John Deere: 5 Ways to Keep an Eye on 4 Trillion Plants

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
John Deere expects to have a fully autonomous cropping system by 2030 -- including spring and fall tillage, planting, spraying and harvesting systems. (Photo courtesy of John Deere)

John Deere's Leaps Unlocked Analyst Day last week offered a remarkable, two-hour look into how Big Green views its, and farming's, opportunities during the next few years. Yes, Deere is a machinery manufacturer, but the company will tell anyone who will listen that it has become a premier technology company. A technology company learning how to use the intelligence gleaned from what may soon be millions of camera/sensors focused not on acres, but on individual plants -- sensing and acting at speed. It's a lot of plants: 90 million acres of corn equals 4 trillion plants, each with its own story to tell.

Deere acknowledged the challenge of pulling that much plant-level intelligence from in-field sensing and processing devices and then through the analytical systems that give farmers an ability to act in real time -- to hit a near-term, tactical target during the days of the same growing season and with career-long strategic insight into the potential of crops not yet planted.

Interesting is that Deere's understanding of the future is not how it can help farmers remove variability from their production system, but how its sensing and analytical systems drive profit in a world of variability -- that each seed is set down in a place, that each treatment or application gives that seed the opportunity to reach its full potential.

Deere calls it 'Sense and Act.' Sensing, collecting down to the plant level. And, act. Allow growers to act, to execute real-time decisions across every square foot of ground. In short, as farmers sense they can act.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Deere & Company John May offered analysts Deere's rationale for its technology direction.

"The world is changing faster than ever, specifically in agriculture. The challenges our customers face are growing in complexity. And society is asking more and more of them. The days of abundant resources and farming inputs is over. Labor, fertilizer, and crop protection inputs ... are all growing in scarcity. And they're increasing in cost. Weather patterns are becoming more volatile, governments are increasing regulations, and customers are increasingly interested in more sustainably grown food, fiber and fuel," he said.

"Older approaches to increase agricultural output are no longer viable. In the past, we would rely on planting more acres, increasing horsepower and applying more nutrients. In short, we could always do more, with more. However, today in agriculture, we must do more with less," said May.

From Deere's Analyst Day, here are five takeaways:


Conductivity is becoming as important as sunlight to agriculture -- Deere eyes ever-improving satellite technology, in addition to telecommunications -- to connect machines and farmers. Deere's digitalization strategy is focused on connecting equipment to the cloud, connecting data to decision makers, and connecting the steps of the production system together. Equipment connectivity is foundational to creating customer value across the production system. Deere is targeting 500 million managed acres through its Operations Center platform (with 250 connected software companies) and 300,000 connected ag machines today, a number it expects to triple that by 2026. Deere's goal is to enable farmers to easily connect every single piece of equipment on the farm.


Deere sees a farming environment informed by smart machines. Think normal row cropping with cameras. Decisions like seed depth, variety, population, starter fertilizer, all influenced by sensing runs over growing crops -- including the previous year's crop. For example, consider a planter sensing soil variables like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in real time, providing the information to make more prescriptive decisions for the remaining crop or the following one. Or, See & Spray sprayer provides stand counts, that data informing same-year fertilizer applications and that contribute to crop planning for the following year. Deere expects to expand See & Spray to crops beyond corn, cotton and soybeans and within the next couple of years enable its spraying system to do the same for fungicides, insecticides and nutrients -- and do it faster with less product because of the data collected with the machines. Bottom line: Instead of having 40 production years to produce the perfect outcome, think of 40,000 opportunities, Deere said.


Deere views See & Spray technology and Deere's 8R autonomous tractor tool as transformational. Sense and Act -- robotics combined with artificial intelligence -- are at the heart of four machines in advanced testing with customers. Two would operate in harvest, one in planting and the fourth in construction. There are more coming.


Deere has designed a high dynamic range camera. It can see in the same image plants both in sunlight and shadows. It also has a custom sensing element that can measure wavelengths to see obstacles in the field, but see plants and read their condition. Deere expects that it will soon be selling close to a million cameras every year with its equipment.


Deere plans a fully autonomous corn and soy production system by 2030. That means fall and spring tillage, planting, spraying and harvesting. Think of grain carts and autonomous See & Spray.

Dan Miller can be reached at

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