Doug Schroeder

Doug Schroeder, a central Illinois farmer and chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association, is optimistic that supply chain disruptions won’t impact the 2020 harvest season in a major way, based on how well things went during planting despite challenges of the pandemic.

Central Illinois farmer Doug Schroeder doesn’t expect to have any problems getting the parts and services he needs this fall for harvest. He bases that assumption on how well things worked for crop farmers during planting season, in spite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Service was exceptional this spring,” said the seed corn and soybean farmer from near Mahomet in east central Illinois.

As the chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association, he spoke with other commodity leaders and is well aware of the challenges other aspects of agriculture had with their supply chains during the pandemic.

“In livestock it was really heart-breaking,” Schroeder said.

Still, the Champaign County farmer said planting season went well.

“People we needed were still there,” he said.

He is counting on that being the case for this fall as well.

Aware of challenges

“We are well aware of what could happen,” Schroeder said, referencing the impact supply chain disruptions had on meat processing, livestock producers, ethanol plants, corn growers and restaurant food suppliers.

Part of the reason Schroeder can have confidence in equipment supply and service is that manufacturers and dealers have a strong foundation for their fall plans.

“We’re doing all we can to build the machines customers need to keep their businesses running. Our trucks are hauling the parts dealers need to provide maximum up time,” said Laurel Caes, John Deere public relations manager.

“All the U.S. John Deere production facilities are currently operating except for those impacted by inventory adjustment shutdowns,” she said on Aug. 3.

Manufacturing companies are really dialed into their supply chains. Due to Deere’s global presence, they were aware of potential disruptions in supply when the virus was still China-based, said Curt Blades, senior vice president of Agricultural Services for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM).

His organization talked to politicians early to ensure that equipment manufacturing was considered an essential service and could proceed. Iowa and the Midwest have a very short planting window and farmers needed to have supplies to do their job, said Blades, speaking from Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 13.

“I’m pretty proud of what our industry did,” said Blades, who grew up on a 5,000-acre farm in northeast Missouri.

Dealers and manufacturers worked closely to prevent major disruptions, he said. Blades is responsible for the strategic direction of agriculture programs and services for AEM members, and works with related organizations in North America and worldwide.

He said technology has helped keep things moving. It helps focus on the “up time” for farmers. That may include pre-planning and doing diagnostics of equipment to be prepared before the season starts. Some technology options were there before, but people just didn’t use them as much as this year. Blades expects new reliance on these options to continue this fall.

Caes agreed that technology is helping farmers stay in the field. The John Deere Connected Support helps remotely monitor and proactively fix issues and provides information if a trained technician needs to be sent to the field, she said.

People part of supply chain

Manufacturers were in a reaction mode in March as everything happened so quickly. They took actions to keep plants open and supply moving. Lessons learned then have changed how some businesses work now, he said.

For example, in February, a California manufacturer, who was in close contact with China early on, divided his factory into zones so if there is a COVID-19 case in one part of the factory, it could be isolated to that zone, causing minimal disruption to the rest of the operation.

Manufacturers continue to adjust their protocols. Some use wristbands to monitor social distancing and others use color-coded wristbands with green showing a person has been successfully screened that day. Those screenings help find someone with a temperature who may be COVID-19 asymptomatic. They have also discovered employees sick with other issues that can be addressed, he said.

Still, even with new protocols, outbreaks are possible in factories. Some plants could still have slowdowns if new cases of COVID-19 arise, he said.

“People are part of the supply chain. They must be healthy and able to work for everything to keep moving along,” Blades said.

Action early and onward

As soon as there was an inkling this virus could be a threat, equipment manufacturers prioritized the needs of farmers for planting.

“We dropped everything else to position them first,” said Greg Toorman, vice president of global materials, logistics and demand planning for AGCO.

AGCO, a global supplier of ag solutions with brands including Massey-Ferguson, GSI, Precision Planting and Fendt, picked up on the threat of the novel coronavirus in early December. Before most people had heard the term “COVID-19”, they addressed getting inventory early from suppliers in China and closely monitored the situation. They knew when and what to expect from the Chinese supply network.

By Feb. 10, when workers started going back to manufacturing in China, the company dispatched personal protection equipment so employees could work safely.

As the virus moved towards Japan and Korea, AGCO was using a risk management program that confirmed COVID cases according to populations. This allowed them to focus on getting components they needed from the suppliers in the countries soon to be fighting the virus before the slowdowns struck.They were able to pull items two or three weeks early from suppliers to keep the supply chain moving so farmers would have what they needed in the spring.

They used the same risk management program to get supplies needed from Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden.

“We were able to stay weeks ahead,” he said.

There are examples of such positive actions with equipment manufacturers across the board, Blades said.

The logistics operation worked with “surgical precision” dialing it down to the postal code where to respond, said Toorman, who has worked for the company for 17 years. He said his earlier experience in parts helped him in the overall planning needed from start to finish.

As harvest approaches, Toorman and his team will employ the same strategy to stay ahead of possible kinks in supply to get the product to the customer.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.