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John Deere's autonomous 8R row crop tractor. Image credit: John Deere

Q&A: John Deere’s Heraud looks back on 10 years of leading ag innovation — and what to expect in the next decade

November 17, 2023

One could hardly discuss the last decade in agtech advancements without mentioning John Deere — a company that’s been innovating since its namesake founder created a self-scouring steel plow back in 1837.

Deere’s original idea solved the issue of prairie soil sticking to plow blades and hindering farmer productivity. In the digital age, the problem sounds almost quaint. But that spirit of improving tools for farmers is the same one that’s led to the precision agriculture tools and fully autonomous tractors of more recent years.

The last decade in agtech has been especially active, with more farmers going digital and the number of startups iterating on inputs, equipment and software proliferating. To find out where and how John Deere (the company) views itself in this age of endless technology options, I recently spoke with Jorge Heraud, the company’s VP of automation and autonomy. Heraud moved over to the tractor giant when it acquired his startup Blue River Technologies for $305 million in 2017, one of agtech’s most successful exits to-date.

The X9 combine at work. Image credit: John Deere

AgFunderNews: What have been Deere’s most important developments over the last decade?

JH: Some of the most important developments within John Deere could be categorized in three areas.

The first category is our machine journey. Two examples are ExactEmerge planter technology and X9 combines. The ExactEmerge technology is designed to put seed into the ground at speed with pinpoint population and spacing accuracy. This technology has resulted in up to a 9% increase in grain yields, showcasing the direct benefits of sustainable practices. Leveraging the data collected using this technology, farmers can gain new insights and make better decisions year after year to grow more with less.

The X9 combine allows farmers to be more productive. The machine can harvest up to 30 acres an hour in wheat and up to 7,200 bushels an hour in high yielding corn. The technology on the combine can sense varying crop conditions and automatically adjusts the machines ground speed to maintain a consistent crop load. This helps farmers get more out of the machine’s capacity and improve grain quality. 

The second area is our automation journey. See & Spray technology is a game-changer in our Leap Ambition journey, helping farmers reduce their non-residual herbicide use by more than two thirds and maintain a hit rate comparable to traditional spraying. This technology uses our integrated tech stack, letting farmers manage their production at the plant level. The result is fewer chemicals applied to places where they’re not necessary, in this case the soil, which can create an overall positive outcome for the farmer’s economics as well as the health of the soil, waterways, and biodiversity.

Another example in the automation journey is our Combine Advisor package on combines. Combine Advisor automatically adjusts the combine’s harvest settings to put higher quality grain in the tank and reduce the chance of grain loss. Cameras on the clean grain and tailings elevator help them make informed decisions on the crop that is flowing up and into the grain tank.

The third category is our digital journey. As these advanced machines pass through the field, vital sensor readings are being gathered in the John Deere Operations Center, enabling easy documentation and traceability of field practices, so farmers and their trusted advisors can easily evaluate productivity and agronomic outcomes. 

See & Spray Ultimate. Image credit: John Deere

AFN: What was ag’s biggest challenge 10 years ago? Have we adequately addressed it?

JH: Our customers continue to face many challenges. From labor challenges to trying to help feed a growing population amid raising input costs, we are helping them overcome these challenges by increasing the productivity of our equipment and solutions. We are automating more tasks and helping them do more with less with solutions like See & Spray, Combine Advisor and Operations Center.

John Deere continues to invest in the development and production of technology that will help farmers take vital care of their greatest resource, the land, while creating enough food to nourish and sustain the entire global population. 

What developments in the last 10 years have been fundamental to the broader ag industry’s changes?

Smart technology in John Deere equipment helps farmers produce more with less, creating more successful crops while having a smaller impact on the land and environment. This includes GPS, automation and robotics which have been present on farms for decades, in addition to newer advancements in machine learning, AI, computer vision, autonomy and advanced sensors which work together to provide intelligence and precision at a scale on the farm today. Farmers can leverage the data collected using this technology to gain new insights and make better decisions year after year to grow more with less.

What’s one thing you would have liked to see the industry do different in the last decade?

As an industry we need to work together to advocate and educate the public on the work our customers do to help feed, clothe, and fuel the world. We also need to educate the public and policymakers about the sustainable farming practices of our customers.

Where is the ag tech industry 10 years from now?

John Deere has stated we will have a fully autonomous corn and soy production system by 2030. I also see the industry continuing down the path of managing crops to their exact needs and reducing carbon emissions.

John Deere’s autonomous 8R row crop tractor. Image credit: John Deere

🚜 Timeline: a decade of innovations at John Deere

 2012 – John Deere Operations Center™ launches. The platform lets farmers easily (underscore that word) access data about their field activities to better manage overall operations.

2014 – John Deere launches its ExactEmerge™ Planting System. The system lets farmers achieve higher planting speeds with greater accuracy and more uniform spacing.

2016 – Operations Center App launches. Farmers can use the mobile app extension to access data and other operation-critical information on the go.

2017 – Deere acquires ‘See & Spray’ robotics startup Blue River Technology for $305 million. Via computer vision, Blue River’s technology can identify weeds from plants — over 1 million plants per hour.

2018 – Deere launches a startup collaborator program that includes Hello Tractor, Bear Flag Robotics and Taranis.

2019 – The X9 combine is released and can harvest more 100 tons of small grains or wheat per hour with losses under 1%.

2021 – Deere acquires Bear Flag Robotics. “Deere views autonomy as an important step forward in enabling farmers to leverage their resources strategically to feed the world and create more sustainable and profitable operations,” the company said at the time.[Disclosure: AgFunderNews’ parent company, AgFunder, was an investor in Bear Flag.]

2021 – See & Spray™ Select launched. Farmers can use it to target and spray only weeds on fallow ground, which the company says can reduce “non-residual, pre-emerge herbicide use by 77% on average.”

2022 – See & Spray Ultimate launched targeting weeds among corn, soybean, and cotton plants.

2022 – Deere introduces fully autonomous tractor at CES. This driverless version of its 8R row crop tractor will start shipping later in the year.

2022 – Deere leads a $16 million investment into crop health startup Inner Plant, which “recodes” plant DNA to make distress signals visible to the human eye.

2023 – See & Spray Premium launched. The single-tank system is for select MY18 and newer 400 and 600 Series Sprayers, as well as R-Series models.

2023 – Robotics-based fertilizer system and electric excavator unveiled at CES.

Want more highlights from the last decade? Download the AgFunder 10-year e-zine here.

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