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Podcast Dawn Equipment Part 1

Podcast Ep. 115 - Dawn Equipment, Part 1

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Dawn Equipment is a family owned and operated company, founded more than two decades ago in Illinois. Today, they are an innovative leader in American-made tillage equipment, with products and solutions aimed to maximize efficiency for no till or strip till applications.

Podcast host Tony Kramer speaks with Joe Basset, President and CEO, in Part 1 of this interview featuring Dawn Equipment.

Episode 115 features a look at Dawn Equipment’s humble beginnings, the insight and decisions that went into some of their patented products and solutions, and their continued commitment to serving and responding to the changing needs of today’s farmers.

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Catch this episode’s complete transcript here:

Tony Kramer: Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 115 and today we are going to be talking about Dawn Equipment. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many different podcasting apps that we're streaming this out too, such as Apple's podcast app, it's on Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud as well as many others. While you're out there drop us a review. We'd love to hear what you think about the show. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and catch our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyK.

Now with that, let's get into the show. I'm really excited to welcome Joe Bassett, who is the president and CEO of Dawn Equipment. Thanks for joining me on the show today, Joe. To get started, let's just hear a little bit more about your background and how you got involved in this industry.

Joe Bassett: Great. Thanks for having me on, Tony. I'm the president and CEO of Dawn Equipment. I am 39 years old. I'm about to hit 40. I come from a background which is really a design background. I've always viewed myself as a product designer and an inventor and Dawn Equipment is a vehicle that thankfully allows me to continue to invent over the years. I actually come originally from a background in physics as a college student and have always been interested in manufacturing and mechanical design.

Going back as long as I can remember even as a child there was a point in my life when I had to decide whether I was going to go into the physical sciences and take a background in computing or join the family business. That would have been in 2003 and at that time it really didn't look like-- You wouldn't have put money on Dawn Equipment even being around now 15, 16 years later at that time. One thing has led to another and here we are today. The company actually dates originally to 1991. I would've been 11 years old, 1991 when Dawn was founded by my father and two partners for people that don't know the history of the company.

My father actually met a gentleman named Steve Favor at the church we went to when I was a kid and they got to talking. My father is a mechanical engineer and he had a long background in off-highway equipment. He'd worked for American Hoist to design cranes. He'd worked at the Toro Company when we lived in Minnesota designing golf course mowing equipment. What originally brought us to Northern Illinois was there used to be a company called Barber-Greene that made asphalt paving equipment that was later acquired by Caterpillar and he had been designing then.

I remember this was right at the time when glyphosate had just come out and it was the end of the ridge-till era and the beginning of the no-till era and because all of a sudden you could control weeds and it made no-till much more viable. Actually, the first product the company made was called the Tee knife. It was a ridge-till product, which you'd run it between the rows and then it would inject ammonia directly underneath these ridges.

I think after that came the tooth wheel row cleaner, originally the patent holder of the tooth wheel row cleaner that everyone are ubiquitous today was invented by the Kentucky farmer Howard Martin and his company is still around today and he sold his patent to John Deere and for whatever reason, Deere & Company at that time decided were not going to be in the attachment business and they're going to go and turn around and license this tooth wheel row cleaner design out to different companies. There were a few companies that ended up doing that, ourselves. That's really where when we started making the row cleaners and our hallmark was always the forged tooth wheel.

Traditionally, a lot of our components are made by forging, which I'm sure everybody's aware of but it's the way you make a really strong component like a connecting rod or a lot of crankshafts or different types of pistons and different things where you're heating the steel to around 2,000 degrees and you're hammering it. One of our tooth wheel row cleaners that so many of your listeners will be aware of, it actually starts life as about a two-inch diameter by eight-inch long bar of steel. It's an incredibly tough material and they actually strike it with 80 tons of force about six times to pancake it and make it into a tooth wheel.

We patented the system of producing the forge tooth wheel row cleaner that basically aligns the grain structure and the teeth and makes them so strong and resistant to bending, which is why we've always done so well in parts of the country where you're going to hit a lot of rocks and so on and so forth. Interestingly, also Steve, who was Jim, my father's co-founder, he was the original inventor of the yield monitor. It's a convoluted history around the invention of the yield monitor, but it's arguably the case that the yield monitor was actually invented on.

