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Ag Tech podcast SureFire Ag

Podcast Ep. 96, Pt 1: SureFire Ag Systems

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SureFire Ag specializes in solutions for the control and application of liquid and dry fertilizer, seed, and chemical.

Based in Atwood Kansas, this entrepreneurial company believes in farming smarter – not harder, and offers solutions ranging from simple, standard single-product liquid fertilizer application systems to more complex, custom-designed systems.

In Part 1 of our latest podcast episode, host Tony Kramer invites Blaine Ginther with SureFire Ag Systems to provide background on the company and solutions for growers.

Listen to Ep. 95 here:

 

Related episode: Greentronics

 

Learn More:
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Have a story idea or a precision ag topic we should highlight? Connect with us on social media: Instagram | Facebook | YouTube | Twitter and connect with podcast host, Tony Kramer on Twitter at: @RDOTonyK.

Here’s the complete transcript from our latest episode:

Tony Kramer: Hey, this is Tony Kramer, Product Specialist with RDO Equipment Company and you are listening to the Agriculture Technology Podcast. Every day there are phenomenal advancements being made in the field of agriculture technology. RDO Equipment Company is a leader in agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technology and we're speaking with industry experts to bring you the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere. Thanks for joining us on the Agriculture Technology Podcast.

Welcome back to another episode of the podcast, this is episode number 96 and today we're going to be talking about SureFire Ag Systems. 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 to, such as Apple's podcasting 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 all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyK. Now with that let's get back to the show. I am really excited to welcome Blaine Ginther, who is the co-founder and national sales manager for SureFire Ag Systems. Thanks for joining us on the show today Blaine.

To get started, I really would like to hear a little bit more about you and your background and how you got involved in this industry.

Blaine Ginther: Thank you, Tony. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today at RDO headquarters. As in terms of my background, I grew up in Atwood, Kansas, in the northwest corner of Kansas. I left there after high school, went to college in Kentucky, and my first job was working for a company called Fastenal, out of Minnesota.

With Fastenal, it was a very entrepreneurial background, and I was given the ability to make a lot of decisions which laid the foundation for my love of business and business development and product development. After 10 years away from Atwood, I moved back because family and a rural connection was very important to me. I wanted to go out and live in the cities and I did business in the cities but really getting back to my rural roots was very important.

My family is six generations back there, my children. So we did that, took a leap of faith, I moved there and started working for a company who focused a lot on tanks, pumps, trailers for liquid handling of fertilizers and some fertilizer application systems. They were some rudimentary systems and I began delving into that seeing a niche on how to work at improving the overall systems and the customers' experience.

With that, I was able to work with outside engineers, to be involved in some of the first moving highway guidance systems and brought a lot of the technical together to be able to go from speed and pressure control to automatic rate control coupled in with a lot of the guidance systems. You go back 15 years ago or so, I was doing a handful of systems in what you now see today are very common. Multiple product control, section control and that type of thing.

Tony: That's really cool to hear that you got your career start here in Minnesota where we are today, so you kind of back home a little bit, that's neat to hear that. I love to hear the background stories on how people got to where they are today and it's different all over the board. You get a lot of people that born and raised in the Ag industry and you get other people that just find their way to the Ag industry, so it's really cool to hear that.

Let's dive into the SureFire Ag Systems, the company that you are a co-founder of. Tell our listeners a little bit about what the company is? Why you decided to start it? Where the idea came from?

Blaine: Sure. Well, sort of in extending the story of application machine control, with the other company I was with, things started to get complex as they do with precision Ag and there was a real focus on that. With that, we needed to provide more of a support arm for it, and I was fortunate enough to connect with and hire Matt Walters who had grown up in Atwood as well.

Our fathers went to high school together and in a town of-- at that time when I grew up there 2,000 people we all know each other and Matt had gone to K State, and Matt was very well networked, and so I convinced him to move back to Atwood and work with me. We did that for a while, and at that point, we saw the need to go out on our own.

I felt the confidence that I had enough relationships and it was built on a solid platform of technical knowledge that we would go and do that, and along with Matt, I started SureFire with Josh Walters, Matt's brother. Josh has a strong engineering background. Matt and Josh are both very analytical people, we work very well together.

