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Podcast Ep. 128: Rate Controllers

8 Oct 2020  •  Tony Kramer

The latest episode of the Agriculture Technology Podcast covers a subject submitted by a listener request: rate controllers, specifically regarding planters.

Tony Kramer took the opportunity to discuss this listener’s questions about economically or feasible ways of controlling multiple aspects on a planter – but they also discuss broadly options and implementation of rate controllers.

Tune in to the latest episode on SoundCloud, iTunes, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.


Each month, we share the latest in agriculture technology. Don’t miss an episode by subscribing to our podcast on iTunesSoundCloud, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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.


Catch the full transcript of Episode 128 here:

Tony Kramer: Hi, I'm Tony Kramer with RDO Equipment Company. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of 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 is here with industry experts to bring the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere.

Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 128, and this is another episode of Jake and Tony talk. Yes, that's right. We gave it a name, Jake and Tony talk. The one thing you may be asking yourself, Jake, is what do Jake and Tony talk about?

Jacob : We talk about everything.

Tony: Everything so Jake and Tony talk, agriculture technology, Jake and Tony talk equipment, Jake and Tony talk data. This is just a very open platform on what Jake and I throw back and forth. If you have any ideas, things you would like to listen about, or have us talk about, shoot us a message. This episode is actually a listener requesting in a way, so we'll get into that. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast.

Tony: Now with that, let's dive into this show, Jake. Like I said earlier, that this is a listener request. We had a listener message us asking us to talk about rate controllers in regards to planters. Utilizing a rate controller, maybe you're using it to control row clutches. Maybe you're using it to do liquid fertilizer systems on that planter. We wanted to dive in on not only the question that this listener is asking about an economical or feasible way of controlling multiple things on a planter, but we also wanted to dive a little bit just on rate controllers in general, because we know there's a lot of options out there in the market. John Deere alone has two different options.

There's a number of different things that can be done. Before we talk about those rate controllers, pre rate controller days, Jake. We have generic fertilizer, generic pumping systems, I guess you could call them not even necessarily fertilizer, then it's a simple on, off switch. It's a pressurized system or fixing our valves. Very simple. Very basic. The next step up from that is something a lot of people are familiar with is like a Raven 450 monitor. It's a very basic pre-current day rate controller, I guess you could call it.

It's a system that controls rate. Just not to the level of current rate controllers. We get into rate controllers of the current day and there's a lot of different ones out there. Again, John Deere has two different ones. Raven makes a rate controller, there's numerous other companies that make rate controllers. Jake, from an agronomic perspective. What are the benefits of running a more automated rate control? Say a GreenStar Rate Controller. What are the benefits of moving to that versus using a simple on-off switch regulated with pressure?

Jake: You alluded to this history and go figure. We were literally cleaning out the trailer today, which had a whole bunch of old relics from, even the last 10 years of AMS technology in the John Deere space. I broke out what found this flash drive. We had no idea what was on this flash drive and luckily the passcode to the flash drive was written on it. Back in the good old day when you could get away with that. I punched that in because it was written right there on the stick and it had the history of spraying and this ties 100% into rate controllers. I mean, it doesn't just have to be liquid fertilizer systems are dry systems on a planter or an air seeder. This is very much the exact same concept that we've been looking at any liquid application or anhydrous application over the course of the last say 50 years.

A lot of this came in the last 50 to 60 years as we've evolved in the agronomy spaces has really taken foothold. Even the last 20 to 30 years where GPS has a much more commonplace on the farm. What a rate controller dry or liquid because like you said, there's a number of different forms, number of different ways. Some have the ability to do both, which we'll touch on here in a minute, but some of it will offer that simultaneous control of multiple products. It will automate that rate control so you can put it on a flat rate and it will control the system. It will increase, decrease pressures and make sure that the based on the orifice size, at least that you tell it that you have because most, if not all systems are not smart enough to know for themselves what size orifice you have. You actually have to punch that in. A little bit of math on the backside you have to do, but it's going to have the ability to give you a much more consistent flow rate, a much more consistent application. Like I said, liquid or dry, one of the things and it gets me really excited too.