We turned around and we actually licensed it to a company called Micro-Trak and there was an intellectual property dispute around the yield monitor and so on and so forth. That's an interesting tidbit from our history. Things went really, really fast with the row cleaner sales, it was very rapid early growth in the company. Jim looked at the planter and said, "Look, we can just make a much better one. These aren't very well made. Let's try and make a whole planter and design this really, really unique planter designed," which still would be a contemporary planter even today, in the mid-90's, called the Paradigm 9000 planter.

It was the first high-speed planter. It had hydraulic down pressure on the row units. It had central fill seed, it had central fill fertilizer. You could raise and lower the dry fertilizer openers. You could plant at eight, nine miles an hour. He had actually used this positive air pressure seed delivery system from this Danish company called Kongskilde, which is still around today, but they're not really making planters. The meter was actually up on the frame and then under pretty high positive air pressure it would shoot the seed down to the ground and then you'd have a firming wheel which would tuck the seed decelerated and tuck the seed into the ground.

It would have resembled things that you would see from the Bader stud planter and there's a few other makes that would use that sort of concept today. At that time we didn't really do that much in-house manufacturing. The company shrank down in the late 90s and early 2000s, but there was always that core value proposition. We always had the planter attachments, the closing wheels that sold and there was always a market for those and continued to sell and carry the company through. There were about four people working at Dawn Equipment when I joined the company in 2003.

That was the first year of the company, but many, many people will remember my father from that year. He was famous on the farm show circuit. He's been retired for seven years and I still to this day give customers a call and everybody asks how Jim was and what's he up to and so on and so forth. Just to a very brief rundown of the history of the company.

Tony: That is a really cool history lesson there on Dawn Equipment. There's a lot of things there that I myself didn't know. It's really neat to hear that stuff and to have that long history and that deep history within agriculture and what you and your family have created. A couple of the things you touched on is some planters stuff. I know now you guys are very deeply ingrained with implementing technology onto planters. You're doing some really cool things. Those are just a few of the components that I want to touch on here in this episode.

You had talked about the row cleaners and how you guys are forging them. You actually have not just the row cleaner, the wheel itself, but you guys also have systems to go on that. Tell us just a little bit about the Gfx-P and the standard Gfx row cleaner systems.

Joe: Around 2006, the DB planters started coming around. You had the bigger, you started seeing the 24-row, 36-row, the really large planters. We'd always had the screw adjustment on our row cleaners and everyone else had the pins. We were known as the easy adjustment. You'd go out to visit the customers and you look at the logistics of stopping a planter to adjust 36 of those knobs and it just started not making very much sense. I had this idea that, "Well, let's make a remotely controllable row cleaner." The first ones were actually, we did what seemed obvious at the time. It was a screw adjustment. We stuck an electric motor on it, got not too far into it and realized, "Look, this doesn't make very much sense," and decided to abandon the idea.

However, some of our competitors actually, followed us down that road, which is funny, which is why you should never copy anything because a lot of times you can copy mistakes at the same time. We said, "Okay, well, instead of making a depth controls rigid row cleaner, let's make a pressure control floating row cleaner." You looked at the whole thing and you said, "Well, because of the dynamics of the planter, we definitely want it to be controllable." That's where we went in with the trailing arm.

That's the hallmark of those row cleaners to this day is the fact that it's a trailing arm as opposed to being pushed because it naturally makes it more controllable and easy to modulate when the row cleaner is being pulled as opposed to pushed because the pushed ones want to dig themselves in and so it's just unstable. Whereas as it's being pulled, we can create much more precise control over the pressure on that row cleaner. The very first units we made in 2007, they would have been sold out of what at that time I believe would have been called Spink County in South Dakota, which now would have been the Redfield South Dakota RDO location.

Those would have gone to a guy named Terry who's by Faulkton, South Dakota. I remember the arms were forged also, and I remember the first installing, that first set up there, I would've been only 26, 27 at the time. Of course, I thought I knew absolutely everything. Going up there and installing those on Terry's planter, things looked good. We put them on there and he's planting and get back in the truck. When you're in my line of work, you never-- leaving the field is always dicey when you're running something for the first time because you know a lot of times it's typically right as you leave that something's going to go wrong. Nothing ever goes wrong when you're there, it's only when you leave.

We got to about Central Minnesota and I get a call from Terry and he says, "Oh, all the arms are breaking." I'm like, "Oh, kill me now." because these forged wishbone arms on that unit, they were 10% too light. You'd plant 1,000 acres and then they would break. We welded on whatever, got through that first season and beefed it all up and that unit has become essentially bulletproof. One of the things that it also did to us is we started making hydraulic cylinders and we thought, "Well, how are we going to control this?" We want it to be very direct and precise control and fast, so we went with hydraulics, and we want it to be as simple as possible so it has a spring retract single-acting.

