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Manage Turf and Utility Fleets Efficiently with John Deere Operations Center

18 Jan 2024  •  Tony Kramer

You can find past podcast episodes and view show notes by visiting our Podcast website

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Read the entire transcript from the latest episode.

Tony Kramer: Hi. I'm Tony Kramer, your host of the Agriculture Technology Podcast. I'm sitting down with agriculture technology and equipment experts to help you to enhance your operation for today, tomorrow and into the future. In this episode, I talk with Alex Mitchell and Josh West about managing a large fleet of turf and utility equipment. With that, let's dive into the show.

I'm very excited to get this going. We are into Season 9, yes, nine years of production for the Agriculture Technology Podcast here at RDO Equipment. We're getting started here, the month of January. Very excited to get this episode out. It's a unique one. We've given some love to our turf and utility friends. We talk a lot of agriculture. We talk some of the other industries that we are in. This one specifically, we are focusing on that turf and utility market.

Being up here in Minnesota and the Dakotas, we get that fluffy white stuff we like to call snow. There are opportunities when it comes to turf and utility, managing fleets, things like that. Before we get started, Alex and Josh, I just want you guys to introduce yourselves, tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, where you come from and how you got to where you are today. Alex, why don't you start?

Alex Mitchell: Yes. Thanks, Tony. First and foremost, thanks for having us on here. Again, he said my name is Alex Mitchell. Born and raised on a family farm down in South Dakota. Originally from Houghton, South Dakota, about 23 miles northeast of Aberdeen. I've been with RDO for, going on seven years now. I'm a CPCCE Account Manager, so I specialize in the lawn and land. Commercial fleets are really my focus, and I love it. It's a really cool market. It's a very busy one, that's for sure, going from spring to summer, fall, winter. There's no planting and there's no harvest season, right? It's just go, go, go all the time, so we're always moving at a fast pace.

Tony: Yes, definitely. Being in this part of the world and where we're at, everybody needs lawnmowers, everybody needs snow removal equipment, so it definitely looks like a fast-paced industry on that turf and utility side of things. I want to thank you, Alex, for reaching out to one of your customers, Josh West here. Josh owns and runs a lawn and snow removal company. Josh, I'll let you talk a little bit about that, what your company is, what you guys do. Yes, why don't you introduce yourselves and tell our listeners about who you are, where you come from, and what you do.

Josh West: Hey, everyone. I'm Josh West, the owner of JT Lawn Services and Landscaping. Grew up in Ulen for the first 10 years of my life, moved to Fargo-Moorhead at about the age of 11 or 12. Went to high school at Fargo South. Had an hourly job for about two weeks and decided that wasn't the route I wanted to go and bought a push mower and a pickup and started mowing some lawns, and now 26 years later, here I sit. We are a full-service company when it comes to the lawn care, the mowing of the lawns, the spraying, applications, fertilizer, weed control, snow removal. There's a residential landscape, there's a commercial landscape side. What am I forgetting here?

Josh: Irrigation. We're the one-stop shop. We don't sub out any work at all. We do it all in-house. Yes, it's 26 years of some ups and downs, I should say, but, no, we've enjoyed it. We've got a good staff, so appreciate being on.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. It's fun to hear some of these lawn care services companies, how they get started, and yours is very similar to others. You started doing it as an hourly employee, and you're like, "No, I'm going to do this myself," and here we are, like you said, 26 years later, a business of your own and a great business, the way it sounds, with everything that you guys do, a full service from lawn care, landscape, all that stuff, and snow removal, of course. Here we are in the month of January, not a whole lot of snow out there right now, so you guys are probably-- You're on the side of the industry, you'd like to see a little snow, aren't you?

Josh: Yes, it'd be nice to see a little bit. If it isn't going to snow, I guess summer should probably get here, so we can get going on that end of things. Yes, that's what we deal with, though, but we set ourselves up to where, if it is a slow season, we're able to withstand it, so.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. Now, with everything that you guys do, Josh, all the different jobs and tasks, let's just give our listeners a little bit of an idea of what you run in terms of a fleet, with your mowers, your tractors, your support vehicles. The trucks that haul that stuff around, what are we looking at in terms of number of units?

