In an inter­view, Christoph Wigger, Director Small Grains Produc­tion Systems at John Deere, explains how farmers can reduce their input costs and opti­mise their fertil­i­sa­tion and crop protec­tion measures.

As the Director of Small Grains Produc­tion Systems, Christoph Wigger works together with his team to better under­stand the needs of farmers and contrac­tors around the world. The goal is to develop tech­nical solu­tions that enable more econom­ical and sustain­able results in arable farming. Many machines and systems avail­able on the market today offer consid­er­able cost saving poten­tial. And opti­mising the entire crop rota­tion offers an addi­tional yield oppor­tu­nity.

Since spring of last year, the prices for agri­cul­tural resources have increased consid­er­ably. So, how did customers react to this?

A recent customer survey has shown us that more than 20% have adjusted their crop­ping plans for 2023, because of higher input prices. Many customers are also reducing the use of mineral fertilisers, trying to replace them with organic fertilisers, and applying pesti­cides in a more targeted manner. In addi­tion, more customers want to control weeds in their fields mechan­i­cally.

How can John Deere help farmers reduce their input costs?

Imple­ments such as sprayers and preci­sion seed drills are of great impor­tance when it comes to reducing input costs. For these machines, we offer section control and single-seed drilling as well as indi­vidual spray nozzle control. We also develop AI systems that can recog­nise weeds them­selves and combat them in a targeted manner.

Through a coop­er­a­tion with xarvioTM from BASF, we try to leverage their expe­ri­ence in supporting the customer to decide on the right timing and most effec­tive dosages when applying fungi­cides. The enabler is a better inter­face between xarvioTM and the John Deere Oper­a­tions Center which auto­mates the order submis­sion from xarvioTM to our sprayers.

Site-specific appli­ca­tion of fungi­cides reduces plant protec­tion costs. Addi­tional savings can be achieved through agro­nomic deci­sion support.

What about fertil­i­sa­tion?

More than half of the farmers who responded to our survey plan to reduce N-fertil­i­sa­tion per hectare, and almost 40% want to use more organic fertiliser. Site-specific fertiliser maps can be imported into or created in the John Deere Oper­a­tions Center. Soil analyses, yield maps or infor­ma­tion on the ingre­di­ents in the harvested crop (mainly protein content) serve as a base; these can now also be measured with the Harvest Lab Sensor for John Deere combines. Fertiliser manage­ment with section control or liquid manure tanks equipped with an NIR sensor, such as John Deere’s HarvestLab, allow for fertiliser appli­ca­tion that is more precise and in line with the crop’s nutrient demand. As part of our sustain­ability goals, we are aiming for a 20% improve­ment in Nitrogen Use Effi­ciency (NUE).

Does the Oper­a­tions Center offer tools to reduce costs?

The Oper­a­tions Center is used to better plan the agri­cul­tural year as well as indi­vidual work steps. This allows for the opti­mised use of seeds, fertilisers and pesti­cides, while also improving logis­tics and use of machinery. As a result, the machines can be better utilised, thereby achieving addi­tional fuel savings.

Through targeted organic fertil­i­sa­tion with the help of the NIR sensor, mineral fertiliser costs can be reduced, and higher yields can be achieved compared to N fertil­i­sa­tion per cubic metre.

What about the accep­tance of new tech­nolo­gies?

Guid­ance systems and auto­matic section control are wide­spread and used by many customers today. We know from our customer survey that the use of these systems will continue to increase. In addi­tion, about one third of the people surveyed stated that they want to be supported by digital plant protec­tion recom­men­da­tions even more in the future.

“During the Covid pandemic, we have seen a signif­i­cant accel­er­a­tion in the adop­tion of telemetry systems. Dealers and customers, alike have recog­nised the bene­fits of connected machines. Smaller prob­lems, such as improved machine settings, could be solved directly on site in the driver’s cab via remote diag­nosis and settings. John Deere has estab­lished itself as a market leader in connected support, and dealers can help directly without having to drive out to the customer’s loca­tion.

Have all tech­nical possi­bil­i­ties been maxed out already?

Features such as HarvestS­mart on combine harvesters or the iTEC head­land manage­ment on trac­tors offer enor­mous poten­tial for automa­tion and on top effi­ciency advan­tages for our customers. Unfor­tu­nately, we find that some of these features are not being acti­vated. There­fore, many of our dealers offer training courses to prepare drivers for the next season.

Together with our engi­neers, we ensure that all new features are intu­itive and easy to acti­vate and operate.

Christoph Wigger

In addi­tion, how-to videos on our website give customers the oppor­tu­nity to famil­iarise them­selves with the new tech­nolo­gies. To intro­duce the younger gener­a­tion, in partic­ular, to new tech­nolo­gies, we helped develop a preci­sion farming module for the computer game, Farming Simu­lator. Together with our engi­neers, we ensure that all new features are intu­itive and easy to acti­vate and operate.

In which areas is John Deere investing in the medium- and long-term to further reduce the costs of agri­cul­tural produc­tion?

When plan­ning our research and devel­op­ment activ­i­ties, we are working more and more with model farms located in different coun­tries that must cope with a variety of climatic condi­tions on different soils. Through this close coop­er­a­tion with prac­tical farms, we get a good overview of the entire produc­tion system as well as a wide range of devel­op­ments, such as improved hybrid seeds or crop protec­tion prod­ucts.

We also learn to what extent margins can be increased can by using these new tech­nolo­gies. Our analyses have shown that the biggest effi­ciency increase poten­tial for farmers lies in sowing, fertil­ising and crop protec­tion. Based on our find­ings, we develop new tech­nical solu­tions that offer customers high added value. We test these solu­tions directly on the model farms for their prac­tical suit­ability. In addi­tion, we look at how a change in one work step affects the other work steps. We take a holistic view of the entire crop produc­tion system.

Together with the seed company Saaten Union, John Deere is looking for new possi­bil­i­ties to opti­mise sowing.

In addi­tion to site-specific farming, John Deere works a lot on the automa­tion of machinery. What is the reason for this focus?

An impor­tant aspect of automa­tion is that farmers can be as produc­tive at the end of a long working day as they were in the first hour. In other words, we want to actively lighten their load. In addi­tion, we see that it is becoming increas­ingly diffi­cult for farmers and contrac­tors to find suit­able employees, while ever higher demands are being placed on the quality of work.

Automa­tion offers new oppor­tu­ni­ties here by simpli­fying the oper­a­tion of machines while nsuring a high quality of work. So far, we have auto­mated indi­vidual work steps or tasks such as steering. Last year in the USA, we presented the first tractor that can till the soil fully autonomously. The devel­op­ment leads from partial to full automa­tion. Our goal is to develop a fully autonomous farming system by 2030.

What are the retrofit bundles all about?

As part of our life-cycle solu­tion strategy, we offer our customers retrofit pack­ages that allow them to use the latest tech­no­log­ical solu­tions even on their older machines. The customer can thus use the latest tech­nical achieve­ments on their farm without having to buy a completely new machine.

In addi­tion, most of our customers own several John Deere machines, but not all of them neces­sarily have the same tech­nical stan­dard and there­fore do not work opti­mally in inter­ac­tion with the connected machines. In such cases, retrofit bundles offer the possi­bility of bringing the entire fleet to a uniform tech­nical stan­dard.