Ankeny and Anita, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska
Department of Plant Agriculture

Day 4 - Wednesday

Innovation and Leadership   

Nichols Farm

By: Avery Richer, Emily Potter, Brendan McDougall, Marion Studhalter, and Benjamin Anderchek

John Deere- Des Moines Works, Ankeny, Iowa

Day 4 of the Midwest Crop Tour brought us to the John Deere Des Moines Works factory in Ankey, Iowa. Des Moines Works is just one of the numerous plants found worldwide producing products through the collaboration with other John Deere plants and international entities.

The Des Moines Works plant was purchased from the United States government in 1947 for 4 million dollars, which was only a fraction of what the previous owners paid to build it. Originally, the plant was built to manufacture billions of rounds of 30 and 50 caliber machine gun bullets for World War II. At the time, it covered 400 acres and the buildings were strategically engineered to be bomb proof. This included brick buildings with 18 inch ceilings, and glass windows in place to blow out if there were ever an explosion. Today, John Deere maximizes the use of all the buildings originally built by the government and has modified the structures to fit their current needs.

Seventy years later, it is now the home of an ultra-efficient manufacturing plant that provides seed drills, tillage equipment, sprayers and cotton pickers to customers worldwide. During the tour, we were lucky enough to see various models of sprayers and cotton pickers being built at this location. Due to the change in seasons, they are currently wrapping up the manufacturing of these products and are transitioning to tillage equipment in the next couple of weeks.

One highlight of the Des Moines Works was the fabrication of cotton pickers with bailing capabilities. Coming from Canada, most students have had minimal exposure to the cotton industry, which is an important sector in US agriculture. In 2009, John Deere began manufacturing cotton pickers with a mounted baler to solve an industry inefficiency problem. Traditionally, cotton pickers had a mounted basket to hold the harvested cotton until it became full, then the cotton picker would need to dump the basket into another tractor-pulled basket. Unlike a corn harvester, which can auger out the corn into a grain buggy while continuing to harvest, the cotton picker must stop to make the transaction. With John Deere’s broad industrial knowledge, they collaborated with their baling division to design a cotton picker that would bale the cotton continuously. This breakthrough allowed cotton farmers to harvest an average of 100 acres per day, which is an 155% increase in productivity over the basket system. The innovation was not only revolutionary for farmers, but for John Deere as well. From a production stand point, John Deere can outsource the baling mechanism to their already existing baler production plant. Interestingly, the cab of the cotton picker is the same as the cab of John Deere combines, like we have in Canada. 

In 2013 John Deere invested in a state-of-the-art sprayer plant that focuses on efficiency through automation. All the in-progress sprayers are transported to each segment of the assembly line via automated robo-carts, called automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). AGVs move parts around the building using a program that follows magnetic strips in the floor. These magnetic strips have a dual function, working with mapping systems to tell the AGV where they are in the building and where they must go, but also act to charge the AGV to optimize battery life. They can run for 30 days on a single 8-hour charge! Further down the assembly line, we see automation speeding up the process again. They use robotic eyes to identify parts so that the machine can insert the correct amount of grease into the wheel bearing without human supervision. The innovation in John Deere's process helps increase efficiency and lower costs that are passed on to the customer and dealerships.

John Deere sets themselves apart from their competitors by ensuring their customers are fully knowledgeable about the products they sell.  When a farmer purchases a piece of equipment, they are invited for a Gold Key tour to show them the process, through which their specific equipment was built.  This offers customers the opportunity to ask questions to the experts and receive a much more in-depth view into how their equipment was made and works. The integration from factory to field is just another innovative and leadership characteristic shown at John Deere.

Marion Studhalter (left) and Lisa Bertens (right) are two of 48 students touring the John Deere Des Moines Works

Pictured above: Marion Studhalter (left) and Lisa Bertens (right) are two of 48 students touring the John Deere Des Moines Works.