Josh: When it comes to the summer side of things, we run 25 to 30. I know I should know the exact number of mowers, but there are spares and stuff like that. We have a lot of stand-ons, sit-downs, all John Deere's, the Quick Trax, the Z9s. We do a lot of discharging. We don't do a lot of bagging, so we try to just get in and get out. On the fertilizer and weed control side of things, we have Z-Sprays.

There's five or six of those that the guys run. When it comes to the landscape side of things, we run all Bobcat. There's seven skid steers from T-66s, 76s, and T-770s. Then we have the Vermeer Trencher, the RDO cells. Then, I would say on the snow removal side, we run a little bit. The skid steers, obviously, do some snow removal. Then when it comes to the payloaders, we run some Cats, seven Cats, JCBs.

We have five John Deere's, three Komatsus, and then like I said, the seven skid steers. It's a lot of mixing and matching. Not really what I like when it comes to that, just for parts and all that stuff, but it's what we got to deal with. Then when it comes to the sidewalk side of things, we have train cuts, the 3000 series John Deere's, some 4000 series, and then also some Ventracs.

Tony: What does your support fleet look like? What's moving this equipment around and how do you manage that?

Josh: Lawn care side of things, I don't like trailers. I know we'll never get away from trailers, right? It's just more brakes, more taillights, more stuff for DOT to pull you over. We've really moved to a lot of Isuzus with the landscape bodies on the lawn care side of things. We're trying to move that way for the fertilizer and weed control. Like I said, more trailers, more tires, more problems. Other than that, it's just your fleet of Chevys, and Dodges, and heavy duty pickups. We have some dump trucks, Macs that we get from RDO Truck. It's just a, I wouldn't say really a mix and match, but it's just what we try to simplify things with when it comes to that, so.

Tony: Right. The big thing is, it's a fleet. You are dealing with a large number of units. That brings me into my next question. We talk about all the equipment that you have. We talk about your support trucks, whether it be the Silverados pulling trailers or these Isuzus with the landscape bodies. There's logistic management that goes into that, knowing where your crews are, knowing just all the stuff when it comes to logistics and managing a fleet of equipment that you're dealing with. My question is, how are you doing that today and growing from how your business grew? From the beginning to today, how have you managed your fleet of equipment up till now?

Josh: I would say like on the management side of the equipment, recognize where they're at during the day at all times of the day, all that. We've really just moved into this five, six years ago. Before that, everything was, you'd get a bunch of paper on a Monday with a list, right? You'd take off and you'd go to a place and you have a start time and you have a stop time. At the end of the week, you get the paper packet back with coffee, pop, Gatorade, whatever's spilt on it, right?

We've really tried to move into it. We use Service Autopilot now. It's worked fine for us. I shouldn't say that it's like the best on the market. We have been looking at others, but it's one of those things that we're now like a division will get dispatched a list. A mowing list, or a fertilizer list, or a landscape job. Then guys will go from John Doe One's house to John Doe Two. Then they start and stop when they're at each place. It registers in our system.

What we're having problems with now is what we call windshield time. It's time that it's not punched in at a job. They're going from point A to point B. We're just trying to like limit that and get more accounts in a consolidated area versus billing a billable of five hours man hours a day, get to seven or eight, just limit that wasted time. We can't really track anything on-- I think on the Service Autopilot, you got to go be punched into like Wi-Fi in order to track it all. We're looking at Razor. We have FleetSharp, and then also JDLink. We're looking at all three options just to help track all of our stuff a little bit better.

Tony: Yes, so right now I would imagine it's a headache when you've got, so three or four different systems and each system is doing something a little bit different. Now we're moving  forward and, Alex, we'll talk a little bit about this here in a minute, but we're moving forward to try to bring you solutions to bring that data into one area. How to manage that fleet, to monitor your maintenance, things like that. You talk about Razor Tracking. There's a great connection between John Deere and Razor Tracking, and we'll mention a little bit about that too. From the outside looking in here, Josh, it just seems like you're getting by. You're doing the best that you guys can with the different software or different programs, but it's got to be a headache from time to time. Is it not?