When we started the company, we knew we didn't want a heavy-handed company, we wanted to make it a company where we were hiring good people to make good decisions and put our trust in those people. We're all three wired that way very much. We started it in 2007, at that point, it was a good time to start in the Ag business because corn prices were high and we were able to transition from a lot of what I was doing was with grain drills.

We were transitioning then into corn planters and one of the things that we knew was that a lot of the GPS technology was going to be showing up in the cab of the tractor and that wasn't going to be the niche for us to serve, it was going to be expanding on the liquid application systems and providing a complete solution from the cab to the ground.

Basically, we knew the success would be tied to allowing users to utilize the platform that they're using, the existing platform and yes, we do sell some simple controllers but tying into the John Deere Systems and some of the other common precision Ag platforms on the market served us well because people were familiar with their own platforms and so they weren't having to learn something brand new and from there we invested in a lot of the controllers and monitors and that type of thing and began to technically understand all of these precision Ag platforms and take ownership in them as if they were ours.

Seven years ago we created SureFire Electronics because we had been outsourcing our wiring harness needs and with that we weren't happy with the quality, so we invested in the equipment necessary to start that business up and that's a separate business that falls under the SureFire Ag umbrella, but it has a separate P&L and the goal there was to create a business that was a vendor to SureFire Ag and the goal was to make it the best vendor SureFire Ag had.

Then at that point we knew that we could go out and work to try and bring other customers on board and build wiring harnesses for them. From the time that we started building wiring harnesses, it has evolved to where we build electronic components that marry up with some of the advanced precision Ag platforms such as your John Deere Systems that-- they'll do a secondary job on the machine, a lot of times people don't know they're there but they're there to enhance the experience.

Tony: You guys today you're still based in Atwood, Kansas, what number of employees and region that you cover, what does that look like with SureFire?

Blaine: We've been very fortunate in our small town of Atwood to be able to find great people and we've had some good success because of our dealer network across the country. We've grown SureFire to nearly 60 employees now between the two companies and geographically we cover from corner to corner in the US.

In the past, we've done enough international business to brag about but this past year, we had some nice sales internationally. We just want to make sure that we focus our attention close to home, meaning the US. We have territory managers that live in the different geographies of the United States and they work directly with our dealer base and our retail customers.

Tony: Those 60 employees between the two companies, they have a little bit of stake in the company too, correct?

Blaine: Yes, they do. We started Anisop a number of years ago, which is an employee-owned company. From that, it's helped create a culture that we're very proud of. The original founders, yes, we provide a lot of direction and leadership, but with the employee ownership, our employees have a stake in the outcome and that's both companies. Open-book management is a part of it. We basically have people who can run businesses and take care of things and make decisions when they're dealing with our customer base because they are owners. A lot of times, customers want to talk to an owner well. At SureFire, that could be just about anybody.

Tony: Now that we have a little bit of background on SureFire and how you got started, let's dive into some of the products you guys offer. There's two that I really want to focus on. Then we have a couple of other that we're going to touch on towards the end of the show here. To get started, Blaine, you said your initial focus when you guys started SureFire Ag Systems was that liquid application. Let's talk about what SureFire offers as far as liquid application and what sets you guys apart from the competition.

Blaine: Well, first of all, we have a passion for the liquid application systems. That goes back to my initial passion and wanting to create a whole system's approach to this because a lot of times what happens in the industry, I think fertilizer application systems get looked at as a sprayer project and folks will go out and source of centrifugal pump and a flow meter and a survival valve and try and tie that in and make all that work.

We have a passion for the liquid application systems.

 

It can work but it's not set up as a system. We're very systematic thinkers. We employ electrical and mechanical and computer engineers to enhance this whole process. We treat it like the science that it is. We take a very careful look at every component that goes into a system. Number one, they need to be very predictable on how they work. They need to have a longevity. We have a particular approach to where we try and use the most non-mechanical approach that we can to liquid application.

With liquid fertilizers, you're not always sure what you're going to get, especially when you work across a broad geography and farmers next to each other may be using completely different products. We have a whole slew of different fertilizers that are used out there today. A lot of micronutrients are used. It's almost rare, I think, to just see one fertilizer going in the ground with the customer unless it's a straight nitrogen product, but a lot of mixes.

