Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is credited with saying, “There is no education like adversity.” If that’s true, many business owners walk into 2021 wiser clutching an honorary business degree from the school of hard knocks.
“Obviously COVID has had a huge impact on our business and how we do business,” says Sam Abbott, General Manager, Waringa. “We have had to adapt new ways of communicating with our dealers and customers given we have been restricted from interstate travel. This has made life challenging as we have taken on two new product lines as well this year. But you learn to adapt pretty quick “
The inability to visit with customers at their facilities or at trade shows has hampered manufacturers’ abilities to share their latest offerings with customers.
“I would say 2020 has been considered a challenge for all of us,” says David Juette – Doyle Management and Sales, Doyle Manufacturing. “With all the trade shows being cancelled and with all the social distancing measures in place getting to visit with customers has been limited to say the least. We are still an industry where dealing face to face and handshakes mean a lot. I think many will say they miss this aspect of business.”
Not everyone has been adversely affected by the challenges posed by a global pandemic.
“Overall, this year has been business as usual for ag retail customers, who are still applying products for their producer customers,” says Mark Burns, Case IH Application Equipment Marketing Manager. “Those applications require equipment. While there were some initial challenges in providing demonstrations due to social distancing and other measures, we’ve been able to adapt and still provide those experiences to potential equipment purchasers.”
It’s all about adapting to a new way of doing business.
“We’ve been busy balancing the changes in the work environment with the demand for new product information,” says Joel Basinger, Production Step Marketing Manager for John Deere. “We have learned new ways of communicating that better respond to the needs of customers and dealers.”
Staying successful and profitable means staying vigilant and changing as the tentacles from COVID-19 reach into different areas of the business.
“When you think back to March, we adjusted for what was expected to be a two-week timeframe,” says David Webster, Director, Application Equipment Marketing at AGCO. “Then we readjusted for what we thought would be three months. The next adjustment was looking out to six months. Today, we will plan for 2021 in its entirety based on the current situation and readjust if the COVID situation improves.”
A company’s success or failure has a lot to do with the attitude with which management tackles problems.
“Challenging yet rewarding,” says Matt Miner, Director of Inside Sales and Support, New Leader, explaining how his company has viewed 2020. “COVID-19 forced all of us to find a new normal and learn new ways to navigate our industry. We found different ways to communicate, adjusted how we operate, leveraged technology and other virtual tools, and looked for every area of opportunity. Though it was and continues to be a challenge, our ability as a company to remain agile and nimble during this difficult time has let us continue our success and profitability.”
The management team at Simonsen Industries also tried to take a positive attitude.
“2020 has been an interesting year with several challenges and opportunities,” says Jon Simonsen, General Manager. “We expect that the commodity markets have bottomed out and will begin a slow but steady climb higher in the coming year.”
Not surprisingly, many are ready to be done with 2020. But with the unprecedented business have faced, planning for next year is not a simple as increasing prices a few percentage points.
“2020 and 2021 will be difficult to forecast,” Simonsen says. “There are many variables that cannot be easily quantified.”
One thing that can be relied on are advances in technology.
“Technology is driving efficiencies by helping operators precisely manage their applications to further increase productivity,” Burns says. “Technology advancements — including prescription maps, automatic adjustments, section control and the ability to precisely track areas applied and how much product has been dispensed — will continue to be a focus in the future.”
Despite the year’s challenges, manufacturers have been able to update their offerings.
“Accuracy and a consistent spread pattern is very important and that what our customers love about their Agri-Spread,” says Waringa’s Abbot.
The size of the equipment continues to increase according to Simonsen.
“Our customers continue to seek value for their money when it comes to purchasing equipment,” he says. “Value is the main driver of their purchase decisions, not price.”
Deere’s Basinger agrees.
“Customers are focused on productivity, precision, and sustainability,” he says. “Customers also want to be able to easily document what they have done. All of our self-propelled application products come with the new Generation 4 CommandCenter and four years of JDLink Connect that allows growers and ag service providers to wirelessly monitor application and make changes to prescriptions from their office without having to visit the machine. This helps them get the most productivity of their tight application windows and provide detailed as applied information for reporting.”
The emphasis on value is one that most manufacturers seem to have embraced.
“Our customers want a reliable, accurate, easy-to-operate solution that gives them great up-time, productivity, and application efficiencies,” New Leader’s Miner says. “Faster application speeds, higher rates, wider spread widths, more flexibility in products applied, and reliable patterns continue to be the driving forces.”
It’s all about solving a customer’s problems.
