Podcast: 17. Brian Watkins - CropZilla
Have you ever found yourself scrambling to make a purchase toward the end of the year? Often these decisions are made after hours of thinking, planning, and wondering if you’re doing the right thing. That’s why, in episode 17 of the Precision Points Podcast, I talk with CropZilla CEO Brian Watkins about a way to put science and data behind those choices.
Everyone’s approach to buying new equipment is a little different. For some, there is sticker shock and you may decide to stretch an extra mile or year out of what you already have, not realizing some of the tradeoffs that come from not maximizing capacity. For others, you may feel like you are justifying a purchase you know you want to make, but question whether you really need to run most efficiently.
To make this process a little easier, CropZilla is a decision support software tool that helps you understand how a purchase can impact your entire operation. It starts by understanding your farm – from equipment and labor to field details like location, crop mix and more. From there, CropZilla creates a digital model of your farm and allows you to run scenarios with different operational changes. This helps you preview the implications of a decision before you actually purchase something.
“When [farmers] hear about something like CropZilla, the first reaction is, ‘Oh, no. It's going to tell me that I'm spending too much. It's going to tell me my costs are too high. I'm going to want to buy something and it will tell me no,’” Brian says. “I will just say that we have – on our own farm – had exactly the opposite thing happen.”
In one CropZilla experience we talked about, the grower felt as if he was finally making decisions with eyes wide open. As Brian shared, taking some emotion out of these choices can be powerful.
Much of the data needed to get started with CropZilla can be manually entered based on your inputs. However, Brian discussed a newer feature they have been leveraging – telemetry – to automate the data-entry process. The CropZilla team can get this tracking set up to streamline data collection, which is important because it can collect more and truer information that you may not think to collect otherwise.
“If you've got a tractor, it's not just when it's in the field or not just when it's actually logging some application [that data collection is happening], but it's every minute that it's on – going up and down the road or in the field,” Brian says. “[Telemetry] lets us see that [activity], apply cost...and make some recommendations just based on the way you're operating. Potentially, there's some things that operators can do to save some money just based on that data.”
Using telemetry next growing season can put you in a great spot to make informed decisions. And, if you find yourself considering a new purchase before the end of the year, CropZilla might be a place to turn if you are wanting to feel more confident that you’re taking the right step. Interested in learning more? Listen to our full episode here, check out CropZilla.com or follow along on Twitter.
Have you used CropZilla? Leave a review here.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: Brian Watkins, CropZilla
Morgan Seger: (00:19)
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. In each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. On today's episode, I am joined by Brian Watkins, CEO of CropZilla. Now, I know this episode is rolling out towards the end of the year of 2020, and a lot of people are making decisions about how to finish up their books going into 2021 and before tax season. A lot of those decisions can either be something we've thought about for a really long time, making enhancements on equipment or things like that, or it might be a spur of the moment thing and we second guess whether or not it's the right decision. I thought this would be a great time to bring Brian on and talk through CropZilla.
Morgan Seger: (01:10)
What CropZilla is is a software platform that puts telemetry behind how you're using your equipment, so you can take some of the emotion out of these big purchasing decisions and let the numbers speak for themselves. You plug in different scenarios, and it helps you understand which types of equipment may have the best positive impact and how these changes impact your entire operation. I really enjoyed my time catching up with Brian. I think that this is a great episode to end out the year. I hope you enjoy this episode with CropZilla.
Morgan Seger: (01:42)
Welcome back to Precision Points. Today on the show, I am joined by Brian Watkins, CEO of CropZilla. Welcome to the show, Brian.
Brian Watkins: (01:51)
Thanks, Morgan. Good to be here.
Morgan Seger: (01:53)
I'm really excited to catch up. I think back in, was it maybe 2012 or 2013, was the first time we got to sit down and start talking about ag tech. We mostly talked about what I had going on with satellite imagery and stuff like that, and so I'm excited to have an opportunity to talk about what you have been working on. Is that about the same time you were starting CropZilla?
