S6:E3 Rethinking Soil Sampling with Robotics

Apr 05, 2023

Show Notes

For many farms, the first step into precision ag begins with soil sampling. A practice widely used for decades, soil sampling provides valuable information to farms allowing growers to make the most agronomically correct fertility decisions. Rogo Ag, a robotic soil sampling company out of Indiana is rethinking the way we soil sample. 

Rogo uses operator manned robots to complete all soil sampling. The machine runs itself, but operators bag the soil and ensure safety in case of issues like obstructions in the field within the field boundary. Once the soil samples are pulled, growers get a notification stating that their fields are complete. From there, the sample is delivered to  a lab and the lab results are loaded directly into Ceres Solutions precision ag software. 

One advantage of using robots to sample is the accuracy. For Ceres, Rogo pulls 8 soil cores at 8 inches deep at every point along the 2.5 acre grid. Each location and depth is accurately measured and recorded. Compared to a hand probe, Rogo sees a decrease in error and a decrease in fertility spend swings. 

“You can’t afford to miss by not having enough fertilizer down. You can’t afford to leave money on the table. And then there’s the price of fertilizer, which as we

all know is extremely high,” started Stephen Roswarski, VP of Sales and Marketing from Rogo Ag. “You can’t afford to put down too much. So you combine those three things, it ties into, all right, well then how much does accuracy help?”

The other advantage that Rogo solves for Ceres is reliable labor. Ceres sends Rogo acres to complete and they are reliably sampled within a 5 day window. What otherwise would have been completed by part-time labor, is now completed by the robots and operators at Rogo, improving turnaround and consistency for Ceres customers. 

“We pride ourselves on accuracy and quality soil samples… we started four years ago with Rogo because we were having staffing issues,” shared Matt Clark, Digital Technology Manager with Ceres Solutions. “We are going to an outside company to pull soil samples, but we know we are getting a quality sample every time.

And we know we’re getting that accurate depth."

Rogo ag is rethinking soil sampling and improving accuracy and consistency for Ceres Solutions. To learn more about Rogo, visit their website or check out their YouTube channel. Listen to the full conversation about how Rogo works and the problem they solve for Ceres.