Tony and I talk and we talk tech, we talk data, is this really enables us to document those passes? The liquid fertilizer pass is just as important as the co-op going out and spreading dry. Or if you are going to do some in-season nitrogen applications, those base rates need to be documented within the field. Then you know exactly what you need to build up to if you're trying to target a certain point, especially for some of those-- Depending on what you're putting in there, there's a pretty sizable credit of nitrogen or pretty sizable credit of some of those other micronutrients that come from those liquid fertilizers that we apply as starter and then that actually goes into the equation too.

Having that field documentation that year to year, if you see an issue out there, maybe you can then say that, "Hey, I have a problem in this area. I wasn't getting the full rate." Also having the ability to do prescription based on application. That's really, really important. It's something that I think that we go back and forth as to whether or not, we've actually evolved in, we're doing a lot more prescription-based, but that's certainly, I think what a lot of people think about is that consistent rate control the documentation and prescriptions from an agronomic perspective.

Tony: You brought up a couple of thoughts in my head as you were talking there, Jake. Initially, you talk about the using a rate controller to almost automate. One of the things and this actually got brought up a couple episodes ago when I had Terry Lacher on. We were talking AutoTracTM Turn Automation. Rate controllers that today current rate controllers, late model rate controllers, whatever you want to refer to them as, you could almost consider that a form of automated farming.

Jake: Yes, because it controls your rate, of course, based on certain parameters, based on your orifice or your tubing, whatever you're using to control the flow there. The rate controller is really what's controlling that flow. You go slower, it slows down, you go faster, it goes faster. A lot of times we think about autonomous farming or automated farming and we immediately go to the future of the driverless tractor or whatever it may be. There are so many components today that truly are autonomous farming. It's happening. It's here. It's been happening for a number of years. We just like to think more into the future when we think about it.

The next thing that I thought about when you said documentation. It always surprises me when I talk fertilizer, I talk planner fertilizer with a customer and they say, "Oh yes, I just use a flat rate, three and a half gallons of popups starter, whatever you want to call it. I just use three and a half gallons and it's not a big deal." The more you think about it really is a big deal because like you said, the number of nutrient credits that are there, but you're also paying for those inputs. Why not make sure we're putting those inputs down properly rather than just

[unintelligible 00:09:59] yes, I'll set it for a 40 pounds of pressure and turn it on and turn it off. We have the technology, we have the ability to better automate this, we have the ability to better control this so let's utilize this technology in our favor to maybe control input costs.

Tony: Absolutely.

Jake: Or to maybe make sure we're putting down the right rate, we're not over-applying, we're not under applying, even if you are putting down the three and a half gallons and that's all it is, and you don't really care about it, let's make sure we're getting the three and a half gallons down where we want, and then it takes it to a whole another level when you talk math based prescriptions being able to increase or decrease on, maybe we're going to decrease a little bit on a sandy hilltop, but then we're going to increase a little bit down in those bottom honey holes, whatever it may be, rate controllers give us that ability.

Yes, and it also changes a little bit of the vocabulary because it's not as simple as saying, "Well, it's a basic generic starter," because everybody knows there's hundreds of different variations of starter fertilizer. You could get everywhere from a triple nickel to I mean, every single Co-op, under the sun, or every single input provider under the sun has a name for their special blends so they have together, you have corn starters, but specifically made for corn, you have really, really low nitrogen, [unintelligible 00:11:29], you have ones with all kinds of micronutrients and now, we're not only just documenting five gallons per acre, we're now documenting how much NPNK, you can now have a prescription for your nitrogen, for your phosphate, for your sulfur, for your potassium, built right into that machine and we're documenting not just by "product," in terms of a flat-rate product, we're talking about it in terms of, we're documenting our nitrogen inputs, and it really just it changes, I think it really makes us a little bit more cognizant of where those purchases are going.