I actually designed that hydraulic cylinder knowing just nothing at the time about how to make these. We started building our machine shop and we actually make these hydraulic cylinders in-house in the machine shop here. It started us on a course of making compact hydraulics, which has become a fairly substantial part of our business to this day. Most companies that make implements and things like that, they don't actually make their own hydraulics, which is pretty unique. We're quite good at making high precision small things in the machine shop. That started, the Gfx row cleaners started us on a path of making hydraulics and that unit continues.

I don't know that that unit has even peaked in sales today. It's arguably one of the few planter attachments you can put on your planter that retains resale value. Normally a lot of the planter stuff that people put on widget after widget, which has now become pretty expensive, right? Customer goes in to buy a planter, they want to put all this aftermarket stuff on. You're taking already expensive planter, you could put another $50,000, $75,000 into it sometimes in aftermarket stuff. You turn around a few years later and you've got to sell it. What's the aftermarket stuff worth? A lot of times, not a whole heck of a lot.

If the dealer like you guys has to uninstall it, then it's even worse. It's so reliable that the first units that we produced in 2007 are still in use today and we warranty those hydraulic cylinders for five years at this point. There's no metal on metal contact anywhere on that unit. It uses the synthetic Kevlar filament wound bushings throughout it, and it's just a really, really bulletproof well-loved product. That's what really got us into the down pressure, was the row cleaners.

Tony: That leads me right into the next question. Moving back a little bit onto the planter downforce, you guys have the reflex system. Let's jump right into that and talk to our listeners a little bit about the downforce Dawn offers.

Joe: Things really started going with the hydraulic row cleaners, I would say 2009, 2010 and then you start looking at it and there was the air down pressure systems at that time. We just made the logical conclusion, "Wait, if one thing is going to end up being remotely adjustable, well then basically everything on the planter will become remotely adjustable. We'll start making hydraulic cylinders for the down pressure." That put us on a path, a journey of discovery that ended up going up fairways. We came out with a really, really funky initial cylinder that originally was designed to replace the airbag on the Deere XP row-unit.

It would just fit in the same space and you would just take the same brackets and stick it in there. That was our first pass at it. That suffered from some design problems because it didn't really self align that well. We were trying to make it too convenient and solving for the wrong problem there. Then after that, the next generation came with the Rfx product line, which if you fast forward, years and years later eventually becomes what is now the Deere IRHD system with massive, massive, massive evolution and improvements in quality and just the overall reliability of that system.

Deere IRHD system actually dates to designs that go back to around 2013, 2014. We said, "Look, okay, what's next?" What's next is basically we want to make the next generation system with a next-generation control technology that adds the uplift control feature and also uses this new digital control where every hydraulic down pressure system on the market, whether it's the IRHD unit that we make, whether it's the precision planting products, whether it's the Ag Leader products, there may be others, I'm not even sure though,

they all use what's called reducing relieving control. They're using a pressure control valve.

The units that we make have a number of patented features the integration of the gas pressure vessel, the accumulator inside of them, and also the integration of the direct pressure sensor. Just to highlight some differences. Those are core pieces of intellectual property that differentiate the Rfx or the Deere IRHD system from some competitors where you're using the electrical current that you're sending to the valve from the controller as a measure of what the pressure is. In the real world, the valve response to an electrical signal may or may not be exactly representative of what the true pressure is.

Having that sensor there allows you to have diagnostic functionality that you can't have in any other way. The integration of those accumulators, basically gives the system some sponginess. As you're going through the field a planter is actually bouncing with high frequency. The soil is not actually a smooth. Farmers so often have this idea that the soil is smoother than it is and the control systems are seeing every little bump and every little thing that the planter row unit runs over as you go through the field. Accumulator gives it a little bit of just sponge, a little springiness so that it can absorb some of the up and down noise in the field without shifting the spool.

These proportional pressure control systems, the way they work is you've got a coil, which runs electrical current through it, and then it has a piece of iron that's in the coil, that's called the armature. When you energize the coil, it pushes on the iron, the armature, and that's what actuates the valve. Then the armature pushes on what's called the spool. The spool is the cylinder that's inside of a female cylinder. The female cylinder has holes that either let oil in from the pressure supply or let oil out to the return. You have this little cylinder that's basically moving up and down inside of the outside part of the cylinder in order to control the pressure.

