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Planting Season Overview with Guest Erin Hightower

18 May 2023  •  Tony Kramer

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Read the entire transcript from the latest episode.

Tony: Hello and welcome back to the Agriculture Technology podcast. I'm Tony Kramer, your host, and I sit down with Agriculture Technology and equipment experts to help you enhance your operation for today, tomorrow and the future. Today with me on the show is Erin Hightower. Now, Erin, you've been on the show in the past, but let's remind our listeners who you are, what you do with RDO Equipment Company, and a little bit about your background?

Erin: Hi Tony, it's been a while, hasn't it?

Tony: Absolutely.

Erin: I feel like I haven't even seen you since December, and so it's like I haven't even gotten to catch up with you at all. My name is Erin Hightower, and I'm the Agronomist for RDO Equipment Company up here in the Northwest Washington and Oregon. I also do a little bit of work in that California, and Arizona section, but most of my time I spend up here in the North. Been with the company for six years, and before that, I did resource management planning for NRCS for 10 years. Been all over the board when it comes to agricultural planning, agricultural management on a larger system side of things.

Tony: Wonderful. Again, it's been quite a while. It's great to get you back on the show. It's great to chat with you. I'm always intrigued, Erin, when you and I get to sit down. Myself here, Midwest Ag, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, being the Agronomist. You being out there carrying the same position, same title. We've had so many conversations about how different our regions are. I've got a little bit of niche area, specialty crops. You have a ton of specialty crops. We both deal a little bit in the small grains, a little bit of corn, but your region always intrigues me just because-- What is it you always say? There's 200, 300?

Erin: 245 different crops in the Columbia basin region, which is that corridor, the middle of Washington and Oregon. We're constantly moving, constantly seeing different things. In the Southwest, we have even more combination of crop existence. It's all over the board. That's what makes it fun. It's this constant Rubik's Cube of information that we're bringing in and putting back out again into the world.

Tony: You say 245 different crop types, different scenarios, different fields you're utilizing. Out of that 245, what is the core cropping system out there? Let's just specifically let's say Pacific Northwest, Washington, Oregon, what are, let's say, I don't know, 5 or 10 of the core cropping systems that you usually deal with on a yearly basis?

Erin: We definitely have a dryland, and then we have an irrigated side of things. In the dryland, we're looking at that mostly wheats, almost exclusively, depending where you are, you either will crop every other year. We're a system where we crop a year and then take a year off, and then we crop a year and take a year off, which expands those decision-making aspects of it. That it may have been a good year the last time you farmed it, but now it's not. We got that dryland region of wheat, and we'll do some other small grains, and maybe garbanzo beans that way, but for the most part, it's the wheat side of things and maybe some canola.

In the irrigated world, that's where it starts exploding. We'll have mostly potatoes and onions out here, some carrots. Found a turnip field last week, which was something I had not expected to find in Oregon. Then we'll do again, beans, corn, wheat, no soy. I had no idea what a soy plant was until I met you out there in June, of what was it? I went out and visited you. I think I remember, I think it was you, where I got in the track, I'm like, "I have two things I need to see in the Midwest, soy and clay." I don't know what a clay is. We're these sandy soils, so it's always like, "What do you mean you have to wait for it to dry out?"

Tony: Yes, definitely drastic differences in soil types and textures, that's for sure. Now, I want to go back, just take a second to go back. I got the opportunity to come out there, I believe this was prior to you being on board with RDO Equipment, but I got the opportunity to go out to PASCO and see some of the stuff out there. You mentioned the dryland cropping, your small grains on dryland, and that generally, you'll farm that field one year, and then you'll take a year off. That blew my mind. That in the Pacific Northwest you guys will leave a field sit fallow for an entire season.

I know there's reasons, I know agronomically, economically, everything there's reasons behind it, but that absolutely blew my mind. If there's a field sitting idle in the Midwest, it's for a reason. That reason is likely because it got prevent plant on it because it was too wet to get planted to be able to grow a crop. It's like-

Erin: Or salinity?

Tony: Yes, there's just so many-- It's just the differences are so unique. Like I said, that fallowing ground for a year and that's where you talk about things like John Deere's See & Spray Select being able to target on that fallow ground is where technologies like that come in. It's so cool to hear about that stuff and correct me if I'm wrong Erin, but you guys also have some orchards, vineyards, some tree grove cropping as well?

