Left to right. Back: Geoff, Chris Front: Michelle, Claire, Heidi, Tim, Fred
Over the years the Rethus family have been featured in several articles on machinery, technology adoption and farming practices such as No-Till, controlled traffic, and using summer crops to change soil profiles. Sitting down with Geoff (father), Luke and Tim (sons) Rethus, a greater portion of the picture became clear, on why they are leaders in innovation, and are one of those families who many are watching over the fence.
To provide background, the Rethus’ s operate a broadacre and export hay growing business in the Wimmera with land in Noradjuha, Horsham, and Vectis. Geoff’s father owned a grain and sheep property near Nhill prior to his decision to move to Noradjuha in 1948. Geoff’s brother recently retired from the farm, and was heavily involved in partnership with Geoff for 36 years. The Rethus operate a mixed fleet of equipment with technology a core priority within their purchasing decisions. With two S series John Deere harvesters, a 9RX Tractor, 1910 John Deere Air Cart fitted with tracks and a “liquid systems” unit towed by a custom built 80ft planter with Active Implement Guidance, Agrifac 160 feet boomspray operating through a GS4 Greenstar system with MTG for Data Sync, along with Krone hay equipment with others, all on 120” tramlines and multiples of 40’
Both Tim and Luke were engineers, Luke a Telecommunications Engineer and Tim a Chemical Engineer with careers spanning over 10 years+ in the corporate world, before deciding to come back to the farm in 2015.
When asked about the decision to come back to the farm. Luke and Tim said, although they were not raised by Geoff and Chris with the expectation of having too return to the farm, after 10 years+ in the corporate world with Telstra and SHELL, they each wanted to work in an area with fewer office politics, where they could make decisions that would have a wider impact, and where they had the ability to control the outcome. They also knew that they get along and can work together, both are excited about the agriculture and how data and technology will be used into the future, engaging the engineer within each of them.
Part of their wider contribution towards the broader agriculture sector is their involvement in industry groups. Geoff has been active across a range of boards, having been a founding member of WIMPAK Export Company and Board Member, a board member of VIC No-Till Farming Association, Grains Innovation Park Board Member and a member of Farm 500. Tim currently is a Director on the Birchip Cropping Group Board and Luke is on the Wimmera Machinery Field Days Committee, and a former member of the Vic No-Till Farming Association Board. Geoff is active on social media as an influencer on machinery, technology and broadacre farming practices.
The “Why” of the generational adoption
The three hold a similar belief system in the adoption of technology and a positivity towards increasing their gains through the land they have. Their buying pattern is different to most customers, in that they ask for all the options to be presented on the quote when purchasing machinery. They want to know all options that are available on the new machine so that they do not inadvertently miss out on a new feature or new technology.
The seeds of innovation were set by Alfred “Gordon” Rethus, Geoff’s father, Tim told a story that as a child he remembered when his grandfather would purchase a new car, he wanted every space in the dashboard of the car to have every button and feature available at the time, to that model. Gordon Rethus, Geoff’s father was also one of the first to purchase a self-propelled harvester when they were launched into the Australian market back around 1960.
Geoff spoke about their adoption of autosteer when it was first released. It was a benefit to their farm, and over the years the technology has only gotten better. He said most of the technology they have adopted is like this, in that each iteration released is continually improved. As regular users of Operations Center, Geoff says, it could improve further… and it is improving further with each update (Operations Center and Mobile Applications are continually evolving, with an update cycle of 60 days). All acknowledge that part of the technology cycle is that the customer must be brought along and trained in how to use it. Then, as people are learning to use it, the system is continually improving.
If you don’t continually adopt new technology as it is coming out, it could be very overwhelming if you then try to adopt multiple things at once. Tim and Geoff each said independent from each other that they see each advancement and new technology launch as the next step in John Deere’s path toward full automation. The features launched over time, are a way to prove each element towards automation, while bringing the customer along on the journey.
The philosophy behind using the technology
Tim and Luke both approach technology usage with their engineering background, as they understand the design process behind the tools. As Tim said, “the people designing these tools are experts, who all come together with a wide range of backgrounds to design solutions to farming problems using technology, sometimes they even re-evaluate the problems with their wider experience to address a multitude of limitations with one or two new designs.”
With this, the Rethus' “know the logic behind the tools and leave the tools to work the way they were designed to work, because you can understand the purpose but also the limitations. And, they will continually evolve to improve over time.”
John Deere have sent engineering teams, the global executive team and the CEO of John Deere Australia/New Zealand to visit the Rethus Farm. Luke was the only Australian farmer invited to the USA in 2018 to test drive and provide feedback on 400+ hp tractor prototypes. Luke says “they are listening, nothing was easily adaptable to controlled traffic a few years ago and now they are integrating it into the design. We are seeing the changes coming through that were discussed years ago.” As Tim said, “John Deere products are always well thought out, even if they take a year to two longer than other companies to release a new machine. The new 8RX is an example of this with its small chassis and 4 tracks, they did not copy anyone, they took a lot of different industry ideas and designed something new with a new interpretation of the tractor. It will be a tractor that can be used daily throughout the year on a range of applications. The team of John Deere engineers learn what the market needs, and then they design a solution.”