The valves that are used in these systems are called reducing and relieving valves because you can either take a high pressure from the tractor and reduce it to a lower pressure or you can take a high pressure in the cylinder and relieve it back to the tractor in order to reduce the pressure in the cylinder, so it's a pressure control valve. These type of valves which are pervasive on every product on the market, in one sense it's the state of the art, but that little spool goes across-- I'm going to go away into the weeds for your listeners right now.

When you cross between the reducing phase of the valve when you're taking high pressure from the tractor and decreasing that pressure to the down pressure cylinder, that's called the reducing phase, and then you have the relieving phase which is when you have high pressure at the cylinder and you're relieving that high pressure to go back to the tractor to tank. When you crossover between the reducing and the relieving phases of the valve, that's called the dead band. That's this neutral area.

You're constantly hovering back and forth across the dead band of the valve. You're going reducing relieving, reducing relieving. Especially on some of the other products in the market where you don't have that accumulator there, every bit of movement of the parallel arm up and down causes you to switch back and forth between reducing relieving, reducing relieving, reducing relieving. It's really, really complex but that produces not an easy type of hydraulic control to make it stable to remove hydraulic noise because you want the system to be as fast-acting as possible, but you also want it to be hydraulically as stable as possible.

All of the systems on the market have the strain gate. The sensor for the downforce is on the gauge wheels. As you move forward, the faster you go-- the point you're reacting to with the control system keeps getting further behind where you actually are the faster you go. Another interesting tech tidbit is that our first down pressure control concepts if you look at our intellectual property history was actually a system called Foresight. It actually had a ground hardness sensor mounted up ahead of the planter row-unit in order to combat this problem. The ground hardness sensor, all of this stuff will come back full circle all connected back later.

The way the ground hardness sensor worked was there was a disk blade with down pressure running right on the center of the row, and then it had a gauge wheel running next to it. We would measure the distance between the disk blade and the gauge wheel because in softer ground the disk blade would go deeper and then harder ground it would go shallower. The relative distance between the disk blade and the gauge wheel became a measure of how compacted or how hard the soil is.

Our initial systems that we came out with when you're talking about the 2012 time frame, actually had that sensor out in front of the planter row-unit and then you would adjust based on the forward speed so that the planter row-unit was, in fact, reacting exactly to the soil that's directly underneath it at the time. About that same time is right around when I met the first person I ever met in business development at John Deere, they gave me some sage advice which is that, "Look, this product will always be too expensive and it won't really fit. It's a good idea but you have to make something lower cost that can actually be fit on the planters and be easily deployed and sold to end-users."

We pivoted into a control system that use the strain gauge on the planter gauge rails which was analogous to other products that were on the market and had a much better product-market fit and business case because it could be made for so much lower cost, and it would also fit into the product hierarchy a lot better. We started off like, "Okay, what are we going to do for control? Are we going to--" We knew nothing.

Now, this product with the down pressure cylinder becomes the first really computer-controlled product we've ever made, and we knew essentially nothing about making electronic products before that. We thought, "Okay, we'll make a control system that looks like other things on the mobile and off-highway market, uses these kinds of canvas displays and so on and so forth." It didn't work out very well.

Around that time is when I met some guys from Chicago who had this startup called 640 Labs. They were making this play where they were making this ISO bus canvas to Bluetooth mobile connectivity adapter where they were going to-- Like a lot of other companies have tried they we're going to grab machine data and put it into the Cloud and make it easy for customers to aggregate their farm data. These guys had some great software developers.

I saw their thing and I was like, "Well, we could just make a tablet controller which would connect my Bluetooth to the canvas and then control our units that way." They integrated a mapping application and so on and so forth. That company, 640 Labs became the product which is now the field you drive, and they sold to Climate Corp. At this time, Precision Planting had just sold it to whatever to Monsanto for a quarter billion dollars, and it's like, "Well, maybe there's money in what we're doing."

It didn't seem obvious that we would become a precision agriculture company because again we were making screw adjust row cleaners a couple of years before that and we'd still like them today. We're like, "Well, maybe we'll just start going down a path that positions us as a company that starts looking more like a precision ag company. You have to be really naive because if you're not naive you would never do it because you have to be-- That's my everyday superpower is the ability to underestimate how difficult things are.

Tony: We're going to pause this episode where we're at right here and we will pick back up again in two weeks with Joe to finish off the story of Dawn Equipment and all of the technology and tools that they have to offer. Visit audioequipment.com/podcast to listen to new episodes and catch up on any that you have missed. You can also listen and subscribe to our podcast on any device or streaming service.