Erin: Yes. It's probably a larger part of our operations than I think people realize out here is that we do have the Orchard Vineyard industry. Washington Apples are Washington Apples for a reason. Everybody knows those, but apples, cherries and peaches, nectarines, everything like that, that brings in this whole different world of risk too, because you can't just plant-- If you have a bad year or something a little different or interplant something that Orchard Vineyard's going to be there for 10, 15, 20 years. We've got a couple of 100-year-old orchards, but by that time they're starting to get a little gangly, hard to see.

In both those cases, that's where technology ends up in both the fallow ground, like you mentioned with the See & Spray Select and with the Orchard Vineyard industry, with some of our selection technologies, that's where the technology comes in and help a lot. You're having to go across these pieces of ground, you have to spray an orchard or vineyard no matter what. If you lost bloom and you can't-- You're not going to get a crop, you still have to spray for pest management. In both those cases, we're doing a lot of spraying where we may not get the crop in the end of it and we still have to spray.

That's where these technologies come in, because at least then we're doing some variable rates spraying in both the dryland world with the Select and in the Orchard Vineyard industry with things like Smart Apply. Getting in there and making sure we're doing just the right amount of application. Just so that we're doing our job and maybe we can use a different mode of action of pesticide because we're only doing exactly what we need. We're using less volume, but we're going to spend the same amount of money and use a different mode of action.

Tony: It's a really good point you bring up there. Generally, in ag or commodity crops, your corn, soybeans, wheat, things like that, we see all this technology that comes to market.

I guess depending where you're in the United States, where you're in the world, you don't often see some of these other pockets of different crops like the fruit groves and citrus and things like that. You always think about the technology, is there technology to be able to utilize in an apple orchard or in a wine grape vineyard or wherever it may be. It's cool to hear.

I know I've gotten on the podcast in the past, gotten to talk to some people both within RDO equipment as well as some experts outside of the company. Just the technology that's emerging for the specialty crops with-- We talk about some lettuce head or lettuce field technology. We talk about-- You were just talking about the Orchard Technologies. It's really cool to see more and more technology being developed for these specialty crops that are out there.

Erin: That's what life is down in the Southwest too. You and I are both working with some of our co-workers in the Southwest to be working with some of the new sprayer systems for lettuce this year was our big one that you and I are working with them on. Those lettuce sprayers and really understanding that each system has its own way of doing things and it's really easy for us to need your judge, right?

Tony: Yes.

Erin: I come out there and what is this weird soy stuff you grow? You're coming out here and you're like, “Why do you let a field just sit fallow for a year? What are you doing? That's money.” What it is, is all of us need to realize that each of these microclimates has its own way of how we had to deal with things where we're creating a production, but also saving and managing our resources and our energy and our time in a way that is going to be the best for that piece of land, that soil,

Tony: Right. Absolutely. It was really cool for a fellow coworker of ours down in the central coast of California, that Salinas area, for them to bring us in on some of this lettuce field technology that they're wanting to learn more about and start to really promote it. Learn it, promote it, utilize it to best grow these lettuce crops. It's really neat to be a part of that. Let's talk 2023. We're a couple months in here now, 2023. I would imagine you guys have gotten going planting in the Pacific Northwest?

Erin: Yes, we’re going.

Tony: Tell us a little bit about how has the 2023 season looked this far with ground conditions, crop quality; all of that type of stuff?

Erin: In the Northwest and the Southwest, it's been an interesting start for sure. Let's start with the Southwest. Let's give them a little tension here. Talk about a crazy year. Winter-- We went from one of the worst droughts on record to flooding, and some of that has to do with the amount of moisture they got. They just got so much moisture at once. Some of it has to do again with the soil textures while draining soils. How well is it going to drain? You and I were working with our Southwest people on that trial, and they were like, "We're going to go in January." Then they're like, " We're waiting and we're going to wait."

It's been really wet down. It's been really cold. It's put a lot of delays out in the world, and now they're trying to play catch up. Right now, all of a sudden, we've got less than a week. We need to get this sprayer in, “Let's go.” I'm sure you've had those same conversations as I have with them out in the South?

Tony: Oh, yes.

Erin: In the Northwest, we have really well-- Or my region of the Northwest, I'm overgeneralizing a little bit. The coast is completely different while draining soils, so we don't have to wait for things to dry out, thankfully. It has been cold, just unseasonably cold. In fact, I pulled the growing degree days. You and I both do monthly internal newsletters and for mine, I pulled growing degree days for up in the Cooley City region, which is our most northern stores. The growing degree days were zero [laughs]. It was like, “We're not-- Just nothing.” We had a freak snowstorm even a week ago.