Josh: Yes. No, absolutely. You push guys to get as much work done in a day. Right now, in our system, if a mower needs an oil change, they can go in the system and enter it, and then it alerts the shop. I know that seems easy, but when you have guys working 50, 60 hours a week, it's a Friday. We had a rainy day, and now they're going to have to work Saturday.

We're just trying to simplify the system, dumb it down to where the technology alerts the shop. Then as the equipment comes back at night, it's left behind. They take a different piece, oil gets changed, all that stuff. Yes. We have a system in place and it's not that our guys aren't doing their job, but when they're pushed and trying to get a bunch of work done, it kind of be a headache.

Tony: Yes. No. Absolutely. That is the perfect segue. You talk about machine alerts, maintenance planning, things like that. That's the perfect segue to-- I'm going to move over now to Alex, and we're going to talk about what John Deere has come to the market with, what they're going to be allowing, what's going to be available. It all starts with the John Deere Operation Center. John Deere Operation Center has been out for a while now.

I'll be in trouble. I should probably know the exact date of when this came out. I want to say it's 11, 12. I should know that date, but listeners, don't get upset with me. It's been around for a while. The Operation Center [chuckles] has been around for a while. It is now coming in, or more of the John Deere's equipment, more of the available equipment is coming into the Operation Center.

It's not just the large ag anymore. We are bringing it down to the turf and utility fleet. Alex, tell our listeners a little bit about what John Deere is coming out with. You got the opportunity to go to a large lawn and land care show down in Kentucky, I believe. You got to talk with some of the John Deere experts and learn about what technology is coming to the turf and utility market.

Alex: Yes. Thanks, Tony. Yes, I was down at the Equip Expo with John Deere here this past October and got the opportunity to sit down with them and talk about the Operation Center and JDLink that's coming into the lawn and landscape business. What that looks like, it's a JDLink M Modem that they're going to be putting on these machines. Honestly, I could run down what we're going to be able to see as far as data.

In conversations with John Deere, as of right now today, as they're rolling this out, we're barely scratching the surface of what this is really capable of doing. If anybody out there is listening that is familiar with the agriculture side of what this looks like on the Operation Center, you know the amount of data that you can pull in. Not saying we're going to get all that same data, it's two different industries, but very exciting stuff coming. Actually I say coming, it's here, right?

Tony: Yes.

Alex: We're putting on our stuff here today, so.

Tony: Yes. You talk about some of the equipment that it's on, some of the stuff that you got to see, coming model year 2024, there's a few pieces that it's going to come factory installed. Correct?

Alex: Correct. Starting in 2024, the terrain cuts, your 1500 Series terrain cuts, that's going to be factory installed. Also on your 1600 Series wide area mowers, it'll be factory installed.

Tony: Then there's also going to be a field install option too for certain models?

Alex: Yes. Yes. Field install is going to be on all of your Z900 machines, what we're used to calling as the Quick Tracks, which is now revamped and all new this year. It's going to be the new Q Series stand-on mowers. Then you're also going to, actually, have the ability to use it on Z700 Series as well. Surprised me that they're going to go on a Z700 Series,  but I totally get it as well. There are some smaller landscape contractors out there that are running a Z700R series machine. In fact, Deere came out with that new Z760R, which has got a great big motor in it. That 700 is used on a lot of farms and a large property owners, and then also some smaller commercial operations. It surprised me, but then after I thought about it makes sense.

Tony: There's opportunity there, absolutely.

Alex: Yes. On the terrain cut front mowers, in fact, we have the ability to do it within a certain serial number range. You'll have to get with your dealer, but on the terrain cut from model year 2022 and 2023s, we have the ability to do a field installed kit on those. Again, certain serial number range, but check with your dealer if you've got a 22 or 23 terrain cut.

Tony: That's giving the-- you guys out there that are running a couple year old terrain cut, like Alex said, back to 2022, you have the opportunity to get this field installed and start collecting some data. What are some of just the high-level information? Now, every machine is going to be a little bit different, whether it's field installed or factory installed, but what is some of this data that we can get for the turf and utility side?