Morgan Seger (00:03):
Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is field points and original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Welcome back to Field Points. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. I'm excited to welcome you to the third episode of our sixth series, and this series is focused on technology in agronomy. Now, one technology that a lot of growers started with was soil sampling and understanding what's in your soil. And for a long time, those management practices didn't really change all that much. Today I'm excited to introduce you to Stephen from Rogo Egg based out of Indiana. Rogo is a company that uses robotics to improve soil sampling. And throughout this conversation, I'll be joined again by Matt Clark, the digital technology manager with Ceres Solutions, and he shares the problem that Roo was able to solve. for Ceres. Now let's meet our guest for today's episode, Stephen from Rogo ag.
Stephen Roswarski (01:06):
So my background, my name's Stephen Roswarski, and I'm the vice president of sales and marketing for Rogo Ag. My personal background, I have, I've been in agriculture for probably close to 20 years and it was accidental. I did not grow up on a farm. I knew nothing about farming. Actually worked for a printing company in Lafayette for years, Lafayette Printing, and was just responsible for going out and getting my own work and found out that there's all these seed companies out there that they need to do catalogs and do a lot of printing. And my late wife actually worked for a company that it was more of a technology company and they worked with schools and they basically took data from schools, all of their events and everything, and then they merged them in a software platform to do planners. So the planners that you have and football against, so-and-so on whatever night.
And I thought, wow, we should do this for these seed companies because they have all this data on their seats and bar graphs and bullet points. I'm like, there we have got to be able to create something. So I went to the owners of my company who they were like dads to me, and I said, Hey, I've got this. I think there's an idea here. And they were very supportive and they were like, Hey, that's something you know, should pursue, can't, we're not at that point in our life. And I did. It became a business, became a very successful business. I ran that business for 12 years, sold that, sold my interest in that in 2016, and then actually worked for a startup in Ag Tech for a year called Spina Technologies, and they did some great things, really appreciated the time with them, but they on the horizon was they were going to get purchased basically.
And so decided I better make a move. Went out of agriculture for four years and spent two of those years trying to get back into it. I mean, I just missed it. The agriculture industry is incredible. There is a level of humility and realness with people. Auth, authenticity is a good way to put it in honesty. And everybody knows that they can't control the weather and they know who does, and that makes it really a great place to be. So I pursued, pursued Troy for about eight months and basically I had looked at a bunch of companies that were out there in the ag space, a bunch of up and coming companies. And as you know, I mean not all companies that start out make it. Not all companies that are startups are out there trying to solve real problems. They're trying to convince people that there is a problem and then charge you a bunch to solve it.
I saw something in Rogo and not only in what they were solving, which is a real issue of soil sampling, accuracy and fertilizer placement, but I saw the leadership there and I really admired Drew and Troy and Troy's family, and so I made the effort and said, this is where I want to be. I think you guys are at a point to where you need some senior leadership. I'm the old guy and I really came, their concept was we need that maturity. We need someone who's been through it before, built companies before. And that was two years ago and it's been an incredible ride and one that's, I mean, we're shooting straight up at this point, so it's been this past year, we've more than doubled our fleet. We've moved to a new building that's about a 20,000 square foot building. We're adding a bunch of staff and we're stretching out across, I mean, we're across 15 states and now we've all the way out into Nebraska and beyond. So it's exciting.
Morgan Seger (04:37):
Like Stephen mentioned, Rogo is a company that was created to solve a problem. Next we're going to talk about what Rogo is and the problem that they solve for Siri solutions.
Stephen Roswarski (04:47):
So Rogo is a robotic soil sampling company. We're the only robotic soil sampling company out. There are many different methods of sampling. It's come a long way. And since they didn't soil sample forever, I mean it's only been around for what, 50 years or so? Yeah, people started out with hand probes and those same hand probes are still out there today. So we came about, I want to say about in 2018 was probably their first commercial type season where they started doing some significant acres, but born on a farm, born out of a bad experience with soil sampling. Troy, who's our founder, and Drew, who's our ceo, both went to Purdue. Troy had an engineering background. I think Drew did too. So they basically said, I'm going to build this machine. Either I'm going to stop soil sampling altogether was well one option or I'm going to build a machine that hits it every single time.
So Rogo, everybody ask this, what does rogo mean? I believe Rogo in Latin means to learn or to know. That's really what we wanted is to know the truth. We're always shooting for absolute truth. And so we created the first robots years ago. There's been about nine iterations of this robot started on a Bobcat skid steer chassis, which was unmanned. So it basically just went out into the field and it went on its own and bagged everything. And it had some good qualities to it, but then we looked at it over time, we're like, eh, it's too slow. It tips over. And so those are heavy. They're really heavy. And so switching in between fields, it just took a long time. Matt and his team have found this out about us over time is that we're always looking to improve. Even when we think we've got it dialed in, we're going to dial it in more.