“Customers have been asking for spreaders with multiple bins to spread more than one product at a time, along with wider spreads,” says Dave Nelson, Senior Vice President of Sales, Loftness. “Loftness is currently developing new spreader models to meet this demand.”
Loftness isn’t the only company tweaking its offerings.
“Here at Doyle we’ve been busy developing new product lines and updating our existing spreaders with additional models and options,” Juette says. “For example, we have developed a new orchard spreader. This spreader is designed with the narrower row spacing and height limitations in mind of today’s orchards. We are also incorporating scale systems in some of our spreaders to meet customer requests.”
New products are coming from AGCO, as well.
“At AGCO we are starting to see demand increase slightly compared to the average of the past few years,” Webster says. “Based on customer input, this increase appears to be driven by a replacement cycle for fleets that have been in use since 2013-14. Customers are also looking for machines that can be used during multiple seasons and for a number of different types of applications.”
COVID-19 might have thrown a monkey wrench into plans for spreader manufacturers, but there are plenty of other “traditional” challenges companies face.
“Finding ways to effectively integrate technology in a cost effective and efficient manner will be a continued challenge for manufacturers going forward,” Simonsen says.
Technology can provide valuable data for growers. Manufacturers are helping growers get and understand that data.
“Growers are always being challenged to make decisions quickly that affect their bottom line,” says Deere’s Basinger. “As an industry, we must work to provide accurate data more quickly, to help with those important and timely decisions.”
There might be more data coming their way, but the regulatory environment and consumer demand mean growers will have fewer tools.
“Doing more with less,” Miner says. “The fertilizer industry faces the challenge of making the most of each pound of fertilizer purchased, spread, and utilized by the crop. On the equipment side, we have to be diligent on getting the correct rates, at the correct time, in the correct place, all the while being mindful of the speeds and widths desired by the customer. All of these needs and more continue to drive development at New Leader.”
Whatever the challenges, the successful manufacturers will be the ones that respond to customers’ concerns.
“Controlled traffic farming is playing a huge part these days but with that comes wider boom sprays and the need for spreaders to spread wider also,” Abbott says. “We work closely with the manufacturer on R&D to ensure we are able to provide our customers with the best possible solution for their needs.”
The conversation always turns back to return on investment.
“We need to look at how to further increase productivity. As tillage tools become wider, the challenge for spreaders is to stay ahead of them — which means larger swath widths and/or increased application speeds. With either of those, tendering efficiency is also important, which maximizes in-field time,” Burns says.
Every challenge creates the possibility to solve a problem.
“We have the opportunity to work with our customers to continue to develop new features and equipment lines to better fit our customers changing needs,” Simonsen says.
Deere, for example, is trying to ensure growers’ spreaders (and other equipment) work together to provide them everything they need.
“John Deere is increasing its focus on each different production system and how it can seamlessly integrate its equipment technology within each system,” Basinger says. “Deere is also working to develop new technology that can unlock insights into a grower or ag retailer’s operation at an even more granular level to further enable precise placement, increase efficiency, productivity, and higher yields for increased return on investment.”
Very little is static when it comes to agriculture. While that’s nothing new, it does offer manufacturers new ways to interact with customers.
“Farmers are continuing to place more importance on soil fertility, which is helping drive demand in spreaders,” Nelson says. “Also, more farmers are wanting to apply nitrogen multiple times throughout the season, which is creating a larger need for spreaders that can do this.”
That’s an issue that Case IH is also exploring.
“With operators needing to cover more ground, it’s time to look at how we can help drive increased productivity, Burns says. “Whether it’s longer booms on pneumatic applicators or wider swath widths on spinner spreaders, equipment manufacturers such as Case IH will prioritize how operators can be most efficient.”
So, what are manufacturers hearing from their customers?
“Our customers are re-evaluating older technology in an effort to extract value from their operations by utilizing the older technology when it fits and incorporating new technology when it is profitable to do so,” Simonsen says.
Manufacturers get much of their information from the retailers who in turn are talking with growers.
“We are seeing retail facilities asking for the larger spreaders for spreading lime,” Juette says. “Many locations have tractors leased already and with larger spreaders they can utilize it more throughout the year and do not tie up a fertilizer applicator’s for spreading lime.”
Again, it’s about productivity.
“An increase in post application machines,” Miner says. “With the ability to apply dry fertilizers over the top with lower rates or stabilized nitrogen products, a higher capacity post machine is more versatile than a floater unit that has to be parked during post emergence application time.”