You can find past podcast episodes and view show notes by visiting our Podcast website.
Have precision ag questions? We have the answers. Find a specific channel dedicated to answering your precision technology questions: Precision Ag Answers.
Read the entire transcript from the latest episode.
Tony Kramer: Hello, everyone, 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. In this episode, I bring Erin Hightower back on. We've got a special one for you, talking a little bit more about the orchard technologies that are out there. Welcome back, Erin. Let's just take a brief moment to tell our listeners who you are and what you do.
Erin Hightower: Hello. Good to see you again. My name is Erin Hightower. I'm the agronomist for RDO Equipment Company in Washington and Oregon. As many people know, that's orchard and vineyard country. Lots of different crops out there in those permanent crop systems that we deal with. A lot of technology-- I don't think people realize how much technology is starting to play into those permanent crop systems.
Tony: Yes, so in the plant or preseason 2023 episode, we talked about the emerging technology that's coming out into these orchards and vineyards and how unique your region is just with the different-- over 245 different types of crops. I wanted to take the time to bring you back on the show and really dive a little more into some of those technologies. This one today that we are going to specifically talk about is called Smart Apply. Erin, tell us about Smart Apply. Real basics to begin with. What is Smart Apply?
Erin: What is Smart Apply? Smart Apply is my newest friend. Let's start with that. [laughter] Smart Apply was actually developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, I don't know, many, many years ago, and then was bought out by this company to become Smart Apply. What it relies is it relies on a LiDAR system that does a sweep, and then it will turn on and off individual nozzles to meet the biomass as it sees it on that LiDAR, which means in orchard, vineyard industry, we're saving tons of chemicals when you're not spraying just a blast sprayer because before the old school way of doing things is using what we call a blast sprayer.
That is a little tow-behind sprayer, probably only about 400, 600 gallons. It goes down each row. It's got a high-pressure system of air coming out. It blasts that out, and it creates this cloud of application that then will just go all over the tree or vineyard. What we're doing now is we're still doing that high-pressure air, but now we're going to turn on individual nozzles as we go across so that we're not spending more on chemicals than we have to.
We're really meeting that right place, right time, and right application that we expect in our four Rs of agronomy. Meanwhile, we're using that great LiDAR technology to get there, so it's in real-time. We've seen some great success. We tend to see the most savings in younger crops and early in the season. Anybody who has a tree knows leaves drop. Now all of a sudden, we've got bare root, and then those leaves start coming back in. You start budding, and you're going to only have so much biomass, and then as it grows out, then you'll apply more and more pesticide.
Tony: This is really cool. Now, of course, the sensors are different. The process of how it applies is a little bit different, but this is right in line with the See & Spray technology that John Deere has when it comes to either spraying the fallow ground or even spraying the-- only spraying weeds with See and Spray Ultimate, only spraying weeds in a standing crop. This is along those same lines for the orchard region, correct?
Erin: Yes, the concept is there. The application is a little bit different. The concept of See & Spray is based on RBG cameras, so it's a live feed. This is more based on LiDAR. We've got a little bit more of a-- we've got a different input, but the output is the same. Let's put the product only where we need it.
Tony: Right. Correct. It's so cool to hear that more and more of these technologies are coming available for orchard-vineyard-type regions. Now with Smart Apply, is there any data that's being collected with this that can be utilized by the growers?
Erin: Oh, that's the best part. It's not a closed system. It's a very open system. What you do get back is that live LiDAR map that then you can use for the purposes of planning. If you're seeing a biomass change that you're not expecting of either light biomass change, maybe I need to go check my micronutrients in that orchard system, maybe I need to go put a little more calcium on, in the vineyard, it's the other way. Sometimes we have too much biomass. Okay, we need to go figure out how to get that slowed down. What it does is it creates this wonderful biomap that then goes into operation center.
That's the new fantastic part of Smart Apply in the last year is now that goes back into operation center. You have an as-applied pesticide map and orchard vineyard, which is unheard of before. Then on top of it, you're also getting an idea of that biomass from that as applied, that now you can go back and do some scouting in our high-value crops, and now we're getting that ability to cycle information back in, make real-time decisions, really start embracing those variable rate changes that we can be making in season.
Tony: You're going to have to excuse my connections here, but I don't have orchards, but I do have commodity crops and See & Spray sprayers. This is very similar to the See & Spray sprayer generating weed pressure maps. You guys aren't only getting the opportunity to apply product where you need it and not where you don't need it, but you're collecting valuable decision-making data from that same pass through the field. I would imagine growers can make decisions based on that biomass map you're talking about?