Brian Watkins: (02:17)
That's a little bit before. Of course, my main gig is still farming, as it was then, and so of course always looking at technology and what we can adopt and what makes sense and trying lots of things and actually ending up adopting just a few things. CropZilla really grew out of something that I wasn't finding anywhere else. I decided I was going to try to build it myself and then of course see if it had any value to other people.
Morgan Seger: (02:52)
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that's how a lot of some of our best ideas happen is when we're trying to fix one of our own problems, because generally you're not the only person having that problem.
Brian Watkins: (03:02)
Morgan Seger: (03:03)
You are, I believe I read, a sixth generation farmer from Ohio. Can you give us a little bit of your background on how you got CropZilla started and exactly what that problem was you were trying to solve?
Brian Watkins: (03:16)
Yeah, sure. When I started farming back in the '80s, I was always business oriented. I mean, I love farming, grew up doing it and raising crops and working with my family. But I also was very business oriented. I can tell the story, the very first piece of "equipment" that went on my depreciation schedule was a computer. Back in those days, it was a desktop computer that costs as much as a pickup truck back then, which was a big deal. I mean, I could see the value of that in managing my business. Of course, so we used accounting software. We had lots of spreadsheets and a lot of different tools. Of course, as time has gone on, we've added to that software.
Brian Watkins: (04:01)
But if you take both the computer orientation and the business orientation, the thing that I wanted to adapt was having to do with understanding and controlling and enhancing our ability to manage our fleet of equipment, right? I mean, the thing is...so my brother and I, we were growing our business. Every year, we tried to add acres or try new things. There was always an equipment component. Well, how much equipment do we need? That was always just an intuition decision. You'd know where your weaknesses were, but you're trying to reoptimize essentially every year, especially in terms of getting, if you have a planting window, if you want to try to plant your corn in seven days, and as that acreage changes, and maybe you go from strip-till to no-till or tillage. I mean, we, over the years we've done a lot of those different things.
Brian Watkins: (04:48)
Anyway, there's always a big thing. We'd sit down. We'd talk about these things endlessly, "Well, what do we need here? How do we do this?" A lot of money on the table, right?
Brian Watkins: (04:58)
CropZilla is really just an attempt to add some quantitative tools to that, to really...to understand our costs to operate these machines, to be able to plug in something new and evaluate it, not...both for costs, but not just cost, but also capacity. If we feel like we need more planting capacity, well, that might require a planter, it might require another tractor, it might require another person in a tender and this and that. I wanted a piece of software where I could plug those in, see what they were going to cost me in terms of annual operating costs, what they were going to do to my bottom line and what they were going to do to my capacity in terms of just acres per day, acres per hour. That's where CropZilla came from. I think we've got a pretty good tool. It still doesn't take away the intuition. It's still, that's still very important, but it adds some real analytics to that whole process.
Morgan Seger: (05:53)
Gotcha. Yeah, and I think it's intuition and also a little bit of desire. Sometimes we just really want something. I know I ran a scenario past you one time about us getting a grain cart for our farm. It's like, "Well, we, we really don't have an operator for it. We don't have semis and we don't have this, but we really want it." It's like, "Okay, well, you need to take that aside for a minute and just look at the real numbers. Then if you still really want to, then you know that you have it as an extra thing, but not a need."
Brian Watkins: (06:24)
Well, I'm glad you bring that up, because for most farmers ... I mean, it's interesting. You find a couple of different kinds of farmers. Some of them, they hate the equipment decision, because it's just all expense. They don't like that. For most, their equipment lineup is a source of pride, right?
Morgan Seger: (06:44)
Brian Watkins: (06:45)
It's something that they enjoy. Everybody likes buying new equipment, sure. When they hear about something like CropZilla, the first reaction is, "Oh, no. It's going to tell me that I'm spending too much. It's going to tell me my costs are too high. I'm going to want to buy something and it will tell me no." I will just say that we have, I know on our own farm, we have had exactly the opposite thing happen. That is, that this tool often will show me a payback on things, especially when it comes to some extra capacity that I didn't think I had, right?
