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Keeping a Pulse on Crop and Soil Health

Sensor technology advances provide real-time data for decision-making in the field.

Your smartwatch, fitness tracker, and smartphone can monitor your biomedical information like heart rate, step count, and calories burned. Collecting and tracking that health data helps you pick up a few extra flights of stairs a day, meet your daily or weekly activity goals, and improve overall wellness.

Wearable sensor technology has been an inconspicuous part of day-to-day life for many years, so it makes sense that crops and soils are monitored using the same capabilities and technologies.

With devices that supply instant data readouts no matter where you are, you can better control inputs, soil health, and yield – especially when you fight a host of unpredictable factors throughout the season. 

Sensors for Nitrogen Management

EnGenious Ag, a team of engineers and agronomists at Iowa State University (ISU), has developed a sensor that instantaneously measures how much nitrogen a plant has been able to extract from the soil and presents the data on an app through your smartphone.

Mike Castellano, cofounder and chief agronomist, explains, “There is a lot of uncertainty about how much fertilizer to apply, and it comes back to soil health and weather variability, two things that are really on farmers’ minds these days. This tool allows farmers to better understand what their soil is supplying and what they need to add on to that to make sure that the crop is healthy.”

The soil supplies most of the nitrogen that corn needs each year. However, just how much is uncertain and can vary from one year to the next. This is because weather greatly influences how much nitrogen the soil can release in a given year.

Using tools to put the power of decision-making in your hands is a surefire investment, says Meaghan Anderson, field agronomist at ISU. “Soil fertility is one of the big-ticket items that farmers are going to spend money on in any given year, aside from land, equipment, and seed.” 

How it Works

EnGenious Ag’s nitrate sensor is attached to a probe and is inserted into the stalk of a plant. The sensor itself detects nitrate ions, a breakthrough developed by Liang Dong, cofounder and chief technology officer.

Within a few seconds, the nitrate concentration level is sent to an app, which can immediately be used to make decisions about nitrogen applications. “There are few technologies that reduce nutrient losses to the environment, improve farmers’ bottom lines, and increase the efficiency of farms. That’s what our sensors do,” Castellano says.

EnGenious Ag is currently working with testing partners to validate the technology.

Sensor for Grains Analysis

SCiO is another sensor device that gives you the power to make data-driven decisions in real time. It monitors crop moisture, protein, oil, and other constituents to determine maturity – and it can fit in your pocket.

A sensor like this provides precise measurements within 20 to 30 seconds, eliminating the need to collect and break down many ears of corn to send off as samples for testing in labs, taking away precious time and money. 

How it Works

A handheld portable spectrometer, SCiO connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone. Once the materials are scanned, the data is sent to the cloud and then displayed on a mobile app.

Damian Goldring, cofounder and chief technology officer, explains, “Near-infrared spectroscopy is a technique that has been used for decades. It’s a nondestructive, nonintrusive way of analyzing materials, because it uses light to illuminate the material.”

In this process, some light is absorbed by the material; some of it is reflected. Every type of molecule has a different spectral signature, and based on that signature, you can determine the chemical and physical composition of the material.

For SCiO, delivering the data means to-the-minute field maps with measurements farmers can use to make better decisions. That translates into time savings and accuracy for farmers and agronomists. 

Prior to using SCiO, Brent Beelner, yield specialist at AgVenture Pinnacle, spent an hour and a half taking samples to the local elevator and waiting for a moisture test. Since adopting the technology, he says, “I can get a reading within minutes, and I’m confident in the sample, too.”

Enhancing the Process

Just like your wearable technology isn’t meant to take the place of checkups at the doctor’s office, sensors for crop and soil that monitor health aren’t intended to replace an expert in the field.

The data insights can help you avoid problems down the road, which will save you time and money.

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