Alex: The obvious one, I think, is your location and the status of the machine. Where is that machine located at, right? Then you're going to get your GPS speed. Then, of course, geofencing with that GPS location, we can now geofence job sites, right? We can also set curfews for that machine. In the commercial lawn and landscape world, Josh, you could say, "Okay, I want this machine to be in my lot or in the shop by 8:00 PM every day. Why isn't it there by 8.30?" Then you can set an alert because it's not home by curfew, right?

Tony: Yes.

Alex: You'll be able to see engine hours. Those first four are the basic pieces to the puzzle. You're going to see that on your Z700s all the way through. That's your core data. As you take a deeper dive into this, you're going to be able to go into your maintenance planner, and that is going to allow you to set your oil change intervals. Hydraulic oil intervals, things of that nature.

Tony: Yes. There's a lot of other pieces to it. Now, you talked about all the data we're pulling in. You go even deeper into the John Deere Operations Center, and that data is going to start giving you information that can be utilized from a logistics standpoint or a fleet management standpoint. Machine analyzer, similar to what the guys utilize on the ag side to be able to monitor their fleet or benchmark their fleet. Maybe it's they've got two combines, or they've got two sprayers, or the handful of tractors they run, they're able to monitor and analyze their machines and benchmark them across the entire fleet. That's going to be something that's coming for turf and utility as well, correct?

Alex: Correct. Yes. With that machine analyzer tool, you'll be able to see that the idle time on that unit, you'll be able to see, travel time between job sites. You'll also be able to see, what I'm going to call production time, right? When the machine's actually working. You can lay that out in, hours, minutes, percentages of the day.

Tony: I would imagine, again, from an outsider looking in, there's probably a lot of importance to that because I would imagine in the lawn care business, snow removal business, time is money. You're not making money if you're not cutting lawn or moving snow. Being able to optimize your fleet to the best of your abilities. The last piece to this that I think is very beneficial that we've had on the ag side for a while, but it's now going to come to the turf and utility side is the serviceability. Tell our listeners a little bit about, what information are they going to get from a service standpoint with this?

Alex: Yes. With this, you can also look at your diagnostic trouble codes. Obviously, if the machine throws a code, you can go into the operation center and see what that code is. Then you can log into your service advisor remotely and look that up. A lot of people don't know this, but, or maybe you do, but there's service advisor that you can actually subscribe to through John Deere for your fleet. I believe the subscription is per machine or per model number of machine, but then you can have full access to John Deere service advisor, which is what we have here in our shops.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. Alex is exactly right. There is a customer-facing service advisor that businesses or shops can utilize in order to do some of this stuff and some of this information. We talk service advisor remote, being able to remotely diagnose some of this stuff. That also benefits us on the dealership side to be able to diagnose one of Josh's machines before even going out to the field.

Maybe we can make sure that we have the right parts or we know exactly, or maybe not exactly, but we have a general idea of what's going on with that machine that's down wherever it may be within the city and we can have an idea when we get there. We no longer have to get there in order to fully diagnose it. We can learn a lot by utilizing service advisor remote.

Alex: Yes. It would save everybody some time, right? We can send our technician out with what we think we might need and go out to where it's broken down at and, hopefully, get it fixed and back up and running and saves a lot of travel time.

Tony: Absolutely. Now, the next piece I want to touch on real briefly here before we go back to Josh and get his take on all of this is, Josh had mentioned one of the systems, one of the many systems they're using today is Razor Tracking. Now, we have, on the John Deere side, we have a very seamless integration with Razor Tracking and John Deere.

Alex, we were talking about the technology that's going to be coming on all of the lawnmowers, turf and utility equipment. The other thing that Josh talked about was his support vehicles, the trucks, the pickups, the Isuzu trucks with the landscape bodies, everything like that. We have the ability to get data, tracking data and logistics management data right on those machines as well, correct?

Alex: Yes, absolutely. He can manage his entire fleet and see where they're at, right? A big part of that is going to be able to see just exactly where the machine's at. I believe there's going to be some data pending on the machine and how well it communicates with modems, but we'll be able to pull maybe fuel levels, hours or miles off that machine. Again, not all machines talk the same way as others through this technology, but depending on the unit, yes, we'll be able to see some data as well.

