BY LAURIE KIEFABER
INDIANANAPOLIS — Troy Fiechter has done better than "build a better mousetrap." He's invented a whole new way to sample soil with the robotic Smartcore soil sampler.
The CEO of Rogo Ag LLC developed his automated soil sampler from a real need; "I had the idea on the (family) farm because we had misleading fertility data," Fiechter said. "As I looked at the process to acquire that data, I realized that it was a very broken system that had no available solutions. There are many soil sampling technologies, but none that actually solved the problem of more accurate and repeatable data."
After taking multiple soil samples with traditional methods, Fiechter consistently found that 30 percent of the lime was going to a different spot of the field than expected because of sampling inconsistencies. With nearly half of soil sampling done with a hand probe and another large portion done with assisted machinery, Fiechter knew other farmers had the same issues.
As a 2013 Purdue University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, Fiechter was able to build his first prototype in 2015. He started with a Bobcat, taking the boom and cab off and eventually adding a control panel, a patent-pending 900 rpm auger, a vacuum to clean the auger and other modifications. "After building the Smartcore (soil sampler), we were able to reduce that to only five percent of our lime going to a different spot of the field," he said.
Fiechter had been working full-time on the family farm — Fiechter Brothers Ag — but in August 2017 he shifted his efforts to perfecting the Smartcore technology. In fall of 2018 and spring 2019, he was able to run one Smartcore soil sampler to test machine designs on 37,000 acres.
This fall he was able to commercially sample soil on more than 100,000 acres with four Smartcore soil samplers. Rogo Ag LLC now employs 12 people full-time and three part-time.
While the company is up and running, Fiechter can also boast better numbers than traditional soil sampling methods. "(Using the Smartcore soil sampler) is twice as fast as a human can sample," he said.
Typically it costs $3 to $4 per acre for sampling. The Smartcore also uses GPS to improve accuracy and can collect samples 30 inches deep in frozen soil.
Beck's Hybrids recently completed an independent study to test the Smartcore's accuracy. "They learned that robotic soil sampling was 15 percent more accurate than traditional soil sampling," Fiechter said.
"On that study, the average cost per acre for MAP, potash and lime was $85 per acre per year. Based on how it was sampled, that cost fluctuated +/-$22 per acre. It only fluctuated +/-$9 per acre with the Smartcore and the robot was just as consistent and repeatable as the lab! That one $8 soil sample affects a $150 to $250 per acre decision because it is used over a two- to four-year period. It's crucial to get it right."
At the moment Fiechter works mainly with retailers, offering his soil sampling as a service because they have infrastructure and labs already in place. He knows more soil sampling machines are needed, but he's trying to find a balance between growth and current business.
"We needed to turn down a couple hundred thousand acres, which would require significantly more resources than what we were willing to risk this past summer," Fiechter said. "We are very thankful to have a problem like that because it gives us the reassurance that we are solving the right problem in the way that the industry wants it solved.
We plan to have enough engineering and operational knowledge to serve all the sales opportunities in 2020."
And as with any good product, Fiechter wants to continually improve it: "I enjoy nitty gritty innovation that really sets itself apart from competitors to solve very painful problems," he said. "... No one has operated autonomous ag vehicles at this scale before and we know why the problem is so difficult to solve. It's been quite exciting to take ag bots to a whole new level."
For more information, visit www.rogoag.com or call Fiechter at (260) 273-9645.
CUTLINE FOR ROGO 1 & 2: Troy Fiechter, CEO of Rogo Ag LLC, stands in front of his Smartcore soil sampler at the Ceres Solutions Knowledge Event in Mentone, Ind., in late August. (Photo by Laurie Kiefaber)
CUTLINE FOR ROGO 3: The Rogo Smartcore soil sampler in action taking soil samples at Schilli Farms (owned by Scott Bahler) in rural Remington, Ind. in early November. Visible at ground level are the hoses which vacuum clean the auger and transport the soil up to the collection bags. (Photo by Laurie Kiefaber)
CUTLINE FOR ROGO 4: A closer view of the 900-rpm auger on the Rogo Smartcore soil sampler at Schilli Farms (owned by Scott Bahler) in rural Remington, Ind., in early November. (Photo by Laurie Kiefaber)
CUTLINE FOR ROGO 5: A closer view of the one-pound soil collection bags on the Rogo Smartcore soil sampler at Schilli Farms (owned by Scott Bahler) in rural Remington, Ind. in early November. (Photo by Laurie Kiefaber)
CUTLINE FOR ROGO 6: Troy Fiechter, CEO of Rogo Ag LLC, stands in front of the control panel of his Rogo Smartcore soil sampler at Schilli Farms (owned by Scott Bahler) in rural Remington, Ind. in early November.
(Photo by Laurie Kiefaber)