Even since a week or a couple weeks ago, we've had these freak snowstorms, which is early in the spring still, but still, spring snow is unheard of for us. In all those cases in the Northwest and the Southwest, we're seeing delays. This is going to end one of two ways. This is me-- I hate talking meteorology because you try to predict and you just shouldn't but here, we are. It's either going to go and stay this ridiculously cold weather, which is going to delay a bunch of stuff, or we're just going to heat up. There's going to be no spring. Then now we're going to be dealing with that fluctuation of heat.

Then that's actually what ended up happening in the north. I think we've had more replant acres than I've ever seen before in dryland wheat because of snow mold. Which I don't know, do you guys have snow mold?

Tony: Oh yes. There's some all over my yard at home right now.

Erin: For us to get this much snow mold was a little bit of-- We do get snow mold, but not nearly this much. I think this all plays into the, it's been-- If I was to summarize for us in the Northwest and Southwest, cold wet delay. [laughs]

Tony: That’s a very similar story in the Midwest. [crosstalk] Very similar story. Just late snow, lots of snow, late snow. We got into March; I think is the March timeframe, and it was like we were getting hit with a snowstorm. This again we talk about Midwest, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, our region, when I say Minnesota, we are Red River Valley. Right around that Fargo area, Fargo, Morehead area, Fargo, North Dakota, Morehead, Minnesota, that's the region. The Red River Valley is the region there. We have Bismarck, so central North Dakota, and then South Dakota is that Aberdeen.

Now, of course, there's differences but generalizing to Midwest, we have gotten pounded with snowstorms just about every week through the month of March. Then we had cold, did not warm up. Then we got hit with snow storm beginning of April. It has just been this never-ending-- The joke is the eternal winter that is not going away. Right after that snowstorm came through prior to Easter, right after that, it was like boom, we warmed up to 50, 60, 70 degrees, and that snow went away in the blink of an eye.

Of course, you can about imagine what happened then. with a super-fast warm-up, we had no opportunity for a slow thaw, anything like that. Lots of water, lots of overland flooding, things like that. That's more so in the Valley region or Minnesota, North Dakota store. You go out to central North Dakota, central South Dakota, a little bit different, they got some rolling hills and whatnot. Again, those two regions as well, very delayed, very little field work going on even into the middle of April. Definitely going to be a busy spring when we get running similar to last year. Last year was quite the same in the Midwest. We didn't have the snow but we did not warm up.

We stayed really cold for quite a while. A lot of planting did not happen until that May timeframe likely going to happen again here in the Midwest, same as last year. We proved it last year, we can still get it done. We can still grow a crop and that short window. It's just a little different when it comes to intensity, let's say.

Erin: Then Tony, how do we use technology when you're in that situation, you're with an easier to delay and a little bit different weather patterns how are we using technology in the Midwest a handle?

Tony: That is a great question. One thing I will always promote is just being prepared. Utilizing things like the John Deere operation center, setup files, Work Planner, that type of stuff, having our displays set up so we get the field we're not sitting on the headlands trying to punch in hybrids and varieties into the display. We're not sitting on the headlands trying to say, "I need to create a new guidance line." It's being prepared because we have this delay. We can sit down in the operation center for a couple hours one afternoon, and get the entire farm set up with all the data needed in the displays in the machines.

That is on the data end of things. On the machine side of things, a lot of technology that's really taking off in this region, the Upper Midwest exact emerge planters. Our planting windows are not getting any longer [crosstalk]-

Erin: No, definitely shorter here too, yes.

Tony: Year over year, it just seems we're getting shorter and shorter planting windows and it's becoming more and more important to be able to get that crop in a timely manner. I know not everybody is excited or not everybody wants to plant corn, soybeans or sugar beets, or whatever we're planting at 10 miles an hour and you don't have to. Even if you go up to six miles an hour, seven miles an hour, you're still being more efficient than those four or five miles an hour. It's utilizing the technologies that are out there being prepared and really executing when it's go time. We can't afford the downtime.

We can't afford the delays when it can be-- We can mitigate all of that stuff by utilizing onboard technology on the equipment and by utilizing things like the John Deere operation center.

