Google Frogmore Plantation in Concordia Parish, La., and you will learn it is a “historic, privately owned cotton plantation” that provides visitors with a look at how cotton was grown, harvested, and ginned in the 1800s.
Look it up again in the not-too-distant future and there may be another listing that Frogmore and its modern Tanner and Company Gin component played a role in the development of RFID technology for harvesting, storing and ginning cotton.
How do you keep one foot in the past and another pointed toward the advancement of technologies such as RFID or Radio Frequency ID? It’s an interesting story; one with several serendipitous occurrences involving Don Branton, general manager of operations at Tanner Gin, and other members of the cotton industry.
Branton is the son of Buddy and Lynette Tanner (mother), owners of Frogmore Plantation, and Tanner Gin, and Wayne Branton of Concordia Cotton Warehouse. His “day job” is working as an information technology manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana. That has included helping Blue Cross of Louisiana keep up with thousands of paper records it has to maintain for its insured.
He’s also been helping his family at Tanner and Company Gin. That’s how he found himself attending one of the Cotton Incorporated producer orientation tours at CI’s Cary, N.C., headquarters last summer.
“They were giving a presentation on the potential uses of RFID technology, and I began asking questions because I understood some of the issues,” says Branton. “Then Dr. Ed Barnes (director of research at CI) suggested I might be a good contact for the researchers.”
Barnes put Branton in touch with John D. Wanjura, USDA Agricultural Research Service engineer who has been working on field applications for the RFID tags that are embedded in the plastic wrapping used on each round module produced by John Deere module-building pickers.
“Deere first installed the scanners that read RFID tags on 7760 pickers in 2006 or 2007,” says Wanjura, who works at the Cotton Production and Processing Research Unit at the USDA/ARS Cotton Ginning Laboratory at Lubbock, Texas. “Then they put them on the CS/CP690 on-board module harvester, and they were added to the strippers in 2014.”
The RFID tags are passive tags that receive their power from the reading antenna, whose electromagnetic wave induces a current in the RFID tag. The tags can hold up to 2,000 kilobytes of data, including a unique identifier serial number.
“Initially, the RFID tags provided information about the number and size of the round modules being produced by the individual pickers,” says Wanjura. “The information is uploaded to Deere’s Harvest ID or HID on the MyJohnDeere website and stored in the cloud.” The scanners on the pickers also record the GPS coordinates for the modules as they are dropped in the field and send the location to MyJohnDeere.com. The positioning information can be used to help gins keep track of the modules.
Four years ago, Wanjura and researchers at the Lubbock USDA-ARS Ginning Laboratory began working to develop a system that could help growers and ginners make use of the RFID technology.
“The first thing we had to do was develop a set of tools that could be used to manage the modules from the field to the gin,” he says. “That meant making it possible for the different components of the system to talk to each other. We worked with a couple of gins in the Lubbock area initially.”
The Tanner and Company Gin provided the first full-scale test of the technology, connecting a local grower, one of the gin’s module trucks, and the gin’s software for keeping track of the cotton flowing through the gin.
Frogmore, La., is 700 miles from Lubbock so the USDA-ARS Ginning Laboratory researchers couldn’t just set up shop there. They made three trips in the summer and fall to install equipment and make sure it was working properly, the last being in October.
“Don Branton was a great cooperator because he understood the data flow within the system,” says Wanjura. “He could also help trouble-shoot problems because he knew how the software worked. And we could also access the gin’s computers remotely and watch how things were going.”
For Branton that included getting into the field and helping drivers locate the modules on the “pick lists” generated by the gin, using the information provided by the MyJohnDeere website.
“Some of our drivers aren’t used to working with computers, so I went with them to use the laptop to locate the modules. Once we got them on the gin yard here at Tanner that wasn’t as much of a problem.”
PICKERS AND COSTS
The Tanner Gin module truck in the test was equipped with a ruggedized computer and an RFID reader with two antennas on the bed and a touch screen monitor. The truck operator receives a “pick list” from the gin office computer and records each module as it is loaded on to the truck. An indicator on the computer screen flashes red if the module isn’t on the pick list.
“In a perfect world, we would be able to use the scanner on every module that’s built, but as we all know, not everyone has the same kind of picker,” says Branton. “That’s one of the issues that needs to be addressed.”
Cost is another. “The biggest expense is the equipment on the truck. When you have six module trucks like we do at Tanner and Company, that’s an investment of about $30,000, which makes it more difficult to pay off.”
Wanjura and the USDA-ARS researchers are working on ways to economize, including installing a bridge with an RFID reader that could record each module as it enters the gin yard and again when they are fed into the gin.
“It might also be that you could equip one truck with the computer software, and that truck could lead others to the fields where you need to pick up modules,” Wanjura says. “There are 600 cotton gins in the U.S., and every one of them handles cotton differently. We need a system that recognizes and works with those differences.”
Researchers are also working on an app for a hand-held scanner on a grower’s Android and Apple phones that could reduce the need for putting a scanner in each module truck.
A BIG PLUS
Branton says the RFID technology could be a big plus for ginners and growers. “Now a farmer has to put a tag on each module and then provide a paper copy to the gin. The ginner must enter that information into a computer. Each step means more man hours and increases the margin for error.
“Once we show this system will work — and possibly adapt it for the other modules — it would make a big difference for ginners and growers.”
The RFID technology could also take precision agriculture a step farther for cotton producers.
“The end game is to provide a farmer with a quality crop,” says Branton. “Now, farmers can get an average that might apply to their whole farm. RFID could allow you to track a problem back not only to a single field, but also to a particular location in that field.”
Wanjura says the Frogmore location provided a good setting for this phase of the project. “They were a great group of people to work with,” he says, referring to the employees at Tanner and Company Gin. “And it was an interesting place to see.”
Branton wants to keep working with RFID and other improvements in the ginning process. “I tell people I have the best of both worlds. I’m working in IT for a company that’s helping people, and I’m working with growers to help improve their lives.”