Precision Ag’s Role in Getting Nitrogen Right For a Better Environment

Scientists can be forgiven for thinking that when they come up with optimized methods for accomplishing some task, end-users will jump at the chance to implement the new ideas simply because they are better. If only it were that simple.

Farmers in particular have a tendency to stick with the tried-and-true. For pathways_precisionprecision agriculture to have a greater impact in the fields, research findings must be presented with the farmer’s perspective always in mind. Whether the farmer has a small plot in Africa or a large operation in Iowa, he can always do things smarter and more efficiently. Nitrogen management offers a perfect example of an area in which farmers must do better.

In many places around the world, farmers have a legal duty to ensure their use of the land does not result in an excessive amount of nitrates leaching into the groundwater. The European Commission’s Nitrates Directive, for example, was adopted in 1991.

In response, farmers have leaned on experience to fine-tune their existing management procedures and reduce leaching, but they do not necessarily know the answer to the question of exactly how much of the substance leaches into the groundwater during a cropping season.  For them, precision agriculture is not a cure-all. It is a technique that can fill specific and crucial gaps in their knowledge.

Perhaps the biggest gap in the market, from the farmer’s perspective, is the availability of formal decision support tools to help with needs such as nitrogen management. These flexible tools would incorporate all the excellent research that has been done on yield monitoring, variable-rate application of inputs and zone management in a coherent, easy-to-use package.

Such a toolset would be inherently adaptable to the practical needs of the individual farmer, which is important because no two farms are the same. Adaptability and practicality remain the key to securing the buy-in of end users.

Farmers often havAg Dronee an easier time justifying the purchase of a new tractor or combine than, say, a drone, an array of field sensors or a software package. After all, the value of heavy machinery is well established. How much benefit can be had from analytical tools? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Whether the purchase of any particular analytical tool makes economic sense is a question best answered by the tools themselves. Sensors are an integral component of yield monitors that measure field performance against revenue, ensuring that farmers see that the smarter, more accurate decisions they make have an impact on the bottom line. Properly implemented, sensor technologies are critical to achieving the data density required to ensure farmers have the economically actionable intelligence they need to improve their management practices.

Farmers are let down when they turn to methods like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to determine how much nitrogen they should use on their crops. NDVI determines the density of green in a field, which serves as a useful measure of plant health. Plant health is not the same as nitrogen stress, which is why relying on NDVI for variable rate nitrogen application can create undesirable results.

For instance, a field might show poor yields because of insufficient irrigation or insect stress. Applying more nitrogen will not improve the situation. Rather, it will waste the farmer’s resources and contribute to environmental degradation. Farmers need remote sensing tools that offer a more direct measurement of nitrogen stress than NDVI can provide.

This is critical, because the days of indiscriminately bombarding fields with nitrogen are coming to an end, to be replaced with more precise application of fertilizer. Precision agriculture lets the farmer know how much is enough, but coming up with the answer depends on having an appropriate array of crop canopy sensors that enable growers to escape old-fashioned methods of basing today’s nitrogen application on how much was applied last year.

True precision requires real-time analysis, as the right amount is always in flux. Dynamic factors such as soil moisture levels and weather conditions constantly alter a plant’s nitrogen uptake.  When combined with the technique of in-field reference strips, remote sensors arm growers with the data they need to more precisely apply nitrogen. If the output of a field matches the yield of the reference strip, no more nitrogen is needed. Conversely, if output is down in comparison, more nitrogen may be needed.

The most obvious payoff of advanced nitrogen optimization tools is the extra bushels at harvest time. For the farmer struggling to make it through depressed commodity prices, big savings on input costs are also hard to ignore. Yet the greatest benefit of all would be measured in the environment.

Failure to apply nitrogen with precision causes significant harm. As much as nitrogen delivers a massive boost to corn yield, it has an even greater effect in promoting algae growth when fertilizer runoff hits a stream or lake.

Eutrophication is the term used to describe the resulting overabundance of nutrients in a body of water. While plankton and algae feast upon the bounty of nitrates, they also multiply rapidly and disrupt the ecosystem’s balance. The algae that die end up consuming enough of the available oxygen that native fish suffocate.

In addition to this, nitrates making their way into the water supply raise significant human health concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency considers levels above 10 parts per million a hazard to drinking water, reflecting an elevated risk of various forms of cancer. The situation is so serious in central Iowa that farmers have their livelihoods at risk in a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over runoff.

The best way to get ahead of any such developments is to get nitrogen right in the first place, which is to say, by applying no more nitrogen than the plant can absorb. The Iowa Soybean Association keeps track of the performance of nitrogen sensing in the field. Most farmers are reporting savings of between $10 and $20 per acre in reduced fertilizer costs, meaning that growers recoup the cost of sensors within a year or two in many cases

Byrum is Senior R&D and Strategic Marketing Executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation and Delivery at Syngenta. Byrum will present the session, “Solving Big Problems: Innovation Through Open Collaboration” at the PrecisionAg Vision Conference on October 19. For more information visit www.precisionagvision.com

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Precision Ag’s Role in Getting Nitrogen Right For a Better Environment

  1. I can reveal nitrogen needs of hundreds of thousands of acres per day, in real time, using the near infrared band with 20″ resolution before the grower even knows he has a problem.
    It is georeferenced and georectified.
    I can convert the infrared image to units of nitrogen needed in an area as small as 80 sq ft and deliver as much or as little is needed at 160 mph, regardless of soil or crop conditions.
    My name is Rex Lester and I have just solved your problem…

