Like the blender market CropLife® covered last month, the blending systems and software business is showing no signs of slowing down — in spite of lower crop prices and uncertain planting projections. Perhaps one reason is the way companies are rising to the challenge of making operation and back office systems more powerful and practical.
One example? Specialty products such as enhancers and stabilizers have been particularly hot sellers at dealerships, but they can pose a challenge for blending. “They’re good, profitable items for the dealer — and they make for a good quality product for the customer,” says Steve Swift with Kahler Automation. The challenge, he says, is to get that mixing done quickly at a time when retailers need to move loads fast. “Trying to spray these liquid additives on top of a dry fertilizer slows the process, and equipment companies are trying to make changes to speed that up.”
He adds that for their part, dealers have come up with some of their own solutions, including pre-blending these mixes and storing them in micro bins.
Agvance features tools to help manage various rate calculations for enhancers/stabilizers — a task that Judy Warf, communications director with SSI, says is very similar to how the system calculates surfactant rates for pesticide applications.
Dave Junge, president of Junge Control, says the move to additives can also be seen in chemicals, seed and more. “It seems like enhancers and stabilizers are everywhere and need to be applied with extreme accuracy to achieve the benefits,” he notes.
Micronutrients also have been changing blending systems in recent years. Dry blender manufacturers are asking Kahler to develop smaller scales and dispensing equipment to manage micro ingredients. The challenge is to measure them accurately and quickly so the dry truck can get out the door. “When you try to measure something small, it slows you down,” Swift points out.
More News In The Plant
Besides speed, accuracy and documentation are what retailers are asking for, says Swift. “Efficiency just isn’t pumping. It’s the whole process from when the customer’s truck shows up to getting the bill out, without being so labor intensive.” Kahler offers equipment to monitor incoming product as well — both on rail and truck — plus tools such as gate controls and in-bound scaling.
Junge says his firm has to anticipate what the customer will want even if it’s not a consideration today. For instance, Junge’s latest software release is designed to work with all software vendors’ products and will provide more information in the background than customers will ever ask for. The information will be ready for them when they are ready.
Greg Duhachek, president of AgWorks, LLC has seen an intense rise in the value placed on real-time information on retailers’ inventories. He says one could argue that in a declining market, systems like AgWorks — that provide real time inventory information — actually increase in value because they focus on eradicating inefficiencies within the organization, allowing dealers to “run leaner” when necessary.
Business operations software continues to reach beyond the plant into the field. A trend Scott Cavey, Culture Technologies/E-Markets, has seen in the last year is the “proliferation of farm field solutions.” He says this has made customers stop and review what’s available — and that has slowed down the implementation of those software solutions.
Specifically, Cavey says the biggest change he’s seen is companies looking for customer-facing solutions. Hence, sales of Cultura’s Customer Relationship Management (CRM) product sales have been very robust with agronomy businesses.
In the future, Cavey sees a big focus on solutions that help ag retailers become more tightly tied to their customers. “The industry is moving toward loyalty-driven applications that help the farmer conduct business easier with the retailer,” he says.
“We are building a lot of our farmer support applications in the Microsoft CRM platform so it is easy to deploy and easier still to use,” says Cavey. “The agronomy relationship is built on information and that tool allows us to provide the accounting system data easily to the salesman, agronomist and the customer. When modified with simple applications for the farmer, it puts the information at people’s fingertips whether by Phone, Tablet or PC.”
Dealers have been voicing the desire for a single solution to handle the entirety of their agronomy division, says AgWorks’ Duhachek. Now there’s a huge need, he says, in part because of retail consolidations.
He believes the U.S. ag industry is about a decade behind other supply chain systems around the world when it comes to the idea of “integrated information” from the order all the way up to the manufacturer. But, “we’ll see that gap continue to close.”
Information can also build customer relationships. In order to serve a Generation Y grower, retailers are preparing to have more substantive discussions with them around their business as a whole and to do that, they need the whole picture, says Duhachek. For AgWorks specifically, this has changed with its acquisition of HighQ, an analytics engine designed specifically to look at the performance of the decisions a grower and retailer made on their individual and collective acres (benchmarking).
“Leveraging the capabilities of the HighQ data-analytics engine, we can assist retailers greatly in having a more consultative conversation with their growers of tomorrow,” Duhachek says.
Other New Offerings
At Kahler, Swift’s team has been working on Terminal Manager 2 (TM2), a Web-based software program that handles a host of plant tasks.
“If you’re authorized, you can get on your iPhone or office computer and access the files. If you’ve got branch offices, it’s a very good management tool for accounts, order status, drivers, e-mail documentation and inventory. Even the grower can get an e-mail that something has been dispensed,” Swift describes. “Basically everything we’ve learned in our careers went into this program.”
Junge has been extremely pleased with how his company’s new Zone Automation package has taken off. By focusing on five different locations (Zones) in the plant, his team is able to improve accuracy, speed and simplicity for each Zone. Junge assembles the components and pre-tests them, as well as color-codes and numbers each labeled panel and cable. “Customers are realizing how many thousands of dollars this is saving them with the installation not counting the time it takes, even before they turn on the first switch,” he says.
Murray Equipment is now offering its Pre-Assembled Liquid Fertilizer Handling System that can handle up to five fertilizer or carrier products. It pumps up to 400 gpm and can inject micros or other proprietary products through a mass flow meter at one pound increments. The pre-assembly saves time on-site, with less electrical and mechanical work needed.
With the rise of herbicide-tolerant crops, Warf says the SSI will continue to develop tools within Agvance to more easily identify jobs targeted for fields with this type of crop chemistry. Indeed, precise recordkeeping for the new herbicide systems is going to be vital.
“In addition, with these new cropping technologies, it will be even more important for users to apply herbicides responsibly and to minimize situations where drift may be a concern,” she says. One tool that growers and dealers can take advantage of is the Driftwatch program (www.driftwatch.org), a voluntary sensitive crop reporting system that notifies farmers and applicators about locations where spray drift may be a concern.
“We have already provided access to this service from within Agvance Mapping and will be adding additional touch points from within our blending and dispatch modules later this year,” says Warf. “The goal is to make it easier for applicators and dispatchers to be aware of specialty crops, beehives and other sensitive areas prior to pesticide applications.”