With that, you have viscosities that you have to deal with. You have particulates. Fertilizers can be slimy. They can be dark. Visualization is hard on a rose. We try to make it a very predictable outcome.

Tony: You talked about all the different components that are involved in your systems that you guys build at SureFire Ag Systems. Let's dive in a little bit about what each one of those components is and how it makes up that that specific role starting with the electronics.

Blaine: Sure. While I mentioned SureFire electronics and the wiring harness, and that would be the beginning of the system to where we plug into whatever rate controller we're connecting to. We really love plugging into the John Deere Platform that's been a very reliable sound system for us, whether it's GRC, the older RAID controller or a RAID controller 2000. We try and take ownership of those technologies.

From there, we would move down to our pump system which is the Pumprite. Pumprite as a positive displacement diaphragm pump. Diaphragm pumps are meant to be hardy and stand the test of time and the positive displacement. That gives us an advantage. We have a proprietary motor and valve combination, PWM valve, built into that system to where we know we can run from 20 to 450 RPM with that pump. That gives us a very steady output across that whole RPM range. That's more than a 20 fold output that we're able to get.

We can run very low rates and very high rates and everything in between. In the Pumprite, you can run it dry. It will not burn out seals. It has a tremendous lift. We get into scenarios where people have front-mounted tanks or pull behind tanks, tractor, saddles, tanks mounted on the implement. It might be a variety of those situations and we're able to mount the pump anywhere that's the most convenient for the customer and pull from those different locations and that wouldn't be a challenge.

There are a lot of pumping systems on the market that are just not that way. Pumprite has been-- We developed it early on and have continued to sell that, enhance it and improve upon it. This past year, we rolled out a poly version of that pump. We're very excited about that. It just gives us very, very smooth output as well. It's very steady stream output with very little pulsation in the system.

Tony: Moving on down the line from the pump, we talked about the pump and the flow and all of that, but we need a way to measure that, the flow meter. Your guys' flow meter stands out from others on the market.

Blaine: Yes, that's exactly right. What you see in most of the market is a turban flow meter. The fact is a turban flow meter has moving parts. With that, the first day that the turban flow meter goes to the field is going to be its best day ever. When it starts to wear, when you run into different viscosities, those flow meters, they don't compensate for those viscosities.

What we do is we use an electromagnetic flow meter. It's a product that I've been selling actually for 18 years, so going back to before the SureFire Ag day. It's not a new technology. It's a very sound and proven technology. It's one that's proven to be just a very reliable piece of the system. A benefit of that flow meter too is that every system that we ship out, is going to basically have the same calibration number for the given flow meter size.

Yes, you always want to do a catch task, because that's the responsible thing to do, but very rarely do you have to change the flow count number on those meters. It makes a very reliable system. There's basically a through-hole. If you hold the flow meter up, you can see through it. No mechanical components and it served us very well.

Tony: Once you meter the product, we're pumping it out of the tanks with the Pumprite system, going through that electromagnetic flow meter. Now we need to meter or control the flow out to all of the row units on the planter. That is another thing that is very specific to the SureFire liquid application system that is a really unique difference. Tell us a little bit about the metering tubes.

Blaine: Sure. We've taken metering tube technology. We've learned a lot about fluid flow dynamics over time. A lot of systems are built with orifices and some way with a small restriction in the line to even the flow out to the rose. Orifices inherently have a very narrow flow range, a very small hole that can result in plugging, especially with the different fertilizer types that I talked about.

Metering tube, on the other hand, if we take an eight-foot piece of a particular metering tube, and we go about three times the diameter, we basically get a restriction because of line loss that allows us to control the flow to the row and within an accurate see have two to 4% per row that's going to be better than most of what you see in the industry. We have less plugging. In fact, we eliminate plugging a lot of times with the large whole size there.

Another advantage of the metering to that we've learned a lot about is the laminar flow. Laminar flow basically allows us to get a broader range of flow than what an orifice or a spray tip would have. Those components have smaller holes and they create a lot of turbulence in the line. Most of what is bumping up against that orifice is actually turning back and causing turbulence. Laminar flow and the metering to we don't have a sheer face that we're hitting, so we're pushing a column a liquid down that metering to blind and we have a very much more linear relationship between pressure and fluid flow output.

