The rate of technology expansion across today’s agricultural horizon is swift and far reaching. New computer hardware and software-specific programs are being implemented at the various stops along commodity supply chains, creating mountains of data — data that can be used in ways never envisioned before.
In the cotton industry, especially on the farming and ginning side, one technology holds potential to revolutionize the way modules are managed from the field all the way to the gin. “Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology utilizes radio waves to read, capture, and transmit information that’s stored on an RFID tag attached to an object, in this case, a round module,” explains Dr. Ed Barnes, senior director, Agricultural and Environmental Research for Cotton Incorporated. “The tag can be scanned and read from several feet away with a hand-held, wireless scan gun.”
The technology is quickly leading these two initial stops in cotton’s pipeline toward a paperless system of round module management. “The RFID tags are embedded in each segment of plastic wrap used to protect seed cotton harvested by John Deere’s 7760 or CS/CP690 on-board module harvesters,” says Barnes.
Barnes and others have heard producers call this a “tagless” system of module management, but that connotation is not accurate because there are actually four RFID tags in each wrapped round module. They just never have to be disconnected from the module until it reaches the module feeder.
“I equate our harvest RFID technology to my iPhone,” says Jared Day, precision ag specialist, John Deere. “I know farmers who monitor their soils’ moisture levels from sensors buried in their fields and when it’s time to irrigate, they remotely activate irrigation pumps with the touch of a button on their iPhone. RFID technology will not only streamline information flow and management of modules between producers and ginners, it can open up other possibilities just as valuable throughout the entire supply chain line.”
Alabama producer/ginner Rich Lindsey has been part of a group RFID project for almost two years. He used “MyModules” (an app, sold and managed by EWR) in 2016 to manage his modules and report them to the gin. He had initially intended it to be purely an evaluative trial when he started, but 60 percent of the growers in his area recognized the benefits and quickly jumped on board the first year.
“Every gin handles modules differently, but we overcame that problem by remaining open-minded to outside input and ideas as we worked through the ginning season. Apps allow information sharing and eliminate phone calls, work duplication and many human errors,” says Lindsey, who utilizes computer screen shots of the app-use process from module drop to module unwrapping when he illustrates how the process can work.
The John Deere harvesters communicate information related to all modules via MyJohnDeere Operations Center or HarvestID, which are internet-based logistics management tools where data is collected and may be accessed. These programs transfer pertinent information related to the module to the gin where it can be utilized to initiate the module’s pickup and delivery to the gin yard. Once the gin’s dispatcher has all relevant information, he can begin assigning module loads to drivers.
“The producer, farm, field, distance to the module, and an aerial view of directions become electronically available to the driver,” adds Barnes. “It even provides the module’s GPS location.”
Once at the location, the driver would see a flashing green icon on his hand-held device signifying the correct module was being loaded. “I certainly see how this could replace dispatch tickets and eliminate bringing in cumbersome paperwork at the end of the day that could possibly get lost,” says Lindsey.
“Of the 20 round on-board module harvesters in our area in 2016, 12 of them fully utilized the RFID tag technology for module identification,” says Jonathon McBride, former ginner at Silver Creek Gin in Holly Bluff, Miss., who is now working to implement the technology at Bogue Chitto Gin in Macon, Miss.
When the wrap is delivered to a gin, it is inventoried, and pallet ID numbers are sent to TAMA (the wrap manufacturer) who then provides serial numbers back to the gin. From that point, the gin can use that list of numbers to distribute wrap to grower customers and track their modules once they are dropped in the field.
“I’m trying to close the information gap, and it’s working. We receive information back from several producers wirelessly (through a cellular connection) using MyJohnDeere.com, although some growers still bring us flash drives or send e-mail attachments that we upload to our ginning software,” added McBride.
Dr. John Wanjura, ag engineer, USDA ARS Cotton Production and Processing Research Unit in Lubbock, Texas, one of the only public sector scientists focused on harvesting in the United States, knows RFID technology will open up many new possibilities.
“Things have to be done from a conceptual and standardization point of view through the American Society of Ag and Biological Engineers to streamline this entire process. Right now, we’re laying groundwork that will allow ginners and producers to benefit from this technology very soon,” explained Wanjura.
There are many other important advantages RFID technology can provide to not only the farmer, but also those on down the many stops of cotton’s pipeline all the way to cotton’s end use consumer. “Like the on-board module harvesters when they were introduced, producers have to see what the technology can do — how it can bring ‘cost-reducing and information-providing’ value to their operations,” says Barnes “Most farmers are inherently inquisitive about new technologies. Once they see what it can do, I feel like they will be more likely to implement it, or at least evaluate it. I think it will sell itself,” says Barnes.