Tony: Yes, and you're absolutely right. We see it on the ag side, farmers putting Razor Tracking on maybe their semis or their service trucks or fuel trucks, whatever it may be. Razor Tracking is giving us that next level of being able to monitor and manage a fleet of something that is non John Deere. Josh, when you were talking about your fleet, you do have a little bit of a mixed fleet.

Being able to get some of that logistics into the operation center and Razor Tracking, and the data flows both ways. We can get John Deere data into Razor. We can get Razor data into John Deere. A lot of good things to come. Very exciting for the turf and utility, these commercial businesses that do lawn and land care. They do snow removal, everything like that.

Now what I want to do, Josh, I want to go back to you, ask you a few questions of all of this stuff that Alex and I just discussed. How is this technology going to help you? What are you most looking forward to or most excited about when it comes to adding more of this technology, getting more ingrained with the John Deere Operation Center and some of the equipment that you're getting with JDLink on it? Tell us a little bit about what your mindset was as you sat here listening to us talk about this.

Josh: Yes. I think it's the wave of the future, right? It seems like the lawn care and landscape world is maybe last on the list when it comes to like trying to figure out technology and stuff. Believe it or not, like we're just a smaller operation than a farm, right? I mentioned earlier, we use service autopilot, they get dispatch jobs, they pull up to a place, they hit start, go to the job, they get done, they hit stop.

Now, yes, like I said, that sounds like it's a pretty simple process, but we would like to move into just making things seamless when it comes to like setting up a geofence at an RDO facility. The guys pull in, it starts it, they get done, they drive out, it stops it. we'll utilize it a lot in the lawn care side of things, the weed control and fertilizing side of things. It'll come really handy with snow removal.

You're moving snow at 2:00 AM, you're moving snow for 20 hours, you get tired and things like that. We really want to just set up all of our loaders and snow removal equipment.  That's probably going to be where we really start with this. That way guys can just pull into a place, go back and forth, plow the snow in the parking lot, pull out. It registers in the system, all that. Like right now, a lot of times guys will forget to punch in or they'll forget to punch out, then we got to go back and track all that. It'll really help with just tracking things. We do have two-way radios and all of our stuff, but you get 40 guys out talking, chit-chatting on the radio gets to be a lot. Now, we have a big screen, what we call our War Room. Just so you know we're a loader seven or eight, you know what I'm saying. What's been done and not been done.

Tony: That could help you with future bids too.

Josh: Right. Yes. We've done a lot of numbers and we do a lot of numbers. We have a numbers guy. We really push for that just because with labor going up and the costs of equipment going up, like we're trying to find out where we can shave here and there to, just so the customer doesn't get all of a sudden a huge increase one year or something. We really track a lot of that stuff, so I think this will help big time.

Even as we grow on the snow removal side, as much as we like to buy equipment at some point in time too, payloaders in our world are only useful six months out of the year during snow removal. We would like to move into leasers. Bringing on a leaser, we can say, "Hey, here's a, here's a Razor module, put it in so we can track them and know where they're going and pay them based on production and things like that." Yes, my mind runs 1,000 miles an hour, so there are all kinds of things you can really do with it,

Tony: Yes. You talked about from the snow removal side, knowing where these loaders are, what they're doing, in the Operation Center, being able to track. Get that bread crumbing trail of that 24 hour period. Where were they? Maybe a guy forgot to punch in or punch out of a work order where you can go back and you can see, "Well, you entered that parking lot at 4:00 AM and you exited that parking lot at 4:45," or whatever it may be.

Being able to monitor that, utilize it as a fail safe to know, when did you start and stop that job or when did you enter that parking lot or that lawn or whatever it may be. Now, what about from a maintenance side, a logistics and maintenance and being able to track or plan some of your maintenance?

Josh: Yes. On the maintenance side of things, I had said earlier, the guys track, they actually have tags on the mowers, like on the skid steers, permanent micro on the oil filter, The guys are supposed to pay attention and alert the shop through service autopilot. They can put it in there to alert the shop, but when you're really on the go and you got 60 pieces running wide open, things are going to get missed.