Then with that a very standard part of what we do is to pair two metering tubes in a manual way with a valve over the row. This allows us to basically cover the range of about what five orifices would cover in a system plus you're not having to change orifices. You can use one tube, a smaller one. You can open up the larger one to close the small one or you can open them both up. That manual dual tube system it's a very common choice in the industry and has proven to be just very, very reliable.

Tony: You've led right into my next question or the next component of the liquid application system. You talked about the manual dual tube flow metering or the manual dual tube metering tube system. There's also an automated system. As we're growing whether it be different application rates or different planting speed they're starting to become a more and more broad range of fertilizer application and there comes the LiquiShift system. Let's talk a little bit about that.

Blaine: We're very proud of the LiquiShift system. We took what we know about the laminar flow with the metering tubes and we turned that into an automatic system based on pressure. Basically, we operate as standard the first tube from 20 PSI to 70 PSI and then we will switch to the second tube. An A and a B tube essentially that happens automatically based on pressure. With that, we can address variable rate applications, variable speed applications. I think with the advancement of high-speed planting, there are a lot of people that don't understand fluid flow dynamics. In fact, it's not one of those things that people just know.

Like I say, "I've been in this business a long time" and so it's taken a lot of time to know and understand how this works but with a high-speed planter you may go from two to 10 miles per hour. Well, that's a five-fold increase in the fluid flow rate that you need and that is just with a set rate that would be five gallons per acre for example. With that, if you're going to have any rate control differences whatsoever or rate changes, you bump up against physics.

Ag Tech podcast quote: liquid fertilizer

 

It requires a system like LiquiShift to be able to handle those wide rate changes. We shift on the go. It happens back there. It happens with a small module that I referred to SureFire electronics that you basically don't know it's back there. It works in conjunction with the rate controller 2000 or GRC or other precision platforms. It integrates very, very well. Not only in high speed but it may be a prescription application customer where you're generating prescription maps within your field running 20 to 40 gallons per acre. LiquiShift is a great system for that

Tony: The last piece of the puzzle I want to talk about, it's an add on feature that you can add onto any of the SureFire systems, Liquid application systems. Traditionally guys, talk about the Red Bull sight glass gauge system that can show you the flow, you guys have something that goes above and beyond that called the Sentinel. Let's talk about Sentinel.

Blaine: Sentinel has been developed over the last five to six years as well. We use our same electromagnetic flow meter technology with Sentinel. They're just paired in fours and that allowed us to share some of the electronic's cost across each flow meter making it more affordable to put a monitoring system on each row. With that, we are getting a measurement and an onscreen reading of what's going through each row with the fertilizer system down to the 100th of a gallon. Sentinel Allows us to see what's going on with every row. The best example I can give is to think about a population monitor and how a population monitors proceeds have evolved over time.

That information is commonplace in the cab now. You're able to see every seed dropping. That's the experience we want to give the grower on liquid application. We've spent a lot of time internally developing Sentinel. Our engineers make it a high priority to keep advancing that product. A few years ago we released the ISOBUS version of the Sentinel. At that time, there were a lot of people that thought they wanted everything integrated into one display. That is a very nice way to think about. What we've really found is growers have a lot going on in the cab.

With the ISOBUS version, we have the ability to move that over to an armrest display or to a secondary monitoring system. The customer has that information at their fingertips on what's going on every row and that the flow meter technology is plus or minus or half a percent. We're able to measure 10 ounces per minute or three gallons per acre on the bottom end up to about 50 to 60 gallons per acre the top end.

We have a very wide range there. When you couple the pump, the pump right system with 24 fold rate range and then you add the flow meter in the main system to get the system very, very accurate and dialed into within plus or minus a half of percent and in a metering tube and then you put Sentinel in there. You basically have a system where you can hit the rate you want to rate no matter what your scenario is and you have a confidence that you're going to be able to monitor those rows and pick up anything unusual that might be happening within your system.

Tony: Whether you use the manual dual tube system or you opt up to the LiquiShift system or maybe we're just using that standard Red Bull sight glass or we opt up to the Sentinel system you guys really have built a system with a bunch of different components that can really answer or provide a solution to any grower that's out there. With that, we are going to stop here with this episode and pick back up again with this conversation with Blaine in two weeks on our next episode where we will talk more about the product offerings from SureFire AG systems.