Brian Watkins: (07:26)
Typically you look at the sticker price, you look at the total dollars, and you're conservative. You say, "Well, we can run the used machine a little bit longer." But when you start to plug in the issues of increased productivity, right? Then you look at maybe, well, just to give some examples:
Brian Watkins: (07:44)
One of the things we run a lot on our farm is tracks, right? We have tracks on, on tractors and things, because we're trying to reduce compaction. I've had some customers say, "Well, what about putting the tracks on the planter?" Then they look and, well, it's like a $50,000 or $60,000 option when you're already spending a huge amount of money on a new planter. But when you, instead of just looking at $50,000, you're like, "Well, what's this cost me per acre per year." Then maybe it comes down to something like, what, it costs you $2 an acre or $3 an acre to put those tracks on there? Now, all of a sudden, the decision is like one bushel of corn. Can I get one more bushel of corn to the acre with these tracks. Depending on your soils and how you operate and so forth, for some people, that's a no-brainer. There's research that shows that it's going to pay off big time.
Brian Watkins: (08:31)
Circling back, what you wanted to do and what you felt you needed to do now, you have actually, your intuition was right. The intuition that says, "I can't spend the money," is at war with the intuition that says, "I need this." A lot of times we see that the numbers are on the side of what you want to do. You don't just want to assume that anytime you track costs, the answer is going to be, "Oh, no, you've got to run old stuff and blah, blah, blah," because that's not the case.
Morgan Seger: (09:03)
Right. No, that makes a lot of sense. You have, I guess, a testimonial on your website that I thought was really good, because it was the same thing. You're always looking at costs per acre, at cost to, or of the additional cost of the equipment, but you don't always think of all of the downstream effects it could have on your operation. The thing that I loved that he said was, "So we did it with eyes wide open." You're taking some of the emotion out. You're just looking at the data. If a grower is coming to CropZilla for the first time, what types of data would they need to get started to where they can start opening their eyes up to these big decisions they're making.
Brian Watkins: (09:43)
Well, so our original product was a modeling product and it had a lot of input on the part of the user. That still works. We have people using it. It's a great tool, but what we have evolved to our current real strong offering is much more based on what is called telemetry. That is where we're either using the equipment manufacturer's device on the machine, or we're adding one where we just track the machine.
Brian Watkins: (10:10)
You basically set up an app in a few minutes. You make sure that we have a source of data. Then we're tracking the machine, basically, anytime the key is on. Instead of building a model with inputs, you just build it based upon what the machine is doing. If you've got a tractor, it's not just when it's in the field or not just when it's actually logging some application, but it's every minute that it's on, going up and down the road in the field, but just going from one part to anything that it's doing, right, and so one thing that does is it lets us see that, apply cost to that and make some recommendations just based on the way you're operating. Potentially, there's some things that operators can do to save some money just based on that data.
Brian Watkins: (10:54)
The second thing that it's doing is it's building a model, right? At the end of the year, if you put 600 hours on a tractor, we know what every one of those 600 hours was. We can say, "Okay, we're thinking about replacing this tractor." You plug it and you put a new one in and say, "If we had a new one, what would that cost or leased or whatever. That's how we support that decision." The example is a tractor, but combine, sprayers, implements like planters, all of those things, that's basically how it works is we track the use and we give good feedback on that. Then we also use that to help make the purchase decision.
Morgan Seger: (11:31)
Okay, and then what type of data are you using to, I guess, maybe model out or predict the income impact? For instance, if you were making a change that would lessen compaction, do you have a way to understand, like you said, understanding your soils and things like that to predict what that would do for the next crop?
Brian Watkins: (11:55)
Honestly, the income side is not directly a part of the CropZilla analysis, right? But the thing that we're doing is we're putting a number on the cost side. Again, instead of a $50,000 accessory that is a, say, automated down pressure or singulation or whatever, we put an operating cost on that, X dollars per acre. That way then on the income side, whether it pays or not, we've at least given you a straightforward target, right?