So we went to a Kubota side by side mounted robot super light, and it basically has just revolutionized the way sampling's done. I can get into that now if you want me to. Yeah, that'd be great. So how it works is this thing drives itself. Now, yes, there is a driver in it, but they don't drive. It actually achieves locational accuracy on its own within a dinner plate every single time. So within 12 inches, give or take, it's going to hit that exact same spot every single time year over year. Then it's all about depth control. If you look at competitive ways out there to sample hand sampling, there are hydraulic machines that sample, there's auger machines, that sample. We've tested all of those and we've been tested by multiple people, and we can get into that too to our validity and everything else. But basically when you're running, when you have anything mounted to a machine, typically the depth that you hit is going to be determined by the suspension on that machine.
So if that probe or that auger, whatever you have on the end of that, has trouble getting into the ground, it's going to push that machine up and then you're not going to achieve that depth. Well, our machines work entirely differently. So we actually have a pressure plate that comes down with 3000 pounds of pressure, and then we have a probe that we've designed. Troy actually designed this probe and we created it. We make it in our own shop on our own CNC machine. It's amazing. And that goes through the middle of that plate, so it's always referencing from the bottom of that plate. So our variation in depth is plus or minus three millimeters. So it is one eighth of an inch, and it's every single time, and we've tested it, as you can imagine, multiple thousands of times. We've had third party people test us, had a lot of people look at us and say, just how different are you now?
We've gotten to the point after the study that the Becks Practical Farm Research Group did on us years ago and then other studies that we had done this summer on all the different methods that we know that it's not only a significant, it's not only a difference, it's a significant difference to the tune of 300% more accurate on soil collection. So when people start looking at that and equating that Ceres is done a great job of telling their growers, how does that equate into roi? It's not only an immediate, but it's a significant bump to their roi. So we have several patents, but we also have several patents pending. So yes, they're protecting these things very, very well. We've passed the 1.5 million acre mark. We've pulled over 4 million accurate cores. 15 states, like I said was kind of our number before, but now that we've stretched out, it's probably more like 18, 19, 20 states.
We did 430,000 acres last fall, and that was with 24 robots. I, I didn't even think we had all 24 up. We're going to keep building robots, so we'll have more this year. I anticipate in the fall the ability to do anywhere from six 50 to seven 50, and I expect us to sell out. We work on a reservation system with Matt. I'll call all my returning customers first. I'll be like, all right guys, let's get in your reservations because we do have a capacity. I mean, there's a limitation to how much even a great robot can do in one day.
Morgan Seger (09:34):
Like Stephen mentioned, these rigs are self-driven. However, there is a driver inside. So next he walks us through what that person is doing.
Stephen Roswarski (09:43):
They're bagging soil as these things are driving themselves. So this is the first part. We get a map from their team. So we get a map and it's got points in it. That robot, as soon as that robot pulls into that field boundary, it knows what to do. The operator doesn't push any buttons to say what depth to go or what path to go through. It's all pre-programmed. And in a lot of the situations, we have an API built with our customers that we're g gathering their data without anybody inputting anything. So we're trying to take out all of the human error. So they pull in there and that robot. Then once they flip it to auto and they hit the button, it will drive out to its first set of points. So if it's a grid, it's going to drive to the grid, it's going to go in a 45 degree angle across the grid and whatever the customer says to do, that's what it will do.
In this case, it's eight inch cores at an eight cores per grid section. So the machine goes along and it takes each of those eight cores, and after the eighth core, the bucket comes up full of dirt, and that's when our operator will take one of our bags that the labs love our bags. They're all QR coded. So they'll hit the QR code reader, put it under the funnel bag, the soil, wrap it up, have us a box sitting next to them in the cab. They put it in the box, go to the next one. They get, the end of the field box is full in the mission. They hit the end mission button. At that point, the customer gets an email within a minute, first of all, that says that field's done, which is amazing because they're like, Hey, we got to get out and rip this field or spray it or whatever we're going to do.
And then we hit, we have an in cab printer. So then it prints out a manifest for whatever lab we go to, which by the way, we're lab agnostic. We go to whatever lab our customer tells us to, and so that manifest prints out, they put it in the box, they tape up the box, and then at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the next, they drop off all these boxes at the drop off point, whether that be at a customer's office because some customers like us to drop 'em off there, or we run 'em to the FedEx shipping facility and they ship 'em off. There's another reason that they're in there too, because not all maps are accurate. And I'm sure anybody listening to this would get a chuckle out of that. There are unmarked waterways, there are tile risers, there are sink holes.
They have the ability to drive if they need to. So there's an emergency in there. They just hit the emergency stop, they'll drive around whatever it is. The other things that's great too is that sometimes there's water in the field, there's mud holes, and maybe there's a point that our customer says that we're supposed to sample and it's in the middle of a mud hole. Obviously you don't want us to sample mud, obviously, we don't want to sample mud and get stuck. So we actually moved that point for the customer, and then our software or whatever software they're using actually records that move. So that goes back into their creation software so they know, Hey, we moved that point and here's what the rec looks like now. So yeah, have to be able to drive just in case.
Matt Clark (12:28):
