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2016 Innovation Showcase Winners: Smart Core and Hitch-N-Spear

Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

For Troy Fiechter and Dale Bowne, investing the hard work required to take a seed of an idea to the next level is worth the effort. Yet, getting an idea from the drawing board to the marketplace can be daunting. 

Bridging that gap is the foundation on which Successful Farming magazine’s Innovation Showcase Contest was built. Launched in 2014, the goal of the contest is to help innovators take their ideas to a larger audience. 

Chosen from nearly 50 entries, Fiechter’s autonomous soil sampler and Bowne’s folding bale spear were selected as the 2016 winners. The men will each receive a cash prize of $3,000, booth space at the 2017 Commodity Classic, and a one-day consultation with Thunder Creek Equipment. 

“The contest allows inventors to better understand the entire process from conception to market and to receive mentoring that gives them a chance for success,” says Ralph Lagergren, Rimfire Management LLC, and a judge for the 2015 and 2016 contests. 

“Winning the contest can get an inventor in front of potential customers or introduced to a company that can use its vast resources to help take that idea to market,” he says.

“As an entrepreneur, it can be really overwhelming, because you have a million questions you don’t know the answers to,” says Luke Van Wyk, Thunder Creek Equipment. “We want to be not only mentors for Troy and Dale but also peers who can help them take a cool innovation to market so others can benefit from it.”

smart core

Soil testing measures the soil’s nutrient-holding capacity and provides a basis for sound land-management decisions. But improperly collecting soil samples is the weak link in the soil-testing process and in fertility management, believes Fiechter.

“Results based on an incorrect soil core can be more financially detrimental than obtaining no soil core at all,” explains the Indiana farmer and Purdue University graduate. “Even with today’s automatic soil samplers, there are still inconsistencies with the actual cores being drawn out of the soil, because there is the potential to leave a portion of soil behind. They can also be partially plugged without being corrected soon enough.”

It all comes back to human error, he says. “Human error is introduced at sample removal depth and location variance. I say sample removal depth rather than sample depth, because even though some people claim their machines are getting great accuracy with a probe, they are still not ensuring all of that soil is being pulled OUT of the ground.”

By creating a machine equipped with a soil auger, Fiechter believes he is ensuring the entire sample is captured for improved accuracy and repeatability.

“Not only does Smart Core pull the entire soil sample, but also the soil auger gives us the advantage of testing deeper into the soil profile,” he says. “Corn roots go down as deep as the plant is tall. As a corn and soybean producer, I firmly believe there is more to be learned from a deeper, more consistent soil profile. This machine gives me the option to obtain sample depths up to 24 inches. I can even do shallow and deep profiles within the same pass through the field.”

Equipped with RTK GPS, the autonomous soil sampler is remotely connected via cellular networks to a tablet, which streams live information of machine status, job status, and video. “The tablet is also used to load or to create new jobs. A manual controller can be used if a wireless connection can’t be achieved,” he explains. 

A series of samples can be taken in less than 90 seconds and the machine can run 24-7, which means it can cover more acres than typical methods, Fiechter says. The navigation system uses ¼ inch, repeatable accuracy GPS that make the actual drill locations repeatable of less than a foot.  

Safety was also a top concern. He incorporated forward-facing LiDAR, a detection system that works on the principle of radar but uses light from a laser and allows the vehicle to navigate around any unforeseen obstacles or to completely stop if a safe path can’t be found.  

“The perimeter of the vehicle is also surrounded by emergency stop buttons as well as visual and audible warnings to indicate hazards and to allow intervention by operators or bystanders,” Fiechter explains.

His patent-pending bit-cleaning collar prevents sample-to-sample cross-contamination. “This is useful for wetter conditions,” he says. “There is also a water tank and pressure washer on board, which gives you the option to wash down between fields.”


Bowne was tired of taking his three-point bale spear off after feeding cattle so he could use his tractor for other chores. 

“A traditional bale spear got in the way when I wanted to hook up to other implements,” he explains. “I was tying up a tractor just to move a bale.”

The eastern South Dakota farmer, who grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa with his wife, Charleen, and son, Aaron, also does some custom planting and harvesting. The family also raises livestock, which includes a cow/calf herd, feeder calves, and custom-fed hogs.

“To solve the problem, I fabricated a bale spear that would allow me to transport bales while still using my hitch and PTO without having to take it off,” says Bowne. “The spears on my Hitch-N-Spear (pictured above) fold so I can leave them on at all times.” 

Bowne has designed two versions: a bale spear that folds manually as well as a hydraulic model that operates from the cab of the tractor. 

“My Hitch-N-Spear has been extremely handy, and it allows me to make better use of my tractor. It also saves a lot of time and wear and tear on my back from not having to take the traditional three-point bale spear off and on,” Bowne says. “The added benefit of being able to fold the bale spear, which I hadn’t planned on, is that I am now able to keep my tractor with the Hitch-N-Spear still attached inside my shorter-length shed.” 

Meet the Inventors

Both Troy Fiechter and Dale Bowne will showcase their inventions at the 2017 Commodity Classic. The event takes place March 2-4, 2017, in San Antonio, Texas.

watch them work!

Learn about the mechanics behind Troy Fiechter’s Smart Core and Dale Bowne’s Hitch-N-Spear as they each demonstrate their innovations on the Successful Farming Show, which airs on RFD-TV. Fiechter’s innovation will air on February 2, 2017; Bowne’s idea will air on  February 9, 2017.

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