Machine Sync by John Deere
Prior to the 2019 harvest, Matt Burns, the Precision Ag Solutions Manager at Emmetts had discussed the option of using Machine Sync. With the offer of a trial, and the fact that the 9RX already had an Automation activation, utilised for Active Implement Guidance at seeding time, it was a simple hardware change and demo activation to get it operating on both harvesters and chaser bin for harvest 2019. With a simplified set-up on the Gen 4 Screens, Tim and Luke were very impressed with the performance “straight out of the box”. With 6 different chaser bin drivers, everyone involved said it made a huge impact on the working day.
Machine Sync enables GPS synchronisation of speed and steering between the harvester and tractor with chaser bin for unloading on the go in field. There is no need for the chaser bin driver to continually monitor and change the speed of the tractor, and the harvester driver does not need to spend 50% or more of his time, watching the auger to make sure it is going in the bin. The harvester driver can use machine sync to move the tractor either forward or back through “nudging” using a ↑ or down ↓ button to evenly fill the chaser. Tim mentioned that this feature alone allows them to use chaser bin drivers who are less skilled, because this technology removes the human error risk, and the financial loss of grain ending up on the ground. It also overcomes the human element of not being able to see into the sun, or striving for accuracy while in a cloud of dust.
The Rethus’ s have since decided to add Machine Synch too both harvesters and will never do harvester without it.
Another highlight of Machine Sync is in “In-Field Data Sharing” the ability to share AB lines and yield maps between the two harvesters. "You’ll notice a yield change in one machine, and then look at the other machines set up and change the set up on the other machine to reduce the losses.”
Operations Center by John Deere
Geoff said, "Operations Center is continually improving and with the syncing of the sprayer MTG, GeoSys satellite imagery and NDVI data now integrated into Operations Centre." It is only their spreader that they have left within their fleet to integrate into Operations Center.
Combine Advisor by John Deere
The Artificial Intelligence learning in the harvester is what excited Geoff when he watched the machine changing settings mid-afternoon of the 2018 harvest. At the beginning of the harvest day, he set up the sample and losses and showed the machine what parameters to use. With the cameras and monitors the machines would then play with the concaves or speed up the rotor or open the sieves to keep the sample consistent and reduce losses throughout the day. The machine changes sometimes surprised both Geoff and Luke, as it would speed up the rotor to reduce cracking, something they would not have done manually. They also like the ICAC where they could highlight a problem to the machine, and it would provide diagnostic suggestions.
Emmetts Support and John Deere’s Reliability
One of the reasons that the Rethus’ moved from a competitive brand to John Deere equipment in 2004 was resale and reliability, the other reason was the dealer support on offer. Geoff said “Emmetts support is key, if there is not a part in Melbourne at the John Deere ANZDC, Emmetts may pull a part off a used machine. Both Emmetts and John Deere are fair in the warranty and after warranty period in ensuring the machines keep going.” The relationship with the Precision Ag Team of Emmetts is a very collaborative one, with learnings continually being shared between the Rethus' and Emmetts.
Tim said that “John Deere is one of the only companies that continually improve and are in the top three of competitive machines across all of the different brands. Sometimes a company has a win with a new product, but then they leave it to languish, and after 3-4 years, it has been superseded by a different brands product. With John Deere, you just know they are continually striving towards ‘the next thing’ whether it be a new model release, and completely new design, or a new piece of technology.”
What are you excited about for the future?
Tim: “The Agriculture industry is constantly doing very cool things. Ag is becoming more professional and data driven like chemical referencing to paddocks. Extra automation will continue to solve problems with more telemetry on every part of a machine, even to every bearing. Imagine heat sensors and alerts on every bearing. I don’t know what automation will look like, but after using Machine Sync, it might just be me in a paddock at harvest, driving one header, and monitoring an autonomous second header and two chaser bin tractors, with no other drivers"
Geoff: "The technology we are just on the threshold of will be weather stations [and soil moisture monitoring]. We are getting more information using NDVI’s and satellite mapping to make our decisions. In the end we may be able to fine tune our outputs better through even more accurate variable rate technology."
In the past if we grew a 4 ton crop it was pretty good, now they are commonplace and we are chasing 5 and 6 ton crops. Maybe we will catch up to Europe and grow 8 ton crops consistently, the southern Victorian farmers are nearly achieving yield like this. Varieties are getting better. With the machines, they were just gearing and wheels, but now they are so advanced. There is still more we can learn about soils and fungi, humates, fulvic acid, and bugs through integrated pest management. I am always looking to learn more on this."
Luke:“Technology, my early memories of the farm are doing the yield monitors in the early 90’s. Seeing how far this technology has come in this period of my life is exciting. Planting is what I am excited about, getting the technology so you can know exactly where each seed is planted. It is being worked on in the USA with corn planting, hopefully it will be adaptable to grains.
I want to see how we can do more with the same amount of land. This year showed that with very low rainfall we had good yield and good water use efficiencies. We will do more with less in the future. Efficacy, with precision spraying we will use less chemicals, and it will cost less to control weeds.”
The Rethus Team.
Finally, we wrap up with the knowledge that on a family farm, family is the centre of it. Chris and Geoff, Michelle and Tim and Charlene and Luke, and now Claire, Heidi, Fred, and Lucy. Chris and Geoff also have Justin and Jacinda, who work off farm. Thank you for sharing your story.
Pictured: Luke, Charlene, Lucy