MidWest Tour Day 4

John Deere Des Moines & Nichols Farm

By: Tyler Dietrich, Colin Jansen, Melinda Drummond, Allison Brown

Today the students on the 2018 OAC Midwest tour had the privilege to tour John Deere’s assembly factory in Des Moines, Iowa. John Deere is a world leader in manufacturing agricultural equipment including self-propelled sprayers and cotton pickers which we saw get assembled today. The theme of today was innovation and leadership, two characteristics that John Deere excels at. Throughout our tour of the assembly factory today we had the experience to see how John Deere is a leader in the agriculture industry through being an innovative company.

Tour of John Deere – Creating Innovative Agricultural Equipment

John Deere sign in front of Des Moines Works, Iowa
John Deere, Des Moines Works, Iowa

When we first arrived at the factory one of the first pieces of equipment we saw was a self-propelled sprayer from 1949. It was interesting to begin the tour by seeing an older piece of equipment because throughout the tour of their facilities we where able to see how John Deere has developed new technologies and has been innovative and developed products that better serve their customers needs and demands as time has progressed. It was interesting to compare the sprayer from 1949 to the sprayers that we saw getting manufactured today; John Deere has been a leader in equipment production because they have developed and used technologies such as GPS guidance systems for example to add value to their products and lead their industry in technological development. 

Another interesting learning experience for us today was seeing how John Deere has improved their cotton-picking machines to better serve their client base. Up until the past 10 years cotton pickers have always pulled cotton and pilled it in a large bin which did not compact it very much. John Deere decided that this system was impractical and developed a new cotton picker design which tightly packs the cotton into a tight bale. The industry has now almost exclusively moved to this form of harvest as it is much more efficient. This is another example of how John Deere has been a leader in their industry because of their innovation.

John Deere’s Des Moines factory was first built in 1941 by the American government to produce ammunition for World War II. The factory was built to survive possible war attacks and employed up to 20,000 people. After the war, the factory was put up for sale, and in 1947 it was purchased by John Deere. The first product rolled off the floor in 1948. This purchase has allowed John Deere to continue to be an innovative company and grow their production facilities to be a leader in agriculture. The Des Moines facilities has four assembly lines. The first assembly line produces grain drill boxes, and the second produces tillage frames. The main assembly lines however produce the two main products produced in Des Moines.

The first of these two lines produces cotton pickers. These are produced in a building that covers 16.5 acres and has over 3.5 miles of conveyor track. These machines run for approximately $950,000. These machines are so big that they need to be transported by two transport trucks to the consumers. John Deere showed innovation with the change of their cotton pickers from the basket style to the bale style. The bale style has many advantages. First, the basket style requires additional equipment costs that are not needed with the bale style. The basket style requires wagons for the cotton picker to empty into. This requires the cotton picker to stop and empty into the wagon, where the bale style allows the farmer to continue to harvest. The bale style allows a farmer to harvest 100 acres in one day where the basket style only allows a farmer to harvest 75 acres in a day. These advantages also have economical savings for the farmer. By not having to drive additional tractors on these wagons, the farmer is saving money by not having to burn fuel, repair equipment, and other equipment related costs. These advantages have allowed John Deere to gain 90% of the cotton picker machine market. While they dominate the market, a large portion of cotton is still picked by hand in countries such as China and India.

group on tram ready for tour
One group ready for their tour on
the tram.

These markets are ones that John Deere doesn’t believe they will access as these jobs are crucial to their economies. One cotton picker could replace up to 2,000 workers, so these machines could put many people out of work. The operational costs of these pickers are anotherdeterrent of these machines. There are 3,360 spindles on these machines and they need to be replaced every 1 to 1.5 years. To replace these, it costs $15,000. These costs need to be considered when purchasing a machine like this.

The second major production line produces sprayers. The sprayers are produced on a new assembly line. This assembly line is in a brand-new building which opened in 2014. This assembly line runs on machines that follow a magnetic trail throughout the building. This new building and technology have allowed John Deere to continue to be an innovative company. Another example of their new technology is their RFID Smart Wrenches. These wrenches won’t let the assembly line allow the frame to move along until every bolt is tightened to the exact torque needed. This helps John Deere with efficiencies as it allows for less human error. John Deere has also shown innovation with the introduction of their new carbon fibre booms. These booms weigh 1,800 lbs less than a traditional steel boom. This allows for the sprayer to be more efficient for the farmer. Now, the sprayers with these booms cost more than traditional sprayers, however as this technology becomes more common, the cost to produce these carbon fibre booms will fall and will allow these sprayers to cost the same or even less than traditional steel boom sprayers.  

