At this Deere facility, you can navigate in virtual Gators — while dodging real ones

ORLANDO, Fla. — Alligators warm themselves in the sub-tropical sun one hundred metres away as an iPad tablet computer is raised over a toy Deere 850 air seeder cart.

A virtual, three-dimensional version of the seeder and drill begin to move on the handheld screen as it is rotated around the toy.

However, not every piece of big equipment at this 640-acre farm site is simulated — in fact, most aren’t, and the largest of green iron can be seen rolling around the edges of the Florida swamp.

Making technology real for the agricultural industry is what this facility was built for five years ago. Ten, full-time staff and 200 visiting John Deere instructors host thousands of dealership folks, farmers and John Deere employees at the facility for about nine months of the year and handles equipment from turf mowing to air seeding.

A series of tent structures and portable offices set out around several ponds and some swamps, all with “alligator” signs, sit at the end of a gravel road and an back-of-the-farm style farmgate. It is where the world’s largest agriculture company delivers some its top technologies.

“Integrating the available technology into farming operations and maximizing every acre is why we are here,” Aaron Vancil, who leads the group, said last week at the Orlando Training Center.

Vancil admits that getting farmers to adopt the latest in what appears to be fast moving technology can be a challenge some times, “but it often begins with the dealers and their staff fully understanding how it can be done and why it should be,” he said.

Matt Olson was at the training centre from Iowa, where he works for the John Deere division that integrates those new technologies from the opener in the soil to the crop headed for the elevator.

“We can get many of these technologies to manage (farm activities) down to the individual plant,” he said.

“From our acquisition of Blue River (Technologies that can target and deliver individual weeds for herbicide) to precision seed placement, precision fertilizer (application) and keeping harvest losses to an absolute minimum from our combines, there are a lot of tools available to farmers.… But it has to start somewhere, and that is with information.”

Data to drive decision making is the feed that grows precision agriculture. Even good farm equipment can’t work to its best without it.

Kody Daniels of Deere said without good data, the ability to make the best decisions “for every acre is impaired, and you can’t make the best use of the tools that are available. They will still work, but they can do more.

“Once you have data, you have to be thinking about how good it is. That means setting equipment to capture it.”

Harvest yield data remains a starting place for many operations because “you can see the results from the rest of the year,” Daniels said.

“But other equipment can both deliver data driven decisions and record it as well.”

Seeding and planting equipment, the tractors that pull them and spraying equipment all collect information and respond to prescription mapping and guidance.

Olson said his company has been working to provide farmers with an end-to-end solution that gathers information and processes it, giving straight-forward analysis of the results.

“It might seem like it’s all John Deere, but it’s not. We are now the most open source company in the business with a (lot of) partners in the industry,” he said.

“That allows producers a lot of choices on how to manage their data.”

For Deere, that management comes in the form its Operations Centre, a software, web-connected system that keeps data safe but flowing to and from machinery, computers and mobile devices, as well dealerships and agrologists.

Inside that tool is a new, free module, the Field Analyzer Beta, which allows extensive field level analysis based on mapping, yield data and seeding and planting information.

Kent Kolbeck of Deere said the new system will let producers make a lot of choices from positions of knowledge about what has happened in a field.

“But you need to have some data to get started,” he said.

“The sooner you start, the sooner, you get the idea.”

Dealers say the transition to higher data use for operations depends on the individual farm’s needs, but as the tools become easier to use and where they can be shown to add value to the operations’ bottom lines, producers will begin to adopt them.

Orlando breaks up the crop and forage production and precision agriculture piece of the business into three bites: preparation, seeding and application and harvest, the idea being that farmers in the corn belt will get their equipment testing seed in the planters while there is still snow on the ground and growers from around the world will start setting up their fields and plans in the software before the season starts.

“Rather than sitting at the side of the field punching buttons, they could be spraying or planting,” said Kolbeck.

Olson said integrating the technologies has been a point of discussion in the industry for a long time, and “dealers are critical to connecting the dots.”

Last week, despite driving rain and winds pushing the palm fronds parallel to the ground early in the morning, the sandy soil accepted some of Deere’s biggest machines before lunchtime and Vancil said the site was no accidental choice.

“It’s a very forgiving location that way. Between that and a wide window for weather overall it’s ideal for this work,” he said.

Olson said the need for integrated technology training within agriculture has been growing along with the pace of change in the tools farmers are using.

“This (training) facility was born out of necessity,” he said.

“I’m not sure how we would do this effectively if we didn’t have it. We’d have to build it.”

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