It's not nearly as important, obviously, fertilizer markets, just like grain markets, they go up, they go down and every day that occurs, we'll look back on and say, "Well, that was a really good day, that it was a really bad day, or it was just not very exciting day, things only moved a quarter of a cent here, half a cent there," but when 10-34-0 spiked about 10 years ago, we were talking 1200 bucks a ton, you better believe that you not only were making sure that you accounted for it at the co-op, but you wanted to know exactly where that thing went in the ground and you were picking and choosing which fields were going to get more of it, if you're going to go a 10-gallon rate, and then we saw a lot of guys cutting it back where they were typically attended to 12-gallon guy, this year, it's just not in the cards, we're going to go five here, we're going to go seven here.

Things like this that really can help us to document the story, and to learn from past experiences because we may learn that we didn't really lose a lot there that can actually help us to go back and say, "Remember five years ago, we only put five gallons of starter on, we grew some of the best corn we did or really it was a pretty above-average year, comparatively, we'll maybe that's a way that we can find some savings," Rate controllers really helped us to do that, not just on the fertilizer side, but on a number of other inputs too.

Tony: That is a very good point and I'm going to pull a card out of the John Deere deck here. Every pass counts. Documentation of every single pass makes a difference. It's not just documenting our yield anymore. We want to make sure that we're documenting our planting, our fertilizer application while planting. Maybe it's our fertilizer application pre-plant or it's our burndown pre-plant or it's our in-season application of nutrients or our crop protection plan, whatever we're doing, documenting every one of those passes can help us make better-educated decisions year to year. Stepping aside from the benefits of the documentation, utilizing it to make decisions. This is also going to automate a lot of manual processes correct.

Jake: Oh, absolutely. It will. When we lift that planner, that's one of the functions you add, height sensors where "Hey, guess what the rate controller is also going to know to shut off once that planter senses a change in the rising or the falling of the planner." We don't have to go reach for the pump and slamming on the floorboard and all this, we can just do one simple detent or one simple lift and we've shut everything off, we've documented everything as we needed to have and it also adds things like section control where you go into those headlands and a lot of those process, like we said that automation is really critical. If you're doing that with seed, you better believe you should be doing that with your fertilizer.

Tony: That was the next thing I was going to bring up is a section control, being able to control your fertilizer so we're not over-applying or we're not wasting fertilizer, I know when you're only putting down five gallons, you're probably not over applying but we're not wasting it, we're not putting it where we've already put down that five-gallon pass. Being able to take advantage of the documentation, taking advantage of the automation of, you lift your planter, the fertilizer shuts off, you put your planter down, the fertilizer turns on, and then the section control, it all wraps into one. A lot of these major benefits of using a rate controller to control fertilizer on a planter. You and I both know, and this is a conversation for a different day, rate controllers have so many more functions. It's not just fertilizer on planters, it's pole type sprayers or we have the GreenStar Rate Controller dry that can do dry products. Whether you're doing a strip tail application, or you're doing some sort of a granular application, numerous, numerous different applications, but again, that is a very long conversation for a different day. Today, we want to focus on fertilizer for planters. Fertilizer application on a planter, whether it be in-furrow, two by two, whatever that application may be. That being said, John Deere offers two different rate controllers, those being the GreenStar Rate Controller, and the rate controller 2000. Jake, there's a couple of differences between these two rate controllers, correct?

Jake: Absolutely, very big differences, and also not just to even add more to it, with the GreenStar Rate Controllers, there's a liquid and a dry because there's GreenStar Rate Controller, there's the regular just GreenStar Rate Controller and the other one is literally called dry, looks exactly the same just has a sticker that says dry, on the face of it, and then you have the 2000. The 2000 is almost like buying two rate controllers. It's a simplest way to say it. Obviously, it does a heck of a lot more than that but it allows you to control both a liquid and a dry system or depending on how you configure it could be multiple systems, multiple liquid systems, multiple dry systems, but allows you to control them simultaneously with one rate controller instead of having now two systems that you're trying to daisy chain together and helping the tractor process that on top of, executing the in-cab functions you're already doing making sure that those two rate controllers are talking appropriately. The rate controller 2000 opens up a lot of really great opportunities to run multiple products like you were talking.