Morgan Seger: (12:24)
Brian Watkins: (12:25)
I mean, if you take your planting window from 10 days down to seven, and you say, "How many more bushels, if we can plant our corn in seven days instead of 10, can we get more bushels or plant our beans in seven days instead of 10, can we get more bushels?" We're not going to necessarily answer that question, but we framed it in a way that then you can go, you can look at your yield by planting date over the years, you can work with whoever your agronomic advisors are, you can see if you're leaving money on the table.
Brian Watkins: (12:56)
We have some templates for that kind of thing, but our whole thing is, the problem, at least in my view, in the past has been, "Okay, let's say I know that I can get three more bushels of corn if I can do a better job of getting more, because I'm leaving some on the table, because it's getting planted late or whatever." The cost of doing that has always been a seat of the pants thing. Okay, I'm going to buy ...
Morgan Seger: (13:20)
Brian Watkins: (13:20)
We're quantifying that. That's our niche in this whole thing.
Morgan Seger: (13:25)
Okay, and that makes a ton of sense, because there are so many variables going into a season you haven't even started yet to start estimating yield. That's why I was wondering how that works. That makes a lot of sense. The cost side you really can make that quantitative data, and then from there you just make your decision off of that. Okay, that makes sense.
Brian Watkins: (13:46)
Morgan Seger: (13:47)
At what point, if a grower is thinking about making a change in equipment, at what point should they start this process?
Brian Watkins: (13:55)
That's interesting. For 25 years, we have been told, just start getting the data and then there will be value, right?
Morgan Seger: (14:04)
Brian Watkins: (14:05)
I mean, when yield monitors came along, there was, I mean, there were obvious reasons why it was a good idea, but there was always this promise, "Well, just start measuring your yields and then we'll build some analysis." In our case, it's a different deal. As soon as you start tracking your equipment, even on a daily basis, we can tell you what it costs to run yesterday, we can look at the way it was operated. We can come up with some ...
Brian Watkins: (14:33)
One of the things we do is we break down the cost of an operation into its pieces and what drives costs. There's really two or three things. One is idle time. One is speed. Another one is the path that you take across a field, right? When you start putting dollars on those, we see in situations where there are multiple dollars per acre that are substandard because of these factors, right? You get immediate feed-, with our program, you get immediate feedback on that.
Brian Watkins: (15:05)
Not only are, yes, there is long-term value to this data, this equipment data, as we talked about the modeling and ultimately making decisions to replace it, but I think in our case, we're also giving you immediate payback from some of these other factors. Of course, I always say our number one value proposition is just making these costs visible. I mean, I felt like I was doing as good a job as anybody of financial management, but I did not know what my operating costs were per acre. That's part of what we're trying to provide. Again, it isn't something that takes a ton of input. I think we've got it to the point where you just enter in a few factors, and we can get you those results.
Morgan Seger: (15:50)
Yeah, and I can see collecting the data that way also negates some just inherent error we'd have from trying to enter it ourselves, when you're collecting it right from the machine.
Brian Watkins: (15:59)
Well, and I mean, there are farms that have a clipboard, and as soon as somebody gets in and turns it on, they write down the hours and then what they're doing. All we've done is just turned that into a passive data collection process so that nobody has to do that. If you're a farm that does that right now, we're doing that without the operator having to do anything. That's always been one of our key objectives as we design this, is that the people, there is no app, there is no input. The operator doesn't have to do anything but drive, but yet we're able to capture how that machine is being used all the time.
Morgan Seger: (16:35)
Nice, so is there any certain starting point for acreage or any certain type of grower, row crops or specialty crops or livestock that you think can get the most value out of this tool?
Brian Watkins: (16:46)
I think, well, I mean, I'm obviously going to say, I think anybody can get value out of it. I think as you look at a hierarchy, I mean, if you are a sole proprietor and sole operator, you're the manager or within your operation, you're the one that is in charge of equipment decisions, and you're the only person that drives any of your trucks or vehicle or tractors then maybe you don't need what we're doing, because it's just you. As soon as somebody else is getting into some of them, even if it's a family member or a partner, we can start to give value, right? Because there's just interesting things there.