Specialty Crops Stories
Wingtra
DronesOpinion: Combining Two Pluses with the WingtraOne UAV
September 13, 2018
For the every-day consumer interested in UAVs, there is an ocean of products from which to choose. This includes the Read More
DronessenseFly Launches eBee X Drone, Breaks Through 1,000 acre Coverage Ceiling
September 5, 2018
senseFly today reportedly sets a new standard in mapping tools with the launch of the eBee X. Launched with the Read More
Robotics/Labor SaversWill We Pay Robots by the Hour? [Opinion]
August 28, 2018
I’ve attended a fair number of grower seminars around the country on the potential new technology headed for the farm, Read More
Shake-and-Catch-Harvesting-Platform
Robotics/Labor SaversWhat’s the Future of Orchard Robotics in Pennsylvania?
August 28, 2018
During the past several decades, agriculture, in general, has made advancements as a result of automation and precision management technologies. However, Read More
Trending Articles
Soil-Hand
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Grower-Retailer
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
Kansas State University
Industry NewsKansas State University, Topcon Form Precision Ag Research Partnership
August 30, 2018
Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture are collaborating to develop tools and systems to advance precision agriculture and support farmers. Read More
Blockchain building block graphic
Specialty CropsIs Blockchain the Future of Food Safety?
August 24, 2018
When the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized in 1982, permitting the worldwide proliferation of interconnected networks and eventually the Read More
WinField’s Joel Wipperfurth On Empowering Data-Driven Decisions
InfoAg ConferenceOne on One with Joel Wipperfurth, Winfield United
August 15, 2018
Winfield United's Joel Wipperfurth discusses ag technology trends and topics during last month’s InfoAg Conference. Read More
Geosys
Industry NewsUrtheCast to Acquire Geosys from Land O’Lakes in $20 Million Deal
August 15, 2018
UrtheCast Corp. and Land O’Lakes, Inc. today announced they have entered a binding term sheet for the purchase of Geosys Read More
Latest News
Google-Earth-Map-featured-image
Data ManagementRainfall Revisited: Accurate Observations and Beyond
September 18, 2018
As a provider of weather analysis and forecast services to the agricultural industry, one of the most common questions I Read More
PenelopeNagel
Business ManagementWhy Is Funding a Challenge for Women-Led Agtech Compani…
September 17, 2018
When it comes to women-led agtech companies the funding discussion never seems to cease. In June after the The New Read More
Mobile Phone in field
Decision Support SoftwareWhy Are 570 Million Farmers Not Yet Using Agricultural …
September 17, 2018
Until recently, using agricultural apps and software was a rare practice among growers. This is now changing. The mass adoption Read More
Soil-Hand
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Grower Services & SolutionsDeere-Granular Collaboration Produces New Profit Maps T…
September 14, 2018
The newest development from the ongoing John Deere-Granular product development and marketing collaboration is Profit Maps, now available to farmers Read More
Wingtra
DronesOpinion: Combining Two Pluses with the WingtraOne UAV
September 13, 2018
For the every-day consumer interested in UAVs, there is an ocean of products from which to choose. This includes the Read More
Farmer-tablet
AsiaShould Agri-Input Manufacturers Outsource E-Commerce to…
September 12, 2018
Editor’s note: Venky Ramachandran is a contributing writer for PrecisionAg.com’s sister site, AgriBusinessGlobal.com. This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Now, Read More
ICON-Link-Licensing_featured-image
Industry NewsValley Irrigation Adds Remote Irrigation Management Opt…
September 11, 2018
Valley Irrigation, an industry leader in smart irrigation solutions, has announced enhancements to its remote management technologies. Multi-Year Licensing In Read More
Reflex-Connect-Agri-Inject-featured-image
Variable Rate ApplicationVariable Rate Fertigation System Expands with Mobile Co…
September 10, 2018
Building on the success of its Reflex Variable Rate Fertigation system, Agri-Inject has taken fluid injection to the next level Read More
Industry NewsTeralytic Earns Ag Data Transparent Certification
September 10, 2018
Soil analytics company Teralytic has completed the Ag Data Transparent certification, affirming that their data use is private, secure, and Read More
Business ManagementTop 20 Two-Year Colleges for Precision Agriculture
September 10, 2018
Earlier this year, I compiled a list of the 25 best colleges for precision agriculture. It was quite the process. Read More
Industry NewsRaven, Topcon Announce Slingshot API Agreement
September 6, 2018
Raven Industries and Topcon Agriculture announced today a licensing agreement for Topcon Agriculture’s use of the Slingshot Application Programming Interface Read More
Tablet Grower
Data ManagementThe Power of Predictive Analytics in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Years ago if we would have been told computers, data, and technology would be scattered around every farm there may Read More
DronessenseFly Launches eBee X Drone, Breaks Through 1,000 ac…
September 5, 2018
senseFly today reportedly sets a new standard in mapping tools with the launch of the eBee X. Launched with the Read More
AmericasOn The Scene: 2018 Farm Progress Show Wrap Up
September 5, 2018
Former Monsanto President (now Bayer CropScience Chief Operating Office) Brett Begemann’s opening salvo during his first appearance at a Farm Read More
EventsAg Experts Discuss Big Data Challenges in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Agricultural experts at a Houston conference praised the advancements in unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, and data-collecting technology used in precision Read More
Pest-Monitoring-Map
AmericasStrider, Syngenta and Trends in Digital Agriculture
September 5, 2018
I recently attended Strider Day in São Paulo, an event hosted by Brazilian agtech company Strider. The event offered two Read More
Agworld
Industry NewsAgworld Strengthens Team with Key Appointments
September 5, 2018
Agworld, a global leader in farm management software and collaborative data solutions, has announced the appointment of Mike Betts as Read More