You'd like to say that they don't, but they do. If technology can just simply alert the shop and then the shop just pull the equipment at the end of the day, or they let the crews know-- We have very good communication company wide, but just trying to streamline the process and dumb it down just so the guys can concentrate on the quality of work and the volume of work and things like that, it go a long ways.

Tony: Yes. That is exactly it with the maintenance planner. You can set up those maintenance plans based on how you run your equipment, when you want to change that oil based on an hourly range. You get that alert, whether it's on your phone there, whether the war room gets it back at the office, all of that stuff, it gets you those alerts. When you hit that hour threshold, it says, "Hey, we got to get a Z9 number three into the shop." Nobody has to remember to do that. It's all set up in those maintenance plans.

Josh: Yes. I think it's great that Alex and RDO can see, that too. In my world, us commercial guys, when it comes to equipment on the lawn care side of things, even landscape, we do a lot of stuff with Alex. On the lease side of things, three year turn and burn a lot of times, depending on what the buyout is, we'll buy the machinery outright. I think this would actually help with resale just so everything's-- Us commercial guys, suppose we destroy equipment, right? Because we run them hard.

What people don't realize is like your homeowner that maybe wants to buy a Quick Track from us or whatever is like we have three full time service guys, right? Before a lot of people didn't want to buy our equipment because they think it's been run hard and not taken care of. I think this tracking and everything will give a little bit of proof, which I feel like on the backside of things and the resale should help, maybe even help you guys here at RDO too. Here's what's been done. A lot of people right now write things down or whatever, but I think this will help with tracking a lot of that.

Tony: Absolutely. That just goes to show the partnership between you, Josh, and us here at RDO equipment. You're not only looking out for your own business, but you're looking out for us too at RDO equipment and resale and the data that we can have off of those machines and how it can help us on the backside. We really appreciate that and why we partner with customers like you. Yes, it's great information. I'm really glad that you are looking forward to adding more of this technology onto your fleet, getting it in the office, being able to manage your fleet logistically through maintenance, all of that type of stuff. There's so much that goes into it and it's really, we're just at the tip of the iceberg right now. There's so much more to come. Like Alex was saying, it's been introduced. It's coming factory installed, model year '24. As we continue to grow, we saw the same thing on the ag side.

Back in 2011, it just started to come out. 2014, we get a little bit more information and now here we are 2024, and we are just bringing in information into the Operations Center, being able to make educated decisions from a business standpoint, from a logistic standpoint, all of that. Last thing I want to ask you, Alex, is, all of the stuff that we talked about here today, everything that Josh is excited about to utilize in his business. If somebody is interested in learning more about this stuff, where can they go? Who can they talk to?

Alex: Yes. If you're in RDO country, go find your local RDO store and talk to your favorite sales guy or just walk on in and start asking questions. If you're not in RDO country, go into any John Deere dealership. Really, this is a John Deere product. It's going to be available or it is available worldwide and it's exciting stuff. I'm certainly, excited about it. All my contractors are excited about it, so it's going to be fun and to watch this grow.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. Alex, I want to thank you for taking the time to reach out to Josh, having him take time out of his day to come in here, and also thank you for sitting down and having this conversation with me.

Alex: Yes. No, thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Tony.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. Josh, thank you very much for taking the time out of your day to come in talk a little bit about your business, what you do, and how this technology can help you move forward. We greatly appreciate your business and I just hope you get maybe just a little bit of snow here. I like snow. I enjoy it. I know you snow removal guys, you're probably itching. You said earlier, hey, if it's not going to snow, just bring summer back. We can cut some lawns.

Josh: Yes. No, you're right. It sounds like it'll be an early dry spring, which will be good for everybody. No, I appreciate the time. I'm excited to see where this is going to go. Thank you.

Tony: 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 to, such as Apple Podcasts, Google, 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. Finally, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Instagram and X, and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube.

Tony Kramer

Tony Kramer is the Product Manager of Planting Technology and a Certified Crop Advisor at RDO Equipment Co. He is also the host of the Agriculture Technology podcast. If you have any questions for Tony or would like to be a guest on the podcast, you can find him on X at @RDOTonyK.

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