Erin: All right, it's funny you mentioned Work Planner. I have spent more time with Work Planner this year than ever before. It's becoming the new friends. What I love about it is that you can do it from your phone. I'll have guys who will sit there and they may even be in the cab and they're just doing it on their phone and shooting it into the display because that display it's hard to put things into. The typing, the button telling you to spell out the right thing.

Tony: The infamous fat fingering, the wrong letter, and oh yes.

Erin: Or as my coworker Joe put it, “You'll just poke it and it doesn't work and you poke it and it doesn't work, and then all of sudden you have two of the same,” literally like no, that’s not a thing. Work Planners become such a big deal, especially when you have operators that maybe aren't comfortable with the technology. Then I've taught people, “Hey, you put it in with your phone, even if you're sitting there and all the guy has to do is hit set up button,” and it just all comes together. It's that just one button push.

The other thing is, infield data sharing has been big in our industry because what will happen, you'll have multiple planters in these potato and onion fields, and they need to not overlap or they need to all be exactly the same setting. Being able to have a lead tractor jump in, put that information in it, and just pop it into the other couple of displays so that they're going within five minutes, is huge for us.

Tony: Those are a lot of good technologies that are out there, that are available for customers to utilize. You talk about Work Planner; you cannot create a setup file from your mobile device. Now take that with a grain of salt. Yes, if you went into your web browser, you logged onto the John Deere Operations Center on the web, on your phone or mobile device, you could walk through the process. When I say you cannot create a setup file from a mobile device, I'm specifically referring to the Operation Center mobile app. Now you can create, like you were just saying, Erin, you can create and edit a work plan from that mobile app.

Just some differences there, but the benefits of utilizing those technologies. I want to piggyback onto that. I would imagine you said you're getting questions about Work Planners, questions about data sync, things like that. We, in the valley, or I should say in all of Midwest ag, we're getting a lot of questions about AutoPath with the ability to either a strip-till and then a plant and a spray and a harvest, or if we're just doing the planter, what AutoPath is, if you don't know, you could actually go back. I should take a look here. I believe we did a podcast on that back a couple of seasons ago when it was initially introduced. Oh gosh, where is that [crosstalk]--

Erin: Oh, it's been a couple of years.

Tony: Yes. It's probably back in 2021. Is that--

Erin: Sounds about right. It was, yes.

Tony: Episode 163, back in 2021 was when it was first introduced. Now here we are, 2023 couple of seasons into it. More and more people are getting curious about it. More and more people want to know more about it. Go back and listen to episode 163, but essentially, we are documenting every row unit on that planter. Each row-unit has the ability to be a guidance line. We talk--you run your planter through, you create those source operation lines. You come back in with your sprayer, your guidance line is automatically there.

You come back in with your planter, your guidance line is automatically there. Here in the Valley, specifically, we're getting a lot of customers with sugar beets that are curious about it. There's a lot of row counting, a lot of guess row headaches that happen with sugar beets. Guys want to be able to utilize the AutoPath. AutoPath is definitely one similar to, like you were saying with the data sync and Work Planner, here in Midwest, AutoPath is going to be a very popular one for us. Now, with all of that, Erin, let's leave our listeners with kind of one nugget, one piece of information. I'll let you share yours then I will share mine.

What is, the one biggest recommended step for this time of the growing season? I know you guys are well into your growing season. We really haven't started here yet, but what is one recommendation you can give our listeners, that will help them ease some stress throughout their growing season?

Erin: Oh, I've got one for the Northwest and one for the Southwest, if I can. For the Southwest, I would say one of the big things is we did have those delays. Now we're-- We didn't get a chance to spray when we should have. Or some of the critters and fungal that we're having to deal with. What I would say is, we've got to put an application in right the first time. We cannot afford a second crossing of the sprayer or maybe even we're having to fight back a bigger pest, stress than we're used to. The number one thing is you got to be spot on with your sprayer.

Your pressure has to be perfect; your nozzles have to be perfect. That means going in and checking your nozzles, checking your pressure, checking that sprayer system to make sure that it is correct and ready to go. I think those are the examples of things that we need to do, because when we had growing seasons like we did 10 years ago where we had wiggle room, we could get away with a bad application here and there but I just don't think we can do that anymore. Partially because of our growing season being so short this year. Partially because the inputs are so expensive this year.