Brian Watkins: (17:30)
One thing I haven't mentioned is that we also do this with all of the vehicles. Truck expenses on a farm, they're not a huge...they're not nearly as big as equipment, but they're also a black hole for knowledge. Having a tracker on your trucks and being able to look and see what it costs me to haul to Cargill, 30 miles away versus Bungie 40 miles away versus wherever. Being able to see that, get feedback on those costs right away can help make that decision as to, it's not just about the distance, it's also about how much time you spend in line. We're just constantly measuring that kind of thing.
Brian Watkins: (18:07)
Then of course, on the other hand, if you have employees and those operators need some feedback on how well they're doing, then there's that obvious piece to it. There's just these different points where you can make money at it. I think it can help a lot of people.
Morgan Seger: (18:22)
Yeah, yeah. I mean, and they, in theory, all have different types of data that you can be collecting and analyzing in different ways. Do you have any case studies or a story where someone used it and was able to really impact a decision they were making?
Brian Watkins: (18:39)
Oh yeah. I mean, I can think of early on when one of our early customers was, I mean, they had two planters. They were pretty big planners, but they took a look at the numbers we were showing. It was like, "Oh my gosh, we're on the edge of planting capacity. We can spend money to go further. It's going to pay off right away." They did that. Actually, what they did was they bought two larger planters that were rebuilt type, which it's a pretty big thing right now, planters, right, is you buy a used planter, but it's completely reworked with all of the technology. They just needed us. They knew they needed to do that, but it was a big sticker price. They were a little worried about it. As soon as they saw our numbers, they did it. It was like the best thing they ever did, right?
Brian Watkins: (19:29)
We see that kind of decision over and over. Somebody is thinking, "Man, it's late and we're not done harvesting. I need to spend, I need..." It may be that they need more combine, but it also may be that they just need more grain storage and handling. We run the numbers. They were afraid of it, and then they just see, "Wow, I need to do this." They're happy.
Morgan Seger: (19:52)
Okay, so you guys look at storage capacity and decisions like that as well?
Brian Watkins: (19:57)
Harvest is a...it's a logistical chain, right?
Morgan Seger: (20:00)
Brian Watkins: (20:01)
Yes, so we try to put all those pieces together. Where's the bottleneck? I mean, that's operations management 101, is, right, you look at the whole thing and what's the bottleneck. In some cases, it's not the field work, it's the ability to handle the grain. Those often come with some big costs to add too. If you have people in the field who are sitting and waiting for one reason or another, all of a sudden increasing the handling capacity, you can show where you can, well, big paybacks just from that.
Morgan Seger: (20:36)
Yeah, one scenario that I think would be interesting to run has to do with row spacing. We've been getting a lot of questions and comments about row spacing. I know, maybe 10 years ago, a lot of people switched to 20s and some people switched to 15s. Now I have this conversation coming back, but then they're like, "But then it impacts every piece of equipment I have on the operation." Is CropZilla able to put all of those things into one place, so you understand the full impact?
Brian Watkins: (21:07)
Again, on the cost side, yes. I mean, if you're going to go from 30-inch rows to 20-inch rows, you need a new planter, you need a new corn head, maybe depending upon how you're going to apply nitrogen, a sidedress or whatever – you're going to have to make some changes. Again, on the cost side, we can nail that down. Again, not the sticker price, not the purchase price, but the annual cost, which is what really matters. Once we've determined that, then you know what your cost per acre is, then, like I said, you have to do your own analysis on the yield benefit, the income benefit, right? If you think 20-inch rows is worth X dollars an acre more revenue, we're going to be able to show you the X dollars per acre cost. At that point, the decision becomes a lot more straightforward.
Morgan Seger: (22:00)
One question that I like to ask is if you have one technology or idea outside of your own that you are most excited about?