Another part of the tour that was interesting was how they paint their sprayers. To help the paint fight against the chemicals coming out of the sprayers, they use powder paint, which is applied and then baked to stand up against these harsh chemicals. This new paint system shows how John Deere continues to be innovative in the industry.

Overall, we really enjoyed this tour and we thank John Deere for giving us this opportunity to tour their facilities. It was facinating to learn about the history of the factory and see how clean, organized and structured their plant operates.

Tour of Nichols Farms – Leaders in Beef Genetics

Nichols farm sign with US flag
Nichols Farm, Anita, Iowa

In the afternoon, we took advantage of a fantastic opportunity to tour Nichols Farms in Anita, Iowa. Nichols Farms is an idyllic and forward-thinking beef seed stock operation owned by Dave Nichols, and now managed by Ross Davies.

Dave is very proud of his parents’ humble beginnings, they started in Nebraska as dry land farmers, but took a chance and moved to Adair County where they purchased their acres at $30 a piece. Dave’s passion for progressing the beef industry was inspired by the lessons of his wise and well-respected father. His enthusiasm for innovation was also inspired by his father, who sold all his draft horses in the 1940s to purchase a tractor. Dave learned early on from his father the importance of hard work and his love for cows. However, he found that despite his enthusiasm for research and knowledge exchange that studying at the University of Iowa was not for him and left to farm, in partnership, with his father. After Dave’s father passed away, Dave and Ross became partners in the farm.

This farm was built on tenants of integrity and team work. There are fantastic dynamics between the farms managers, who each have a specialized role in the farm but support each other as needed.

Dave Nichols in a barn speaking to the class

Dave Nichols, of Nichols Farm
welcoming us by relaying lessons
he has learned.

All employees are encouraged to maintain their involvement in the beef industry through local cattlemen’s associations and community through volunteer work.

Nichols is known for their genetically superior bulls. They sell millions of dollars worth of seed stock from their farm per year. Their desire to improve the beef industry has resulted in performance testing and exciting advancements in genetics have allowed them to increase the value of their cattle. They have been very successful in selling bulls and semen, in as many as 20 different countries, but most of their customer base operates with 300 sq miles. 

Dave was on the fore front of research efforts and locating the marker for the meat tenderness gene in cattle. In their efforts to identify that gene, they slaughtered 50000 steers over a 4-year period and evaluate the meat quality, analyzed the genome of each animal to locate the tenderness gene. Because of this research and partnerships with universities, now a sample of hair, saliva, blood or tissue can be used to identify the tenderness of an animal.

top: cows on pasture, bottom superior genetics bull

Top: Nichols’ cow calf pairs on pasture.
Bottom: One of Nichols’ superior genetics bull.


Nichols farms recognizes that antibiotic resistance is an issue. They are consistently recording any illnesses in the herd and any animals that have been treated. They are hoping to be able to use this data to select for animals that can positively combat illness or don’t get sick altogether. Selecting for resistance to disease is a challenge because viruses and bacteria are constantly changing and adapting.

In addition to their genetics, there are six different breeding herds, the three purebred herds, Angus, Simmental, and South Devonshire and three composite combinations. South Devonshire cattle is the newest breed to the farm, it was introduced in 2001 to add more maternal traits to the offspring. The goal is to achieve heterosis for higher performing animals, especially for qualities such as milk production and quality, high feed efficiency, fertility, longevity, marbling and always the black hide (for better premiums). Overall, the breeding programs have been so successful that 86% of all registered Simmental have Nichols’ genes in their pedigree.

Additionally impressive is the Nichols’ philosophy on ‘raising all you can and feeding all you raise.’ They do not have custom operations working the land, or truck in their feed but put the time into growing what they need and optimizing it for their herd. This year’s break down was 1300 acres of corn, 400 acres of soybeans, and 400 acres of hay producing 2500 - 3000 bales. Most of the year (May-December) the 1300 cow-calf pairs are on pasture, with creep feed for the calves and a willingness to winter-graze if they have enough stock piles for forage in pasture.

The innovative spirit of Nichols extends to the field crops/feed production quantity and quality. Recent technologies include a switch to alpha amylase corn, which is expected to improve feed efficiency by 5% and moisture protective fibre wrap for their hay bales that reduces moisture by 2%, increases protein 2% and results in 15% less spoilage!

Overall, our day was a continual demonstration of how being open to innovation and willing to lead the charge can result in fantastic products and global acknowledgement of quality, integrity and value.tour group in front of Nichols Farms building and mixer truck