I think we're going to have another year of those high-priced inputs that we're going to deal with. Putting it down right the first time just has even more value than it ever did before. Checking your nozzles, making-- Checking your labels, even. Checking your labeling and making sure that the recommendation hasn't changed. That that pattern is right, that that pressure is right, that you're getting that absolutely spot on is going to be a big thing for everywhere. I think in the Southwest, that's where I'm really pushing people towards, is making sure your calibrations and everything is exactly right.

In the Northwest we still got a little time we'll keep planting even into June depending on some cropping systems that we're working on. On that one, it's making sure it's set up right and that means a couple different things. First off, if there was a year to pay for inspections, this is the year for it. Knowing when things need to be spot on because you can't-- We were talking about exact emerge and I guess I'll piggyback on that one a little bit that you can't have a bad application or a bad planting this year. Just making sure that every wiggling part is set up right, that everything that needs to be tightened is tightened. Everything that needs to be calibrated is calibrated, becomes a really big deal. Maybe putting a little more emphasis on that strategy of making sure everything's done right the first time is a theme I'd like to go with this year because our windows are so short.

Tony: Both of those pieces of recommendations that you shared, that can even go for us here in the Midwest, you talk about application, making sure you get it down when and where you need to with input prices, everything like that. It's very important. Then you talk about the Northwest making sure your planter is well optimized. It's set up to do the best that it can possibly do because, when it's go time, it's go time. We don't have the opportunity to make-- Everybody always says, I shouldn't say everybody always says, but I've talked to a lot of farmers in the past and they say, generally speaking, of course, age plays a factor in this and whatnot.

Generally speaking, you only have about, let's say, 40 or 50 chances to plant a crop in your entire farming career. You can only do it once now. Yes, we get replants and things like that that you don't necessarily want to deal with, but you only get one opportunity to plant that crop each year. Making sure you're focusing on it is a big key. Hopefully the one recommendation that I share can also piggyback into the Northwest and the Southwest as well as any other listeners out there around the United States in the world. My one recommendation comes on the data side of things.

One of the headaches that always happens later in the season is guys wanting to know-- They want to analyze their yield data based on, let's say varieties or hybrids. When it comes to collecting that data, that information, I always remind guys this time, the spring of the year, the beginning of the season, collecting good, clean data is very important. Take the 10 minutes to put in or right now utilize the John Deere Operations Center or whatever FMIS platform you're utilizing, put in the proper hybrid name. Put in the correct variety, put in the right chemistries that you're utilizing.

By collecting that good clean data, you're able to actually utilize it. You're able to make educated decisions right at that moment or year over year over year. My big push this year is really collecting the good clean data, whether it be planting, seeding, spraying, harvest, all of the different levels, even tillage. Even collecting good clean tillage data-- It's neat that I've been doing a lot of internal studying, and internal research in regards to planter performance and tying it to tillage.

Getting those tillage documentation layers and analyzing that against planter performance. It's crazy how much stuff comes to light when we start better understanding our tillage passes. That's my-

Erin: Oh, absolutely. I don't think people think about not only on the planting side of things but think about fungal and-

Tony: Oh, yes.

Erin: -some of that side fungal load. That's what we deal with, in probably as much of anything with our tillage. We don't till for drainage like you do, we till for seedbed prep, and then some of it is just managing that fungal load. Definitely, excited to see what your research comes out because, that's been something I've been trying to push for years, is there is so much benefit in documenting your tillage.

Tony: Oh, absolutely. Making sure tillage planting and seeding application and harvest. By getting all four of those layers into your farm management software, the John Deere Operations Center, and utilizing that data, we can collect the data. Let's do that first and then we can analyze the data. Hopefully, these recommendations that Erin and I shared with you here, you can take it onto your operation, no matter where you are, no matter where you're listening to this podcast. Hopefully, it's beneficial to you, to listen in and hear what recommendations we have for the beginning of this season. Erin, if anybody wanted to learn more or follow along with you, is there any place that they can go or follow or whatever it may be?

Erin: You can find me on I'm @rRDOErinH on Twitter. I do a lot of article writing, so you'll find me popping up in different publications. We're definitely excited to see what this season does and hopefully, we can come back and talk about how we were right and wrong in a couple of months.

Tony: Yes, it's a 50-50 toss-up on whether we want to be right or wrong, so I guess we'll roll with it and see what happens. [music] Please take a moment to subscribe to the podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on all the different podcasting apps that are out there. Also, 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.


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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