Tracing Success!

Over the last few years, the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) has hammered out some of the components needed for an industrywide product tracking system and 2007 was the season to start testing their recommendations.

Three dealerships volunteered to give the ideas a try: Cooperative Supply, Dodge, NE; Vogel Agri Service, Hamburg, IA; and Reddy Ag Service, Stitzer, WI. “These dealers were very positive and were willing to work with us and do anything needed to make the project a success,” says MACA’s Carl Bartenhagen.

The goals of the trial runs this year were to 1) maintain up-to-the-minute (real time) inventories; 2) record incoming shipments from suppliers in real time; and 3) track product shipments to the farm or field.

The three retailers started with a program called Delivery Doc, computer software supplied by AgWorks of Eldridge, IA. Delivery Doc can track shipments and deliveries and can be teamed with the company’s SmartGun or BBGun handheld units to gather data at field applications.

Change Brings Challenges

But shifting to a new computer business system is no small undertaking, as participants found. AgWorks’ training at dealer sites got employees started.

“Then we found our best training was taking the demo version of Delivery Doc and trying to mess it up, put it to the test, challenge it,” says Mike David of Reddy Ag. “At first everyone was scared to touch it because they didn’t want to break it.” He reassured staff that if they ran into a problem or error, they could just call him and he’d fix it. “They became comfortable with the software because they weren’t scared anymore.”

Greg Warden at Vogel Ag Service says his staff was used to doing everything by hand and going strictly to computer was a quite a change. “We also needed a few more scale hook-ups to monitor some of the other products that weren’t tied into the system,” he says.

Clear Benefits

Darwin Franzen of Cooperative Supply believes the project this summer “forced us into being more responsible about our inventories. It’s going to make us more profitable, to be as accurate as we can.” Indeed, he believes his company probably had less billing errors and unbilled product. “If we were short of something, we could go back and say, ‘Who bought this product and who didn’t get billed?'” he says.

“I think it kept very close live inventories,” agrees David. “If we were missing 5 gallons of something, I would know.”

In the field, applicators using the SmartGun and BBGun technology became fans within a few weeks. The units capture time-coded data including start and finish of a spray job, the temperature, wind speed, etc. Applicators also type in the amount and types of product applied and where.

“Normally when they got back from a day’s worth of spraying, they’d have to spend another hour doing paperwork and might forget something,” says Franzen. Now before a job, they punch identifying information into the handheld. Upon return to the office, they just download the day’s work into the computer system.

Franzen sees great value in the next step his company will be taking with traceability. “We can help customers identify the costs and the returns on all of their acres by field,” he says. This will be a service and sales tool in the future. He does admit that gathering and inputting growers’ field data and maps — including such details as GPS coordinates — into the computer can be time-consuming and tedious. But as Bartenhagen points out, “Once you do it, it’s done.”

Project participants do have some advice for others who want to try a tracking system. Reddy Ag’s David emphasizes the importance of drawing up a companywide routine to run the new tracing system. “We set up a process of ‘where does the paper go, who’s doing what,'” explains David.

Franzen adds that dealers should “start early as far as installation of the software so you have time to experiment with it.” He suggests retailers try the programs in phases, starting slowly and learning them well before moving to the next option or module.

All three dealers are upbeat about continuing the work they started this year. “We’ll be more efficient with the system next year,” says David. “We’ve gone through the learning process, the growing pains.”

Looking Ahead

For true manufacturer-to-field traceability, growers need to participate in the process, Bartenhagen points out. The project’s dealers found grower-customers reluctant to share information on how/where product sold to them would be used – and only 10% to 25% of delivery tickets (depending on the retailer) had farms identified. The industry will have to define benefits for farmers to encourage them to participate, says Bartenhagen.

Also needed is a better warehouse management system for dealers that includes handheld scanners, plus more use of bar codes or RFID (radio frequency identification) chips. “Many products currently do not have i.d. capabilities,” Bartenhagen says.

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