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Sensors drive greater data value

nitrate sensor research
Sensors may be the next step towards generating a profit on many farms.

Think Different

Sensor research and field testing continues to drive more data to ultimately help farmers make better short and long term decisions. Climate Corporation has unveiled new sensors as well as technologies from outside vendors, all designed to bring more information to its FieldView platform.

Also, check out the variable-depth planter prototype under development by engineers at McGill University in Quebec, Canada. Researchers have paired an in-soil temperature and moisture sensors with a varible-depth planter to place the seed according to moisture and temperature for more uniform emergence. Current tests with corn planted at various depths from one to three-inch has shown that root systems planted shallow in wet soils were larger and yields were better than in conventional planting at the 2-in. depth.  While deeper planted corn showed no advantage, researchers suspects that might be different in a dry year.


Precision agriculture technologies are preparing for another leap forward as soil sensor research ramps up on in-field application. At the recent Farm Progress Show near Boone, Iowa, Climate Corporation unveiled prototypes of an on-the-go nitrate sensor and discussed moisture and temperature sensors. Perhaps more importantly, they announced an in-field sensor network to feed information to their Climate FieldView platform, plus added Veris Technologies soil data to the mix. Climate-technology

A thousand miles to the east, researchers at McGill University are developing an on-the-go nitrate sensor, as well sensors to monitor soil moisture, temperature, texture and organic matter on-the-go.

Climate Corporation’s nitrate sensor is exciting for Tim Malterer, a south central Minnesota farmer and FieldView platform advocate. "The nitrate sensor should save me money if I don't have to make an application," he says. "It will tell me if I'm short and need to fine tune what is out there."

While Malterer is more skeptical of university-based research such as McGills that hasn't yet been exposed to on-farm evaluations, Climate Corporation's open source, in-field sensor network could speed his acceptance and others. If so, McGill's moisture and temperature sensors alone could have a significant impact on planting practices.

Imagine variable-depth planting

"We have paired our in-soil temperature and moisture sensors with a variable depth planter to place the seed according to moisture and temperature for more uniform emergence," says Viacheslav Adamchuk, associate professor, Bioresource Engineering Department, McGill University in Quebec, Canada.

"If the soil is wet, we place the seed closer to the surface to emerge at the same time as seed placed deeper in dry soil. Results seem promising and quite reliable. The recorded data also gives us a very clear picture of the field's ability to hold moisture."

variable-planterUsing the sensor and a patented mounting system, Adamchuk placed seed where soil water content was at field capacity. This varied from one to three-inch planting depth. He found that root systems planted shallow in wet soils were larger and yields were better than in conventional planting at the 2-in. depth.  While deeper planted corn showed no advantage, Adamchuk suspects that might be different in a dry year.

Sensing soil temp and moisture

In addition to its nitrate sensor, Climate Corporation is working on its own on-the-go, soil moisture and temperature sensors, however, Mark Young, chief technology officer, doesn't consider Adamchuk and other sensor developers as competitors. In fact, he welcomes their development. Moisture-sensors

"We can't do it all," says Young. "We are working on building out our nitrate sensor and other sensors, but we aren't a sensor company."

That's not to say the company isn't excited about the sensors it is developing. Chief scientist Sam Eathington reports that testing it this summer has demonstrated they can deploy the rugged sensor and it can handle dry and wet cycles, while delivering accurate data.

"We are in the early research and development stages," he says. "We are now testing it to withstand tillage tool mounting and will be in a position to scale up production of sensors for more field testing next year."

Drive all data to one platform

While the sensors are intended to be important tools for farmers, like the company's other tools such as Weather Data and Nitrogen Advisor, they are products designed to push a platform. Climate Corporation is a platform company that seeks to integrate multiple levels of data for analysis and decision-making by the user.  

Young compares it to Amazon and Google start-ups. Each developed a successful product that drove people to use their platform to introduce additional innovative products. Climate Corporation is betting the string of products associated with FieldView has created a large enough base (92 million acres at last count, with 14 million paid subscribers) that other companies with innovative products will adopt the FieldView platform. This in turn could attract more growers to use FieldView tools. The company's sensor network and work being done on a variety of sensors are designed to further strengthen the argument.

"We made our announcement in part to let the market know where we are headed and to invite conversations with folks we are not already talking to," says Young. "Our network is an open mechanism to get data to a shared system."

Veris soil technology joins FieldView

Veris Technologies is the first company to take advantage of the sensor network. Their sensing technology maps soil texture, organic matter and pH variabilility across fields. 

Young notes that such information, regardless of the quality, has little value until paired with other data and applied to field practices. What the FieldView platform adds is the ability to do the pairing.

"With our data science and analytic capabilities, we can turn that data into value for the grower," says Eathington. "Other companies can access growers while focusing on the unique value their sensor provides.

Google and Amazon have revolutionized how consumers use the Internet and how companies use Google and Amazon to reach those consumers. Young sees FieldView having that potential for growers as other developers introduce new data gathering tools. 

As an example, a company licensing Adamchuks patent or sensor technology could partner with Climate Corporation. Using their FieldView sensory network to reach growers, they avoid having to build their own cloud system, figure out how to get paid, create relationships with other companies and with customers, explains Young.

"The overhead to bring innovation to market is just too high," he says. "With our network, they don't have to invest in table stakes to bring it to market. Just use our network and bring it."   

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