Nichols Farms, Anita, Iowa  

In the afternoon, we were welcomed to Nichols Farms in Anita, Iowa by Dave Nichols, owner and operator, and Ross Havens, farm manager. Nichols Farms originated in the early 1900s when Dave’s parents bought a small family farm and a few steers. When Dave was only 9 years old he bought his first steer to show at the local county fair. When the steer he bought ended up with dwarfism, Dave got a crash course in genetics with Dr. Jay Lush. Lush, the “what Einstein was to physics of genetics” researched heritability of quantitative traits. At the time, dwarfism was a driving concern in the commercial cattle business since the cattle would only sell for $3, marking a loss in productivity. With the basic understanding of genetics and heritability, things started looking up for genetics research once the University of Iowa got their first computer in the 50's. This changed Dave’s life, leading him to figuring out how to determine if a bull carried the recessive gene for dwarfism. Opening a niche market.

Dave then bought his first purebred Angus 4-H heifer at the age of 13. He has since been the leader in new technology and an inspiring member in the beef industry. The Nichols Farms' success has been driven by Dave's passion for being a leader within the beef industry. His involvement with the local cattlemen's and beef improvement associations has identified him as a leader within the beef community and provided him with opportunities to be involved with current research. He is currently involved in over 20 research projects conducted through the University of California, Genex, and the US Mark, and was recently awarded the highest honoured livestock award of having his portrait up in the Sirloin Saddle Club Hall of Fame. Their willingness to adopt new technologies in livestock, such as ultrasound for back fat, ribeye and marbling; and in crop production through soil sampling, spraying chemicals and more, has allowed them to advance quicker than most farms. They were the first herd to utilize expected progeny differences (EPDs), which has allowed them to make genetic selections at a faster rate. Nichols Farms are now focusing their breeding on disease resistance traits in hope to find markers for diseases such as pink eye and respiratory deficiencies.  Overall, Nichols Farms are truly trusted internationally in the beef community for their “Superior Beef Genetics”.  

One of the beef studs at Nichols Farms
Pictured above: One of the beef studs at Nichols Farms.
Aside from their inspiration on the genetics side of things, the Nichols Farms are innovative in other farm operations. They use a modified corn syrup, a byproduct of ethanol production, as a high energy and protein additive in their total mixed ration (TMR). It adds moisture to the feed and helps with palatability for the cattle. They also use this syrup to cover their feed bunks with to prevent spoilage. We found this to be very interesting since in Ontario we cover our bunks with plastic and tires to ferment and stop feed spoilage. Currently, markets allow them to sell the grain they grow and buy back the byproduct for cheaper. Using syrup is an innovative way to reduce time and labour involved with making feed for the cattle.
Nichols Farm use a wet corn syrup byproduct of ethanol production as a protein and energy supplement in their TMR and as a top dress for their feed bunks
Pictured above: Nichols Farm use a wet corn syrup byproduct of ethanol production as a protein and energy supplement in their TMR and as a top dress for their feed bunks.

Nichols Farms are also utilizing partnerships with other livestock producers. They recently sold property to a commercial swine producer. By doing so, they can use all the manure produced on site for fertilizing their fields. This partnership has saved them nearly $80,000 per year on fertilizer costs. Nichols Farms has been able to successfully integrate community involvement and cutting edge technology into their business model.  They are able to synergize and cut costs by partnering with locals and seek new marketing and research opportunities through their reputation as leaders.
The 2017 Crop Tour Class pictured with Dave Nichols and Ross Havens
Pictured above: The 2017 Crop Tour Class pictured with Dave Nichols and Ross Havens.

The students on the Midwest Crop Tour were selected to attend because of their aspirations to be leaders and innovators in Canadian and Global Ag.  John Deere Des Moines Works and Nichols Farms were perfect examples of how seizing technology and being industry leaders results in the best products whether it be in equipment or genetics. Two seemingly different businesses demonstrated that through strong leadership and innovative adaptation they can remain viable in the changing markets conditions. By improving their impact on the environment and social construct, while achieving better economic efficiencies, John Deere Des Moines Works and Nichols Farms will survive and thrive in the future. In modelling our decisions about leadership, innovation and community involvement, like the stops we had today, we can confidently say we will be the leaders for tomorrow.