Erin: It doesn't make the decisions for you, but you can start seeing maybe some oddities as we're going through the season. That biomass can go a long ways for making some of those, hey, that looks weird, let's go check it out. It's an indirect way of looking at biomass, but sometimes that can get us at least looking in the right direction of do we have a problem here or not.
Tony: Prior to this technology, I would imagine, there is a manual process of looking at-- I'm talking about the data here, those biomass maps that are collected. There was probably a manual process to make some decisions through the orchard, or whatever it may be. By utilizing Smart Apply and collecting this data, how can this impact a grower's operation in their orchard?
Erin: Scouting is a big part of orchard vineyard, but scouting is done by somebody riding a four-wheeler going up and down rows, and we're definitely not replacing that. I think there's still always going to be a need to see what's going on in the middle of the field, but sometimes it just allows us to maybe see things changing a little bit faster in a more scientific, quantitative way. It's been a big help to be able to go back and take a look at that biomass and just see what's moving, what's shaking, what problems do we have, what positives do we have? Sometimes it's like, wow, that section is doing better than I thought it would.
Tony: My next question, Erin, is what-- We say Smart Apply. It's the technology that's being utilized to be able to apply when we want it to apply or increase or decrease, whatever we need to do there. What is this system? Is this a system you mount on that blast sprayer you were talking about? Is this a self-propelled, fully integrated on its own? Let's talk a little bit about the system itself and where these cameras and sensors are and how it all looks, or how a grower could get into a system like this.
Erin: Oh, that's one of the beautiful parts about the system. It is a bolt-on system. It is not a self-propelled sprayer. It's not something that you have to buy full cart. You put it on your preexisting infrastructure. No having to change what you normally do, no needing to worry about will this work in my setup because you're using all your same tractors, all your same sprayers. You're just adding this on. What will happen is, if you purchase a Smart Apply system, we'll take the nozzles off of your blast sprayer.
We put a servo on between that nozzle tip and the feeder lines, and that will be really the extent of putting it onto the back end of the sprayer. Then on the front of this tow-behind blast sprayer will be where we bolt on the brains of the system, so the computer components of it, as well as that sweeping LiDAR system that just sits in the front. That's one of the benefits is it's being put-- we're able to just slap it on whatever is already out in the system.
Actually, the most success that we have seen with Smart Apply so far has actually been with the hops industry. Weird industry. I don't think it's weird. I think it's fun. It was actually what my master's thesis was in, was in hops, but the way hops works is you actually will cut the plant completely to the ground and overwinter it, there's nothing showing in the hopyard.
You'll tie a string, and that bine will crawl up that string again. Every season you're starting with what looks like a bare field, and by the end, you'll have this wall of biomass. That's where we've seen a lot of success too, is any of those sprayers where these guys have preexisting infrastructure, they have hopyards, have big poles, big infrastructure, they can't just throw anything in there. It has to be a very specific width to be able to get in between, up and down those rows.
They don't have to worry about it is this going to fit down my row because you're just using the same sprayer they've always used, but now they're seeing enormous savings because they're not spraying a bunch of chemicals when those hop plants are only a foot off the ground. They're only baby plants, and they're only going to be about 12 or 14 inches out of the ground, and there's not a lot of biomass.
Then as that season goes on, the savings go down a little bit as they get more and more biomass. It's being able to be applied in so many different scenarios and not having to worry about widths and lengths, and can I get in and out of my field, can I get in out of my trellis systems in orchard vineyard because we're just putting it on what is preexisting.
Tony: That you talk about putting the LiDAR system on the front of the sprayer. I would imagine there, you could utilize whatever tractor. Now, of course, you and I would hope that some nice green and yellow John Deere tractors are being utilized, but it's not sprayer-specific and it's not tractor-specific. Correct?
Erin: Exactly. You can use what you're comfortable with, what you know, what you like, what your operators are willing to enjoy working in.
Tony: You mentioned it being very beneficial in hopsyards, fields, orchards, groves, whatever they call those out there.
Erin: They're hopyards. They're called yards.
Tony: All right. Now, see, I learned something new today. I always learned something new when I talk to you out in the northwest. What other regions or fields or crops or tree groves, where else is this, or can this system of Smart Apply be utilized?
Erin: Oh, I've seen it in a lot of different things. Out here in the northwest, we do see it mostly used in the orchard vineyard systems. Anytime you've got that permanent crop system. I haven't seen it used in any row crops or dry land, but other than that, anything where you have a structural system it's meant to shine and go. Lots of those high-value crops is where we see that. I think it's going to be one of those technologies that, over time, we're going to see it almost expand more and more because it's beautiful in its simplicity.