I know Stephen likes to talk about the accuracy of the technology, and be honest, that was not our initial attraction, to be frank. So it was more the workforce thing. So to kind of take a step back from Siri standpoint, we've traditionally sampled everything. So we had our own employees, we had our own equipment. We would go pull soil samples. And the reason for that is years and years ago, like 20 plus years ago, we did contract with an outside company to soil sample and got really poor results as kids running around on four-wheelers stabbing the ground with ham probes. So we pride ourselves on accuracy and quality soil samples. So we brought that all in house. And then over, I guess we started four years ago with Rogo, right? So we were having staffing issues. We, in the fall, we've got a certain percentage that we can cover with full-time employees that we share labor with different branches, but there was always a good chunk that we needed done by part-time labor in the fall.
And then in the spring it was a hundred percent covered by part-time labor, and that was getting, everybody's seeing it now, but we were seeing it in soil sampling four years ago where we couldn't hire part-time employees. So Troy had actually been calling me asking, and then finally I decided to sit down and take the meeting, and it was like, well, this is actually a route we need to look at just because we're going to an outside company to pull soil samples, but we know we're getting a quality sample every time they've invested in the technology above and beat way above and beyond that we had ever done. And so we know we're getting that accurate depth. And then Stephen didn't even mention it yet, but traditionally when you look at a soil test map, you see the D point in the grid where you pull that soil sample, they actually record where every core is taken. So we have great data to prove that they're pulling the right amount of cores. We're getting the right sample collection process completed to be able to give results back to our growers. So the technology is how we got there, but it's really a workforce thing that kind of led us down the rogo.
Stephen Roswarski (14:24):
I'd like to speak to that too. So Matt brought up a good point. I covered the accuracy part. What I didn't really cover is the accountability part, and that's even bigger because we know that even if I went out there and did all of your samples by hand, and I looked at every single core and I measured every single core, and I came back and I was like, Matt, this is perfect. It's right on. He could still look at me and go prove it and wouldn't be able to. So our system, like our internal software tracks everything, every robot, every moment that it's out there. And I mean, not only does it track every single core location, it tracks every single core depth. And we're constantly looking at the metrics of how we can become more efficient. How long does it take someone to get on the trailer?
How long does it take to get off the trailer? How long did they stop at Starbucks? We have it all. We have all this day. It's a big brother thing. It's kind of nice. But the other thing that I want to talk about is labor, because as Matt said, that has been our in with a lot of people. It starts out with, Hey, we just don't have the people. And we kind of came into this perfect storm for our business right now because yes, there is a major labor issue across the board. There is no doubt, and that's not getting any better, but there's also the high commodity prices. So you can't afford to miss by not having enough fertilizer down. You can't afford to leave money on the table. And then there's the price of fertilizer, which as we all know is extremely high.
So you can't afford to put down too much. So you combine those three things, it ties into, all right, well then how much does accuracy help and how much, if we're more expensive, which again, I won't ever get into prices, I have no idea what they charge for our services. I just know typically in the nation where we serve, we're typically more expensive than anybody's going out there and doing it. But what a grower has to see in order to pay for that change to us is literally a 0.5% yield advantage once in four years on a field that is insanely low. And when people, and like I said, we don't typically sell to growers. We sell, our customers are the farm service providers, but when we're invited to talk to growers, and I hope there's a lot of growers listening, it gets their attention right away.
And they understand there's so many things that are out there new. How do we vet them all? You don't let people, Siri vet them for you. You let these guys who this is what they do every day, and they have vetted us, and many of the people out there have vetted us and they understand, yes, Mr. Grower, this is worth your time. This is worth your money, and you'll see it back immediately. So yeah, there is that labor issue. And that's again, that's again, got us in the door with a lot of people, but we're hopeful that people keep us and use us because of the accuracy and the accountability. But I will also tell you this is that if we didn't perform, it doesn't matter how accurate you are, if we didn't have a good customer experience, and if we didn't have an amazing operational team that we have, oh, my ops team, I love them.
They really do bend over backwards. And I mean, we work six days a week during the season. We don't work Sundays and we'll work 15 hour days. So they'll start at seven in the morning, they'll go to 10 at night. We don't have a problem getting people hired, unlike if there was someone that said, Hey, I really need a job. Oh, we want you to go out on a four wheeler and dig holes all day. That's not going to fly very well. So our operators get to sit in a climate controlled environment. They're not digging anything. They're not even hardly pushing any buttons. They're really just putting in their earphones and driving 'em, making sure that they're not running over any tile risers and bagging soil. And they do a great job and we take really good care of them and we monitor their quality. The big thing is that it's one thing to go out there and do the job. It's another thing to be held accountable internally to making sure that we have good quality samples, that the bags are full where they need to be, and they get to where they need to be on time. So we track all of that and they get incentivized for that. So that's what, if anybody's out there listening that's looking for a job, we'll hire, we hired for spring, we'll hire for summer and we'll hire for fall. Yeah.
Matt Clark (18:34):
