Do you know where your applicators are and what they are doing? When your tender trucks hit the plant for reload, is the next job's batch waiting? If your equipment is equipped for telematics, your answer would be yes to these questions and more that affect your bottom line every day.

The integration of cellular communications, global positioning systems and on-board computers is cutting costs, increasing productivity and improving customer relations for full-service ag retailers, just as it has for fleet managers in other industries. You could ask Terry Schmidt, regional agronomy manager, Marshall, Minn., CHS, or
Jeff Dearborn, precision ag manager, Jimmy Sanders, Inc., Cleveland, Miss. 

Schmidt has been beta testing AGCO's telematics system AgCommand on six airflows, one semi and two tenders. He can verify where equipment is and find out if it is applying, turning, sitting or in transit. He can upload as-applied maps or check jobs while they are underway. In the near future, he will also be able to download jobs to operators.

"When a customer calls to ask when the airflow will get to his field or the trailer load of seed will arrive at his farmstead, I can look at my screen and tell him where it is and roughly when it will arrive," said Schmidt.

Although those benefits are all great, the main impact is on his department's bottom line. "I can be more efficient in dispatching equipment and cover more acres with less equipment," he said. "I can measure efficiencies and, better yet, inefficiencies. At the end of the day, I can ask why one operator covered 800 acres and another only 600. Was it field size and time spent turning, waiting for tenders or something else?"

Schmidt said the system also has had a direct impact on equipment utilization. One location went from five airflows to four because the more efficient dispatching allowed the four to cover more acres. "Our emphasis to date has been on applicators, but this year we will focus more on tenders," said Schmidt. "Is a 21-ton tender the right size or is a 24-ton more efficient?"

Maximizing Equipment Utilization

Nearly 1,000 miles south, Jimmy Sanders Inc. has come to depend on GVM's AgJunction system to maximize equipment utilization. Although AgCommand uses all proprietary hardware and software, GVM developed its software and system around third-party hardware, including the Raven Viper Pro in-cab computer. After several years of beta testing and two years of use by Jimmy Sanders, the integrated technology has changed how equipment is assigned. It has also made it possible to quickly aggregate equipment as needed for larger jobs or move equipment to match soil and field conditions.

The technology has had a major impact on machine purchasing as well. The company switched from spinners to boom delivery equipment in the late 1990s. After adding a couple of new spinner units, ag manager Dearborn used AgJunction to evaluate them against booms for efficiency as well as cost.

"Pan tests demonstrated equivalent spreading patterns, and AgJunction demonstrated faster reload times and spreading for more productivity," said Dearborn. "We also used AgJunction to track maintenance and repair costs by machine. We had lower costs and were covering from 5 percent to 15 percent (depending on type of blends) more acres a day with the spinners over boom units. We've now gone almost completely back to spinners."

With telematics in place, even flat rate jobs are now map based for both dispatch and verification purposes. The ability to establish geofences on all fields and recognize when they are penetrated opens up a wide range of options. "We can monitor the machine and be alerted if the operator goes past the assigned field, is turning on a neighbor's field or reloads in a sensitive area such as along a stream," noted Dearborn.

Managing Equipment From Anywhere

Tender management is a high priority with Jimmy Sanders. With a customer base that stretches up to 75 miles on either side of the Mississippi River, product is delivered from riverside plants, not branch locations. Telematics has had a major impact here as well, said Dearborn.

"We save a lot of money on freight and reduced handling of product," he said. "Product goes right to the field from the river. With AgJunction, we can watch the job and see how close to completion the operator is, where they are going next and when and where to send that tender."

Jimmy Sanders' customers can access the system as well. "We have more than 300 growers with user names and passwords online with our system," said Dearborn. "They can pull up yield data and as-applied maps or get on their Blackberry or iPhone and log into a mobile site and pull up data. They get an e-mail alert if our machine is in their field and another one when the job is completed. It helps them plan better."

Fleet management systems with wireless information exchange are currently available to some degree from multiple venders with more following suit. This past December, John Deere introduced the AgLogic System, with wireless data interchange for logistics management features such as work order schedule and dispatch, turn-by turn directions and file transfer. The system also provides fleet management features such as location, geofencing and reporting. John Deere sources suggest major announcements are forthcoming in this area in the next several months.

"We have gradually introduced elements of logistics management over the past two years," said Cyndee Smiley, senior product manager, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group. "We have had very positive reaction to the full feature offer. Customers who used the limited system have expanded their use and number of licenses of the full system."

Fleet Management For Any Size

Raven offers wireless transmission of data, vehicle location and activity identification with its proprietary product Slingshot, but has not yet added analysis functions. Farm Works Software offers EasySync for use with Trimble's FMX display (vehicle) or handheld hardware for wireless transmission of data. EasySync, combined with Trac dispatch software and Farm Works Google Earth, offers many aspects of fleet management, but not productivity analysis. Scott Rienart, product manager, Trimble, said that will change shortly.

"We have a target of later this year to add productivity measurements to our product line," Rienart said. "We plan to offer more data back to the user."

Although Raven has only recently introduced Slingshot, Ryan Molitor, product manager, reported added features are in the works. "Actual machine information is being added, so operators can review diagnostics and machine speeds," he said. "Efficiency reporting will be added as well. Right now we can show how many acres are being covered by each vehicle, volume applied and product. Breaking the data down beyond that will be added in the future."

While GVM is actively marketing AgJunction, AGCO has done limited introduction of AgCommand to its combine market. The company plans wider distribution of its telematics system to full-service retailers this summer. Initially, it will only be offered on new equipment. However, David Swain, technology marketing specialist, AGCO, expects that to evolve to include after-market installation, which is key to one of his projections.

Swain argues the technology will be size neutral in its eventual adoption. "People tend to look at telematics as a big fleet, fleet management option, but I think that is a horrible flaw," said Swain. "It doesn't matter whether you have a 50-unit fleet or five units, whether you are a big co-op or a mom and pop. As these products move forward and we look ahead to everything on the electrical network meeting the ISO1183 standard, you'll be able to get efficiency reports on everything from field activity to wheel slippage to the engine being over revved. This will impact operational efficiency, but also equipment service and even machine resale value."

Aaron Hunt, director of technology sales, GVM, advises his customers to look at the big picture of what this technology offers. Pieces include enhanced equipment and operator efficiencies, customer satisfaction, simplified regulatory reporting with automated data entry and even reduced liability risk as more data is captured and more fail-safe mechanisms are integrated into application.

"Each piece in itself is enough to justify getting a telematics system," said Hunt. "But when you add up the pieces, it really starts paying out."

Editor's note: Since being interviewed for this article, Jeff Dearborn has joined GVM as AgJunction, managing director.