I think anytime that you're talking about a biomass where it's up and off the ground where we can be able to read it is where we're going to see it really shine and really show some value. I think this is only the beginning of what this technology can do.
Tony: You say things, the high-value crops, so we're talking apples, citrus groves, nut groves, vineyards, things like that?
Erin: Yes, anytime that you have that permanent structure that you're having to work around.
Tony: Wonderful. It sounds like a great technology to be able to utilize not only with the application of the product, but also the data that's being collected. What are some of the takeaways, or the Smart Apply sprayers that you've been around, what are a few pieces that we could share with our listeners that, what do they need to know if they're interested in getting into it? What are some things to think about, or maybe they've already signed that purchase order? What are some things to keep in mind going into this season with Smart Apply?
Erin: There are definitely a couple of things to think about, and that is that we're installing some technology. We'll need to probably spend some time training our operators. There is an iPad component of it. You do have to pre-map your boundaries with the sprayer so it knows where to turn on and off so that you're not spraying as you're doing turns. There need to be a little bit of time spent just setting up your operation for it.
Getting the information put into operation center means starting an operation center account, which some of our orchard and vineyards haven't really had the opportunity to get into before. That'll be an interesting and fun growth as they start getting into some of this farm management software. That's some of the things that we'll have to watch out for. I think one of the other things that needs to happen is having some discussions with your packing houses.
One of the growing pains I have seen for orchard, vineyards out here in Smart Apply is that it's variable rate application. Those packing houses are only really used to have seen blast sprayers before. When you turn in data that looks like you only applied 10 gallons per acre instead of 20 gallons per acre, they start going, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, you underapplied. We can't accept your fruit."
You have to have almost a priming of that pump of information acceptance where you go, "Okay, I'm using this variable rate technology. It's going to save us money. It's going to save environmental impact concerns. It's going to be great for us. We'll be able to even maybe market this fruit a little bit differently." You need to get used to that map showing 15, 10 instead of 20 because it's only spraying where it needs it. That's one of the things we have to watch for, is that the information systems just getting ready, getting primed.
Most of my packing houses, as soon as they understood what was going on, they were like, "Oh, yes, this is awesome. We can work with this." If you've never talked to your packing house [unintelligible 00:16:51] and you're doing variable rate, they may not be used to seeing that map saying what it's saying. Other than that, yes, just getting used to technology and getting used to the information systems.
I feel like every farm is a little bit different on how they'll use and apply that information into that closed system. How am I going to take this biomass map and now apply it to how I'm managing that vineyard, orchard, whatever. That will take some time and effort. That's, honestly, you would know as well as I do in the world of agronomy, that's almost a trial and error. You almost have to kind of go, "I noticed that when this happens, then that happens." It takes a few years.
Tony: Absolutely, yes. There's certain things that can be looked at and decisions that can be made, but it's not always staring right at you. Sometimes you got to do a little bit of thinking. You bring up a lot of good points there, Erin, that definitely I would not have thought about. You talk about the packing houses, being able to understand the differences of the application, and things like that. Just some key points, some things to think about if either you're interested in Smart Apply, maybe you've already purchased a system, or maybe you're using one today. Just some things to keep in mind as you're out there utilizing it.
Erin: It definitely helps with marketing, too. Right now, it's that growing pain, but when you see that, it's an average chemical reduction of 50%. You're saving 50% of your chemicals, and then you start talking on a external-- It had up to 93% less chemical runoff and 87% less airborne drift. That's a side of it where now we can have this opportunity as a marketing positive of, "Hey, this technology is better for all of us when we have that ability to manage our resources properly."
Tony: Absolutely. Erin, if somebody wants to learn a little bit more about any of this stuff or follow along with you and some of what you see out there in the Pacific Northwest, where can they go, who can they talk to?
Erin: Well, if you want to learn more about this amazing system, you just need to go to smartapply.com. They have a great website that really shows it better than I can explain it, and then also talk with your RDO Equipment product specialists. We have a lot of these systems running. We have 50 plus that we've sold in the last year here in Northwest and the Southwest. They're getting a good clip sold too.
Just talk with your product specialist at RDO Equipment. We can get you in front of one, let you see it, let's see what it looks like, and see if it'll work for your operations. You can find out more at rdoequipment.com. We'd love to get out and see your orchard and vineyard, and see how we can make it better.
Tony: Erin, thank you again for joining me on the show. Great to have you back, and it's always fun to learn more about the technologies and the crops that are grown out there in the Pacific Northwest.
Erin: It's always fun up here. You need to come and visit me soon.
Tony: I will take you up on that offer and find a time to get out there. I would love to learn more hands-on and see it.
Tony: 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.