Yeah. I think that kind of brought up another point that I didn't really hit on. I'm kind of glad we're having this conversation because we really, as sir, we don't promote rogo externally a whole lot. And it's not trying to hide you behind the shadows or anything like that, but it's really because we use it to our operational advantage for the most part. We don't upcharge for rogo sampling field versus our own fleet, and that's really for our operational benefits. So my team will have all those sampling requests come into us, and then we still have a few of our own full-time employees that sample for us in the fall, but then we use that as a logistics tool to be able to organize our stuff and then spin off to you what we can't cover with our own fleets. So it works out pretty well, I think for both of us in the end. So
Stephen Roswarski (19:17):
Yeah, I think that's a lot of our customers have that mentality of Let's give Roo all the hard stuff. Yeah, all the stuff that's far away and all of that's fine. We'll do it. And again, there's things that a machine can do and should do, and I always bring it back to auto steer. I love using this analogy because when auto steer came about, it took a bit for people to say, okay to this, I can still drive my own tractor and I can plant high populations and my rows are straight. And yes, they are, absolutely. But how much more money are you leaving on the table by not using auto steer, even though there was an investment in it, they finally have come around to, yes, this is the norm. That's really what Rogo wants to be for the industry. And if you know anything about auto steer, it's on red tractors, it's on green tractors, it's on Blue tractors, it's on yellow Tractor. I mean it, it's everywhere. And we exist for agriculture. We don't exist for Rogo. We don't exist for any one customer. We exist for the growers that are out there that really need to be diligent with what they're doing and how they're managing their land. And I know that Matt and his team, they have that mentality of We'll do whatever is best for the grower. And I think that's why we get along so well is we share that philosophy.
Morgan Seger (20:38):
The team at Rogo solved a big problem for series by providing consistent work. Next, Stephen walks us through some more details about how the operation team at Rogo works.
Stephen Roswarski (20:49):
Let's talk about operations because a lot of our customers have questions on, okay, so you're an Indiana company. How do you operate in an Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska. We were just in Georgia, we were in Alabama, hopefully going out to Idaho here soon. We hire operational teams from those areas. So it's not like we're deploying from only from Indiana and we're hiring people from Indiana. We will look at where we have acres that we need to be sampling. Ohio's notoriously been an amazing state for us. We love our customers over there. We do practically every single retailers and farm service provider over there. We hire a lot of people from Ohio. And so during the season, what we'll do is we'll strategically place our rigs. So when I say rigs, that's a truck, a trailer and a robot. And we'll strategically place those with our customers.
So our customers allow us, again, love this industry. They allow us to park our rigs on their ground, and then our operational team that lives in that area just comes to them, grabs their rig, and goes out and does the sampling, brings it back there. So we work three days a week, three day shifts. So we have teams of two basically. So one person will work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 15 hour days. If you do the math, that's 45 hours and three days full week's work. They get paid very, very well. The other person comes in, works the other three days. So they just switch. Some people will love the job. They work four days, five days, six days a week. Some of 'em would prefer to work all the time. Just hats off to our customers because not only do some of those customers also allow us to drop sample boxes that need to be shipped at their location.
And it doesn't even matter sometimes if it's for their competitors or not. They're just like, we're all just trying to get this job done for the grower, so drop 'em wherever they'll get taken care of. That's how operationally that we work. And so during the season, what machines deployed all over the place, that ensures our turnaround time. We have a five day turn window and we work. And that doesn't mean that everything takes five days. It means some of it's done day one, day two, day three, day 45, but we have five days from the time of field is marked ready to get out there and get it done. Yeah, I
Matt Clark (22:52):
Think being predictable is the best. That's really what everybody's looking for is consistency, predictability, when it comes to turn times.
Morgan Seger (22:58):
Rogo has done a great job rethinking a task that we have been doing for years. So I asked Stephen, what's next for soil sampling There?
Stephen Roswarski (23:07):
There's, there's still work to be done. The carbon market is an interesting discussion. And I asked Matt about that and I asked a lot of people, I want to get their take on what does that look like? There's a lot of startup carbon companies out there, and we've been contacted by most of them, and I love that they know that they have to have accuracy. They know that they have to have accountability. And I see that as a viable market, at least for now. If anybody comes to us and they says that they have a problem, we're going to try to find a way to solve it. And so right now for Rogo, there's still a lot of geography that we haven't covered. There's still quite a few companies that we don't work with that we'd love to work with. I thank Siri for that too.
I mean, they were the first, so that's why I'm here. We're constantly looking at how can we get better? How can we cut these turn times down? That's our kind of, you ask the next thing. And in soil sampling. Next thing, soil sampling is now that we have it dialed in to accuracy, what does the customer need next? Does they, do they need more speed? Yeah. Do they need deeper samples? Do they need carbon? Do they need, these are the things that we look at and we look at constantly and assess them. And we have great customers like Sir, that have come alongside and said, I'll invest in this with you and let's go after this together. And that's what they did when we started. And like I said, we wouldn't be here if they didn't. So
Morgan Seger (24:28):
Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Field Points, and thank you to my co-host Matt and our guest Stephen from Rogo Egg. If you're interested in learning more about what robotics soil sampling could do for you, go to rogo egg.com. Rogo also has a lot of great videos on YouTube if you're interested in learning more.

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