Brian Watkins: (22:10)
Outside of our own offering?
Morgan Seger: (22:11)
Yeah, just anything out in the entire industry, whether it's precision ag or just mainstream technology that you are most excited about.
Brian Watkins: (22:20)
I know the one that I am banging on a lot of people about has to do with input inventory management. I see things starting to happen there, but where essentially via some sort of system of barcodes and connected devices and know exactly from the farm warehouse or from the input supplier to the farm to the field, what they are.
Brian Watkins: (22:49)
I think the best technology right now is trying to use as applied data from a monitor, but there's weaknesses there. I think we need to have an, part of this is scales. Scales are becoming more standard on implements that are application implements. They're becoming more standard even on tending implements, seed tenders and so forth. I think that we're not very far away from having systems that are connected via the internet, and basically each time a product is dropped off from input to farm to field that we can track it and know where it went and know what it was. I mean, that's just a big need, so I'm excited about that happening at some point.
Morgan Seger: (23:34)
Yeah, I actually...that's one that I haven't had anyone else bring up before. On your ...
Brian Watkins: (23:41)
It probably shows you my anal mentality. I'm like the financial. I mean, I have this financial approach, right? I'm trying to know exactly what our costs are. I'm trying to nail it down to crop to field and these kinds of things. I'm also, you get bills, and I want to make sure we're paying the bills correctly. That's my mentality. I know I'm not, I mean, I know there are a lot of other folks that feel that way, but yeah, it's important to me anyway.
Morgan Seger: (24:09)
Yeah, no. I'm glad that you're fighting for it. For those of us who like to dream about robots and satellite imagery and stuff like that, we need the other side of it to make sure that it all works on the farm and is actually worth doing at the end of the day too, so I appreciate that. Well, if anyone is interested in learning more about CropZilla and the work you are doing, where would you suggest they go?
Brian Watkins: (24:33)
Well, I mean, number one is go to our website, CropZilla.com. As you said, there are a couple of video testimonials on there. There's some information. There's a form, obviously, you can fill out that, we can respond to and set up a demo or something like that, or a conversation. That's the way to go. That's the way to get to us.
Morgan Seger: (24:52)
Sure. Okay, one more side question. How did you come up with the name CropZilla?
Brian Watkins: (24:58)
Well, that actually came, one of my co-founders was in the software business. He just was determined that, that something along those lines of what we needed. I mean, it's worked out. People remember it.
Morgan Seger: (25:10)
Yeah, it's fun. I love it, actually. All right, great. Well, we will link out to CropZilla.com in the show notes. I appreciate you taking time to share that information with us.
Brian Watkins: (25:21)
Hey, you're welcome. Very good.
Morgan Seger: (25:25)
Yep. Thanks. Have a good one.
Brian Watkins: (25:25)
Okay, uh-huh. Yep, you too.
Morgan Seger: (25:26)
Thanks for tuning into another episode of Precision Points. Like I said earlier, we really thought this would be a great way to round out the year before we enter into tax season. If you have any questions about a purchase that you've been thinking about making, I encourage you to reach out to CropZilla and see if you can run some scenarios and see how it would work out for you. Don't forget to go to precisionagreviews.com to check out our grower sourced reviews. We hope you have a great Christmas and happy New Year. Thank you for tuning in to Precision Points.
Thanks for tuning in to today's episode. To hear more podcasts like this, please rate, review and subscribe to Precision Points. Visit precisionagreviews.com for show notes from this episode and read expert advice on the blog, share your experience with the Precision Ag products you use and check out our network of farmer reviews. Let's grow together.
Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail, specifically in ag tech, before coming to PrecisionAgReviews.com to host Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio, with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog called Heart and Soil where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Brian Watkins
Brian is a family farm partner and entrepreneur, creating and growing businesses and cooperative alliances in the agriculture industry. CEO of CropZilla, he focuses on using machine telemetry data to make machinery costs easily visible, helping operators improve performance and quantify return on investment for equipment purchase decisions.