Tony: That really is the rate controller 2000 in a nutshell and the reason that it came to be is with the GreenStar Rate Controller, GreenStar Rate Controller dry, the only way we had the capability of multiple products was by daisy-chaining or piggybacking rate controllers together so you would put one rate controller, GreenStar Rate Controller on, then you'd plug in a second GreenStar Rate Controller for your second product and a third GreenStar Rate Controller for your third product, which still can be done today, there is nothing wrong with it. The GreenStar Rate Controllers, we know there's a lot of uses, a lot of good uses for those so that can still be done today. In comes the rate controller 2000 it gives us the ability to do a few more of those functions with one controller. Whether you're trying to do like you mentioned Jake, dry product and a liquid product or a couple of different liquid products or whatever it may be. One thing I will say to cover our bases here, please work with your local John Deere dealership or if RDO is that dealership, work with your John Deere dealership to figure out what you need and what the best solution is for you. In a couple of minutes here we're going to dive into this specific question that got asked by the listener that requested this and it really comes down to specific situations. There is no one shoe fits everything. That's always my favorite. A hat that you get that says one size fits most. Sorry, but when it comes to rate controllers, come to planters, every planter is different, every fertilizer system is different. We want to make sure that you're getting the proper system for your specific scenario. Please work with your local John Deere dealership to figure out what solution best fits your needs. The question that was asked, Jake, the listener sent us a message and said, "Can you talk about the most efficient or economical way, sounds like they're running three different liquid systems. Plus, they're running row clutches of some sort."

Again, every planter is a little bit different, so this just happens to be the scenario that we're going to play off of. thank you to the listener that sent this in. Again, if anybody else has any ideas, please, message us, let us know and we can bring them up on the show. Here's how I would play it out, Jake, with this specific customer. We talked about taking a rate controller, GreenStar Rate Controller, the liquid GreenStar Rate Controller. We could essentially daisy chain or piggyback four of those rate controllers on top of each other. Each rate controller, the first rate controller would control your row clutches. You'd set that up as a planter.

The next three rate controllers, each one would be controlling a different liquid system. What makes that capable is if you have three different pumps, you have three different control valves, you truly have three different systems. If you're just talking about three products that are all running through one pump, we don't have the capability to do that because we are just controlling the pump and the control valve, whether that be a PWM valve or fast close, whatever it may be. That's one way to do it. If you had a bunch of GreenStar Rate Controllers laying around, you wanted to use them up. The other way to do it would be the Rate Controller 2000. We still need an individual rate controller to control the planter. Whether you have a liquid rate controller or you have a Rate Controller 2000, both of those controllers only have the ability to control a planter if it is set up like a planter. That's one of the kickers is no matter what, no matter how we do this, we're going to need more than one controller, but with these three liquid products that this customer is using, what we can do is we can utilize a GreenStar Rate Controller, liquid, and a Rate Controller 2000. We set that Rate Controller 2000 up as a generic tool.

We don't want to set it up as a pull-type sprayer, we don't want to set it up as a planter, we don't want to set it up as a fertilizer tool, we want to set it up as a generic tool. That will give us the ability to run each liquid product separately, all through the one controller. A lot more efficient than stacking four, that again, if you have rate controllers laying around, you want to use them-

Jake: That's always going to [unintelligible 00:23:45]  

Tony: The Rate Controller 2000 is about twice the price of a GreenStar Rate Controller liquid, so keep that in mind too, but again, there's lots of different scenarios, lots of different ways to do this type of stuff. To answer this listener's question, there are GreenStar Rate Controller solutions or Rate Controller 2000 solutions to get those on your planter, automate the system, document, Jake, you talked a lot about the documentation of it. You could be documenting each one of these products. Definitely making use of the technology and the tools that are here and that we have today. Of course, it all costs money, it's all an investment, but you talk about potential cost savings, you talk about the automated system or the turning on and off and things like that. It's all there. The other thing, before we go, that I wanted to talk about, Jake, is the uniqueness behind the new planters.

