dealers say after-market upgrades are possible.

More than one in five farmers say they do not know how to use the technology, almost the same number say they don’t understand telematics, and 17 percent say they can’t get help when they need it.

On that last part, some dealers agree it has been an issue, though there is now a focus in that area.

“They’re not alone in that sometimes,” said Grant Kromrey, branch manager of Tingley’s Harvest Centre in Lloydminster, Alta. “(The) last couple of years in the dealership side, even with ourselves, we’ve struggled with some of the telematics.”

But changes to technology, especially the availability to view data in smart phone apps or tablets, is helping, said Kromrey.

“One thing we’ve really seen change is the advances in smartphones and apps. We’ve really seen them increase. (They’re) a lot more user friendly, making it more instinctive to work your way through menus … simplifying the operations.”

That ease of use is vital to the growth of telematics, he said.

Randy Gates, manager of the precision technology department for the Mazergroup, which operates 13 locations in Manitoba and one in eastern Saskatchewan, understands some farmers’ reluctance to embrace telematics. He says manufacturers have to help.

“I don’t think the manufacturer (has) done a good enough job providing us with information and the understanding of it.”

Dealers must play a role in helping producers, he said.

Gates compared the use of telematics to people getting their first smartphone and only using the basics.

“If you actually sat down and showed the guy the value, is there going to be huge savings? Yeah, there could be. Is there going to be huge time savings? In my mind there definitely will be. How to get it across is what the manufacturers and the dealers need to work on.”

Most dealers interviewed agreed that acceptance of telematics is likely going to be a generational issue.

“The under-35 type crowd, they’re the ones that eat that technology up,” said Jeff Schlachter, a co-owner of Wheatbelt Sales in Wadena, Sask. “The older guys still want the plain and simple.”

That plays out in what he sees in sales.

“Some companies make different models for how advanced you want to get. (The) new Kubota, for instance, there’s a standard (model) and there’s a premium. The premium has all the fancy touch screens … in the cab and the standard just has a plain-Jane powershift.”

But equipment buyers are “probably still two-thirds standard and a third premium,” he said.

Dyck agrees.

“In southern Alberta we’ve got some pretty large farming operations. It’s very common to see 10,000 acre-plus farms here, 20,000 acre-plus farms there, so a lot of the farmers are not the guys sitting in the cabs anymore.

“It’s their hired help. It’s their children (who) are doing it now and we’re finding the next generation is embracing that, because, quite frankly, they are far more technically literate.”

In some areas, telematics has yet to take off.

“I’ve had nobody asking me for it,” said Mathew Marshall, sales manager at Raymore New Holland in Saskatchewan. Farm size could be an issue, he said.

“We don’t have huge fleet farmers here that own 15 combines. For telematics, as of right now, some new equipment definitely is coming with it, you can activate it, but nobody’s really asking for that.”

Still, Kromrey believes the industry is reaching a milestone. Dealers have a better handle on the data, they’re becoming better at servicing and explaining the equipment, and apps and smartphones are making it much more accessible. He thinks the three-to-five year time frame for heavier adaptation of telematics will be compressed.

“I actually believe that you’re going to see that time frame shorten. Most of the industry has gone to the point where it’s become a staple. The biggest thing for (the dealers’) side is that we are going to need to show the benefits to the end user much more quicker and get them involved. I think that’s going to move it along quicker.”

Dyck agrees.

“We’ve been heavily invested in this for a number of years now,” he said. “We believe this is the future of farming and we have focused primarily with our next generation farmers, especially in trying to turn telematics and data into meaningful decision-making tools.

“For famers, it’s a complete mind shift for them, but I also say … it’s a complete mind shift for the dealers too. It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen within the dealerships themselves.”

Gates says farmers are on the cusp of a major move into telematics.

“I’m betting that … maybe not in this coming year, maybe the following year, I’d love to see (the GFM) survey out again, and I bet you these numbers will have changed quite a bit.”

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