Back a few episodes ago, we had talked about, and I can tell you exactly what episode it was, Episode 123. You and I talked about a new product John Deere released called ExactRate. ExactRate is a fertilizer system that comes from the factory. Does that mean my planter is coming with a rate controller mounted on it from the factory?

Jake: Essentially, yes. The cool thing about rate controllers now in John Deere, with the John Deere Rate Controller 2000. That's your aftermarket type of offering, you could say, because you notice throughout the entire discussion, we never said John Deere planters only. We never said John Deere row units only. We never talked about John Deere fertilizer systems only. That really, that John Deere Rate Controller 2000 can go across OEMs like crazy. We've actually have used it on a number of different brands, from Montag, Case, Deere, Precision Planting, we used that to control Surefire systems, you name it.

That's really the cool versatile things of rate controllers is they allow you to document across brands, I guess. They don't really have a preference. Obviously, they work nicer with other systems and others have activations, they work better with certain branded displays, et cetera, et cetera, but again, like you said, working with your local dealer will help to navigate you in the right direction, so that you don't just say, "Oh, yes, Jake and Tony were talking about the Rate Controller 2000. I need at least two of those." It may not be the right fit, but back to ExactRate, John Deere, and you've seen this, no doubt across a number of machines. We see it on the combines, we see it on the tractors, we see it on the planters, they've switched to what is called a MECA style controller. I won't get too deep in the weeds about what all that entails, but a MECA controller is a generic controller, it's blank. It has no brains, it knows nothing. All it says is you have X amount of inputs, an X amount of output and we can do this with it. What Deere does is they essentially write software to control a number of units or a number of different processes with the exact same shell.

Literally, you could look at your combine, your tractor, your sprayer, and you'll literally find the exact same controller, the same MECA style controller, whether it be a small M50 controller, all the way up to a MECA M9000 controller, the really super big ones, look a lot like an [unintelligible 00:27:58], that's what the MECA style controllers look like. Essentially, those are what are allowing systems like ExactRate to function off of just one connection to the tractor, one connection of the [unintelligible 00:28:12] system. We can run multiple units or multiple processes at the exact same time.

It's very much the same concept. It's very much the exact same process going on, but it's also a very, very specialized process, and because of the nature of the tools that it's working on and because of the system that it's built to work within, they can unapologetically say, "Yes, this is literally the only thing that this thing can do." Don't be thinking that if your neighbor happens to wreck half of his ExactRate planter is a DB planter and it has ExactRate, I'm just going to go swipe that controller because I can run both a planter and I can run the fertilizer system off the same controller. Unfortunately, it doesn't work quite the same way as a John Deere Rate Controller 2000 does. Take that for what it's worth, I suppose.

Tony: That's really why I wanted you to talk about that, Jake, is the fact that it's not a universal controller, but it comes on the planter and that's what's going to control ExactRate. We're not running it generically through a rate controller, GreenStar Rate Controller, Rate Controller 2000. The cool part is you can still put a rate controller on to that planter to maybe control another liquid system or whatever it may be. There's a lot more neat things coming down the road with John Deere and using the controllers that they do, the way that they can be programmed, everything like that. Yes, there's a lot of different options. A lot of different solutions out there. We all see it. Again, there's no two planters the same, no two liquid fertilizer systems the same. Thank you for also touching on the universal aspect of the GreenStar Rate Controller, a rate controller 2000, there is a lot of a universality. There's a universal aspect to utilizing these rate controllers, so it's not just John Deere. It will be John Deere specific when it comes to displays, but as far as planters or tractors, things like that, it's very open. With that Jake, this episode got a little bit longer than what we like to with our episodes, but hopefully, this was good information. Again, thank you to the listener that gave us this idea to talk about planters and rate controllers. If anybody else out there has any questions or curiosities about specific technologies, equipment, anything we could potentially talk about here, let us know. Shoot me a message @RDOTonyK on Twitter or you can talk to Jake.

Jake: @RDOJacobM, I got it right this time.

Tony: Yes, you got it right. There we go. With that, thanks Jake, for sitting down again, talking some more, I guess this time it was tech and equipment, so we got two birds with one stone. Yes, with that, we'll catch you on the next one.

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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